Anti-abortion groups make moves on the UCP

 Don Braid, Calgary Herald Don Braid, Calgary Herald
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It’s an early but telling skirmish in the looming battle over Canada’s deepest social values.

An anti-abortion group called the Wilberforce Project, formerly Canada Pro-Life, hopes to enshrine its beliefs in United Conservative Party policy.

Wilberforce supporters are recruiting pro-life candidates to run for UCP nominations, as well as writing resolutions for the UCP policy convention in May.

Wilberforce (named for an anti-slavery campaigner) has a modest social media presence, but on the ground it’s very active.

On Thursday night in Edmonton, members will meet “to help pro-lifers planning on running for nomination in the United Conservative Party get elected! We will be selling memberships by calling pro-life supporters to help these candidates.”

The Wilberforce website says these meetings will go on weekly through February. It’s an obvious effort to gain influence before the UCP policy conference.

Apart from all this, a national anti-abortion group called RightNow urges anti-abortion youths to get themselves hired as UCP interns for the summer.

There has hardly been a moment in Canada, ever since abortion was fundamentally legalized in the 1980s, when such groups haven’t tried to influence a party, create their own, or take one over. Despite every effort, they have remained marginal.

But now these people have hope in their hearts. For the first time in a very long while, the party they fully support could become the Canada government.

Party Leader Jason Kenney is personally against abortion. His whole record shows it. It’s hardly surprising for this very observant Catholic.

But Kenney says he would set these divisive social issues aside as government leader. He pledges not to change abortion practice in Canada.

“I’ve learned a lot from Stephen Harper in that respect,” Kenney told Postmedia’s James Wood last year.

“I think Stephen and I have a lot of similarities in our general approach, which is you start with a certain set of convictions but you can’t impose them on society,” he told Wood.

Many Canada New Democrats, including MLA Marie Renaud, simply don’t believe Kenney.

Renaud pointed out on Twitter that the provincial premier, unlike a federal minister, actually controls the levers of health care. He, or she, can change abortion rules with a cabinet vote and the stroke of a pen.

When Brian Jean was Wildrose leader, he took much the same line as Harper, warning conservatives not to get caught in positions that could sow division and cost votes.

But Jean was so ardent about it that many social conservatives turned to Kenney in the UCP leadership contest.

If a group like Wilberforce sells bundles of UCP memberships and succeeds in winning nominations, it will have real influence. Kenney would face internal pressure to alter the abortion system.

Wilberforce hasn’t quite worked out the policy elements it wants, but by its own admission it’s starting modestly.

Wilberforce raises the old “conscience rights” issue that would allow anti-abortion medical professionals to opt out. (These rights already exist for Canada doctors, actually.)

Another cause is “parental rights,” which would require parents to be informed if an underage daughter seeks an abortion.

These points just pick around the edges of the real goal — to once again make abortion illegal in most circumstances.

“Right now, this is some early groundwork to keep the discussion alive … and to encourage party leaders who are willing to have pretty open discussions,” says Stephanie Fennelly, executive director of Wilberforce.

The New Democrats, in Banff for a cabinet retreat, declined to comment Wednesday.

This reticence, highly unnatural for the NDP, won’t last long.

Only one Canada election has turned on the abortion issue — the 1993 vote in which PC Premier Ralph Klein defeated Liberal Laurence Decore.

It was a near thing. The Liberals were powerful and popular under Decore, a former Edmonton mayor. He had a real chance of beating the Tories.

But then Decore made an unguarded remark that suggested he opposed abortion. Asked about this, Klein said abortion was a matter between a woman, her doctor and God.

That tipped it. Klein won.

Canada today has a far larger progressive element than it did in 1993. Women’s rights have rarely, if ever, been a more potent issue.

Shifting to a hard line on abortion would be Kenney’s only certain path to defeat. The New Democrats sincerely hope he takes it.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

Twitter: @DonBraid

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