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Abortion in the Election: A Chronology

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July 2004

May 23 — Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin calls a federal election for June 28.

May 31 — Conservative MP Rob Merrifield from Yellowhead, Alberta (Opposition Health Critic) tells the Globe & Mail that independent counseling would be "valuable"' for women contemplating abortion because "people who take part in it may only be seeing one side of if it." He said counseling should "lay out all of the factual information on the repercussions of a procedure, the potential for good, the potential for side effects." Reporters jump on the issue and challenge Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper on abortion throughout the rest of the campaign.

May 31 — At a Catholic high school in Saskatoon, a student asks Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin how to stop abortion. Martin replies: "It is a huge problem. The issue is obviously one of consulting and of comfort, of setting an example and of essentially doing all of those things in terms of prevention that I know that here, at this school, that they are trying to do." (Note that Martin did not advocate independent, third-party counseling.)

June 1 — Paul Martin says he supports a woman's right to choose and would strongly discourage private member bills on abortion. If one passed, he says he would not act on it. Other Liberal MPs go in attack mode, criticizing the Conservative Party for its right-wing agenda on gay marriage and abortion. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan says that if Harper truly supported abortion rights, he would fire his health critic. Harper refuses, saying Rob Merrifield was merely expressing a personal opinion.

June 1 — Stephen Harper says that "A Conservative government led by me will not be tabling abortion legislation. It will not be sponsoring an abortion referendum." He also says his own beliefs on abortion are "somewhere in the middle."

June 2 — Stephen Harper says that he would not allow government-backed abortion legislation "in this term," but refuses to rule out such action in a future mandate.

June 2 — The media reports that Paul Martin's senior strategists directed cabinet ministers to ambush Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and disrupt his events, despite public statements that they did it on their own. Immigration Minister Judy Sgro screamed at Harper over one of his caucus members' views on abortion and Veterans Affairs Minister John McCallum tried to shove a letter into Harper's hands.

June 2 — The Pro-Choice Action Network issues a press release saying that women don't need legislated "informed consent" on abortion from a third party, since women already get adequate counseling from health professionals. The release says that the intent of Merrifield's proposal is to force anti-choice propaganda onto women, and that candidates should focus on improving abortion access instead.

June 2 — The BC Coalition of Women’s Centres issues a press release calling on women across BC to force federal Conservative Party candidates to reveal their real agenda on women’s reproductive rights.

June 3 — Stephen Harper says he would allow a free vote on abortion if an MP introduced a private member's bill. "Absolutely ... I would generally continue the practice of allowing free votes on all private member's legislation." He also says he wouldn't rule out using the notwithstanding clause to prohibit gay marriage.

June 3 — Dr. Henry Morgentaler issues an open letter to Stephen Harper challenging his party's anti-choice leanings, saying that if a Conservative government under his leadership were elected, abortion rights would be in jeopardy.

June 4 — The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics holds a press conference in Toronto to protest the Conservative Party's right-wing stance on abortion, and to tell people to vote for the Liberals. Speakers include author and editor Doris Anderson, broadcaster and journalist June Callwood, actor Shirley Douglas, social activist Norma Scarborough, Kathryn Waters of the Canadian Federation of Students, and others.

June 4 — The Pro-Choice Action Network issues a press release exposing the Conservative Party's anti-choice agenda. The release includes a list of eight different private members' bills trying to regulate abortion, most introduced within the last two years.

June 4 — The media challenges NDP leader Jack Layton in Newfoundland, where retired Catholic priest Des McGrath is running for the NDP, even though he is personally opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. Layton had previously stated his party would not allow free votes on "matters of fundamental human rights" and had criticized Stephen Harper on that issue. Layton said that McGrath would respect the party's pro-choice policy. (McGrath agreed, but was not elected.)

June 7 — Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, Ontario) is quoted by the Western Catholic Reporter as saying the beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg by terrorists in Iraq is "absolutely no different" than abortion. She made her remarks at the May 13 March for Life rally in Ottawa. Stephen Harper responds, "Cheryl Gallant is a very strong pro-life MP, and this is the rhetoric that the pro-life movement often uses. It's their business. I don't think it's particularly effective in public opinion." She is muzzled by the party for the rest of the campaign. Gallant had previously gotten in trouble for saying that the "caucus as a whole" wants to repeal Canada's new hate law protecting sexual orientation. (At the same Ottawa rally in May, Liberal MP Paul Steckle said that Canada would now have 3.5 million more people if it weren't for abortion. "So let's not go on killing those children who can become our future," he said.)

