For weeks now, Pierre Poilievre has been campaigning on a pledge to “fire the gatekeepers” and make Canada “the freest country on Earth.” In a recent YouTube video, he suggested “freedom is like oxygen. You only notice it when it is gone.” But now, as millions of Americans gasp for metaphorical air in the wake of news the United States Supreme Court intends to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, Poilievre has gotten awfully quiet.
The ironies here, cruel and otherwise, abound.
Poilievre’s relative silence, and the directive by interim party leader Candice Bergen that “Conservatives will not be commenting on draft rulings leaked from the Supreme Court of the United States,” practically invites mockery given the party’s usual stance on free speech.
It also says a lot about their commitment to uphold reproductive rights and freedoms and makes it clear that Poilievre’s pledge to “give people back control of their lives” comes with a few major caveats.
His reluctance to fight as hard for the freedom of pregnant people to choose as he did for the Ottawa convoy protesters is understandable, given the central role anti-abortion voters have played in the last two Conservative leadership races. Poilievre, who for years received the explicit approval of anti-abortion groups like the Campaign Life Coalition, has more recently tried to stake out the same ground Stephen Harper occupied when he was leader.
As he told La Presse in a 2020 interview, while MPs would be free to introduce anti-abortion private member’s bills under his leadership, a Poilievre government wouldn’t introduce or support any of its own.
But Poilievre surely understands that if he doesn’t win the leadership on the first ballot, his path to victory has to include bringing avowed anti-abortion candidate Leslyn Lewis’s supporters over to his side. And so, he’s stuck trying to walk a fine line in which he avoids creating controversy among pro-choice voters who could help him win a general election in 2025 while not alienating the anti-abortion voters he might need to win the leadership of his party in 2022.
Not everyone in the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race is tiptoeing around this issue, mind you. Scott Aitchison, the MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, tweeted: “I will always defend a woman’s right to choose. Any efforts to restrict access to abortion would have terrible consequences for the health of women, families, and our country.” Brampton mayor and former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown issued a statement of his own, saying he “will always support the right of a woman’s decision on her reproductive health. Full stop.”
Aitchison’s comments are especially important since he dispenses with the red herring that the issue here is legality — one Conservatives like Poilievre perfected under Harper.
In Canada, the real issue is protecting access to abortion services, not defending their legal status or guarding against legislation that would criminalize them.
Opinion: For weeks now, Pierre Poilievre has been campaigning on a pledge to “fire the gatekeepers” and make Canada “the freest country on Earth,” writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Abortion #ReproductiveRights
As Judy Rebick, the founder of Rabble.ca and a leader in the pro-choice movement in the 1980s, wrote in a recent piece, “In Alberta, access to abortion is slowly being eroded. It’s been a recent fight in New Brunswick and P.E.I. While the Ontario PC party is trying hard to dissociate from social conservatives before the June 2 election, there is little question that, if they are re-elected, the anti-choice [forces] will up the pressure to restrict access.”
As such, promises like the one Poilievre made Tuesday that a government led by him “will not introduce or pass any laws restricting abortion” aren’t worth nearly as much as some people would like to pretend. But he’s not out of the woods yet on this issue, especially if the leaked draft opinion on Roe v. Wade becomes reality in June. There’s still clear daylight here between Poilievre and the more progressive CPC leadership candidates, and it might give them a way back into a race that looked all but over just a few days ago.
They should be asking Poilievre to explain how he reconciles his relentless promotion of freedom with his refusal to say much of anything about the reproductive freedoms currently available in Canada.
They might also want to point out that while he has repeatedly championed people’s right not to get a COVID-19 vaccine, he hasn’t been nearly as outspoken when it comes to an individual’s right to choose. In an interview with the far-right outlet True North, Poilievre said he wanted to “build a coalition around freedom” that included “the freedom to make your own bodily and health decisions.”
It’s fair to ask if that coalition affords the same legitimacy and respect to pro-choice advocates as it does anti-vaccine protesters.