Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, prime minister from 1968 to 1984, recently attempted to further entrench Canada’s abortion extremism with a prohibition on pro-life candidates running for his party. Surprisingly, his policy has attracted nearly universal condemnation, including strong criticism by two of Canada’s senior archbishops.
Canada’s abortion politics are unique. There is no law on abortion at all, so an extreme abortion licence – any time for any reason – prevails.
Over decades, public opinion surveys reflect that a majority of Canadians would like to see some restrictions on abortion, with a small minority preferring total prohibition. Nevertheless, the substance of the issue has not been raised in the federal parliament for more than 25 years. The prime minister, Stephen Harper, is emphatic that his government will not “re-open” the abortion debate, even going so far as to dissuade his members of parliament from advancing private member’s bills on the issue. The opposition leaders, Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party and Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party, both explicitly favour Canada’s extreme abortion licence. An odd consensus therefore prevails. Canada’s legal situation is similar to that in the United States, but without any of the American debate or efforts to change the status quo. Canadians do not support the current abortion regime, but are apparently tolerant of the consensus on not doing anything about it.
On the eve of the annual March for Life in Ottawa, Trudeau announced that all candidates for the Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election would have to pledge to vote against any restrictions on Canada’s unlimited abortion regime. There are only a few pro-life MPs in the Liberals’ small 34-member caucus, and the party has been resolutely in favour of abortion rights for more than a generation. Practically, the new policy would have little effect on the absence of an abortion law in Canada, but it did represent a departure from previous Liberal practice, in which pro-life MPs were tolerated, even if isolated.
The political advantage that Trudeau was trying to achieve was therefore unclear. The political blowback was immediate. Leading pro-choice female columnists at socially liberal Canadian papers blasted Trudeau for being intolerant of dissenting views. Political opponents and a wide array of commentators decried the policy, and several senior Liberals publicly disagreed with Trudeau, which itself is uncommon under Canada’s unusually strict party discipline. One of the most devastating attacks came from Clifford Lincoln, an immensely respected former Liberal member of both the Quebec legislature and the federal Parliament. “In the caucuses in which I served, diversity of views and positions on ‘conscience’ issues varied sometimes widely,” Lincoln wrote. “I have no doubt certain potential candidates with extreme views were quietly dissuaded from running, but there were never any formal edicts or prohibitions regarding ‘conscience’ or other positions. So [Trudeau’s] decision is a fundamental departure from Liberal Party tradition. It is doctrinaire, judgmental and, in my modest view, the antithesis of liberalism.”
The response from the Catholic bishops was equally forthright. Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto wrote an open letter to Trudeau, inviting him to “reconsider” his position, as it made it impossible for faithful Catholics to run for his party. Collins wryly noted that Trudeau’s edict would disqualify Pope Francis from becoming a Liberal candidate. The archdiocese of Toronto reported that they had never received as many responses on any other issue as they had on the Trudeau letter, and almost all of them were favourable.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, the national capital, pointed out that Trudeau’s position, despite his claims to be a practising Catholic, is simply not compatible with the Catholic faith. “A person who takes a position in contradiction to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the value and dignity of human life from the moment of conception to the moment of a natural death, and persists in this belief, is not in communion with the Church’s values and teaching, which we believe faithfully transmit for today the teachings of Christ,” Prendergast wrote in a statement sent to all his parishes.
Stung by the near-universal rejection of his edict, Trudeau interrupted the first bank holiday weekend of the summer to issue a “personal reflection”. He did not recant.
As it is curious for the leader of the third party in parliament to specify groups of voters that are not welcome in his party, Trudeau was eager to ensure pro-life citizens that they are most welcome to vote Liberal, to volunteer for the party and donate to it. As for their pro-life views, they are to work on reconciling (resigning?) themselves to the fact that their view will be forbidden from being spoken inside the Liberal caucus. “I know [my policy] has troubled some Canadians, and come as welcome words to others,” Trudeau wrote. “To those it has troubled: I understand. I empathise. And I care deeply that you are working hard to reconcile your beliefs with this party policy.”
Notwithstanding Trudeau’s deep caring, to hold that Canadian laws should reflect a pro-life position is not easily reconciled with his position that pro-life positions are a disqualification from serving in parliament. His proposed reconciliation was breathtaking: he invited pro-life Liberals to sign a petition in favour of unlimited abortion rights.
Pro-life Canadians welcomed the strong secular, Catholic and even Liberal Party opposition to Trudeau’s edict. Yet he shows no sign of backing down from it, and therefore it not only entrenches Canada’s extreme abortion regime, but takes a step toward the exclusion from public life of anyone who questions it. Trudeau may suffer a political price from his prohibition on pro-life Canadians. But they remain prohibited in his party.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine
This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (30/5/14)
The Catholic Herald comment guidelines
•Do not make personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters – respond only to their arguments.