June 8 — Pro-choice Conservative candidate Belinda Stronach (Newmarket-Aurora) distances herself from controversial remarks on abortion and same-sex marriage made by other Conservatives. Stronach tells the media that if her party wins, there'll be a better "balance" of views to counter those held by social conservatives within the party. (Stronach went on to win her seat.)

June 9 — Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) tells a group of high-school students: "We shouldn't have abortion open-season for all nine months." And: "I think there should be some restrictions." He later tells The Star Phoenix: "Right now, there isn't any limitations on abortions."

June 11 — The Pro-Choice Action Network issues a press release revealing that 86% of Conservative Party incumbents are publicly anti-choice (including former Conservatives turned Independent), but only 12% of Liberal incumbents are. The release includes a listing by name of current anti-choice incumbent MP's.

June 11 — Campaign Life Coalition publishes their evaluation results of the federal election candidates' stand on abortion on their website. The national anti-choice group had sent out questionnaires to all candidates.

June 11 — Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais has a private phone conversation with Prime Minister Paul Martin on his Catholicism and the doctrinally-wrong positions he has taken on the election trail over abortion.

June 12 — Barry Yeates, ex-director of political operations for the Canadian Alliance, quits the Conservative Party because of the "vacuous platform and social conservative agenda now being purveyed" by some MPs.

June 12 — Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe announces he would not hesitate to bring down a Conservative government if it moved to abolish the right to abortion. "We cannot ignore the rights of women in order to keep our seats. I will not accept that the Conservatives abolish the right to abortion," he said.

June 14 — Cassandra Parlee, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student and activist from Vancouver, launches a group and website called Women Demand Better to denounce Harper and the Conservatives stance on abortion. Also, the Coalition for Women's Equality is launched in Ontario by Pam Kapoor. The group releases a "pink paper" discussing women's issues it feels are being ignored.

June 14/15 — Party leaders engage in live televised debates in French, then the next day in English. Harper is attacked by Martin and Layton for being willing to endanger a woman's right to choose.

June 18 — Leading pro-choice activists hold a Toronto press conference to encourage Canadians to cast their ballot against Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party. Speakers were Dr. Henry Morgentaler, June Callwood, Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, and Jessica Forbes, a university student.

June 25 — A petition opposing the Conservative Party's positions on social issues, particularly abortion, is released at a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. More than 4,000 Canadian women signed it. The petition network was organized by Jillian Skeet.

June 25 — The Vancouver Sun reveals that during a May 19 interview with a documentary filmmaker, Abbotsford MP Randy White said Conservatives would "not be shy" about invoking the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution over gay marriage and abortion, because the courts have "usurped the laws of the nation." Because of the courts, he added, Canada now has "abortion on demand." Stephen Harper excuses White's comments by saying "It's very much a personal view of his."

June 28 — Paul Martin wins a minority Liberal government with 135 seats. The Conservatives win 99 seats, the NDP 19, the Bloc Quebecois 54, and one Independent wins a seat (Chuck Cadman of Surrey BC, formerly a Conservative).

June 30 — Campaign Life Coalition reports that the election resulted in gains of at least 10 more anti-choice MPs. Almost all anti-choice incumbents were re-elected, some by a landslide.

Post-election — The media blames the Conservative loss on the Canadian public being swayed by the Liberals' "fear" campaign, which included attack ads claiming the Conservatives would take away basic rights. The fear campaign arose from missteps made by individual Conservative MPs and candidates over the social issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the death penalty. Stephen Harper was also blamed for not reprimanding his renegade MP's, and for not taking a strong enough stand against free votes and use of the notwithstanding clause to limit rights. The media stated that Harper must moderate his party to make it more electable.

July 7 — At the Conservatives' first post-election caucus meeting, party leader Stephen Harper acknowledges the need to put a more moderate stamp on the party and include more members from the Progressive Conservative tradition in his inner circle.

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