NDP Leader Rachel Notley asked a direct, simple question in the legislature Tuesday.
“Can the premier commit that the UCP will never act to reduce access to abortion in this province? Yes or No.”
Premier Jason Kenney did not say yes, no or maybe. He talked about something else in the way politicians have when they’re uncomfortable.
The takeaway was clear, though. The premier failed to state that the UCP would never cut access to abortion under his or a future government.
Kenney deflects to Ottawa, always a handy escape hatch.
The UCP rationale is that abortion rights are fixed under federal jurisdiction, so there’s no point even talking about it.
Referring to the controversy over a draft U.S. Supreme Court decision suggesting abortion rights will be struck down, Kenney said: “With respect to the potential decision of a foreign court on a matter that would be under federal jurisdiction, individuals can have individual views about that, but what the leader (Notley) is trying to do is to invent a political controversy that does not and has not existed in Alberta politics.”
That’s disingenuous (today’s polite word for nonsense). Abortion is very much an Alberta issue because the provinces deliver health services, including abortion clinics, payment of services, staffing and virtually everything else that affects a woman’s right to choose.
Whatever Ottawa says about fundamental rights, a province can tinker and trim around the edges until that right is seriously limited. Such sabotage can be challenged in court and in the political world — after the damage is done.
There are UCP MLAs who wouldn’t object to limiting abortion right now. In this intense political period, anti-abortion groups are finding and backing sympathetic candidates to run for UCP nominations.
The group Right Now is active countrywide, urging Canadians to “join us in electing pro-life candidates across the country.”
Whatever the status quo, no matter who is in power, a woman’s right to make her own choice is a never-ending battle. The key decision-makers in Canada are the provinces, not Ottawa. Notley has every right to demand a commitment from Kenney in the legislature.
It’s also absurd for Kenney to say abortion has never been an issue in Alberta. It certainly was as recently as 2018, when the NDP introduced “bubble zone” legislation to expand protection of clinics from constant harassment and agitation.
Many provinces have such laws, and there had been injunctions against harassment in Calgary and Edmonton in the 1990s. But the NDP’s justifiable move spooked the UCP.
When the bill was debated, UCP MLAs simply left the legislature, refusing both to debate and vote.
That happened 13 times, former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman reminded the house Tuesday. It was unprecedented for a caucus not just to keep silent or abstain but walk out of the chamber.
“What was the UCP scared of?” Hoffman asked.
“Well, members across the aisle have voted against women’s health care, against women’s choice and have been endorsed by groups who believe in restricting access to abortions.
“Abortion is health care, and we need a government that defends health care, all health care.”
Kenney’s personal anti-abortion belief is well known. It has to be said that he hasn’t acted against abortion service while premier.
But Kenney is facing his leadership review with results coming May 18. Even now ballots are being mailed. He has an obvious stake in keeping the issue on low simmer with UCP members who will decide his fate.
So do the federal Conservatives as they head for yet another leadership choice in September. They, too, claim that raising the American example in Canada is a meaningless provocation.
It is not. If recent events tell us anything, it’s that powerful forces can rise with shocking speed and power. Those who defend women’s right to choose need to be more vigilant than ever.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.