The politics of abortion: why the parties are talking about it in the campaign

OTTAWA — The abortion issue has been getting renewed attention ahead of the October election, which could be one way the political conversation in the United States is flowing across the border — sometimes, with a little help from the Liberals.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May raised eyebrows on Monday when she told the CBC she would not whip votes or try to prevent anyone in her caucus from putting forward legislation on the issue, despite personally believing women should have access to safe and legal abortions.

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That is in line with party policy, but then the Greens clarified that all candidates running under their banner are required to support abortion rights.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was also pushed to clarify his stance last month after it emerged that his Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, had told candidates in the province that backbench MPs would not be allowed to bring forward any bills or motions on abortion.

That goes against party policy, which created confusion until Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, said he would oppose any attempt to reopen the debate should he become prime minister.

Elections always see advocacy groups on both sides of the issue trying to bring abortion into the conversation and this one is no exception.

RightNow, an anti-abortion group, has said it is working to deliver 50 federal ridings to candidates it believes side with them on the issue.

On the other side, Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights launched a campaign called "The Personal is STILL Political" that encourages voters to ask candidates about where they stand on everything from barriers to abortion access on First Nations reserves to sex education in schools.

Still, the abortion issue is now being talked about by national leaders, which is a bit more unexpected.

Rachel Curran, who served as policy director to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said the recent moves to restrict abortion rights in the United States are likely influencing the conversation in Canadian politics.

"Rights have actually been rolled back, quite significantly, and we are right next door and we follow what is going on in the U.S. pretty closely," she said Tuesday. "I think there is an increased level of attention and concern because of that."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waded into that U.S. debate in May when he said he would speak to Vice-President Mike Pence about anti-abortion laws recently passed in several states during his visit to Ottawa, which was a trip meant to focus on ratifying the new North American free trade agreement.

The Liberals had been trying to use the anti-abortion laws championed by conservative politicians south of the border to highlight the strongly pro-choice stance Trudeau has taken and as a political weapon against Scheer.

Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal aide who is now senior vice-president at Proof Strategies, said Trudeau was not only speaking to Americans: "The audience for this was definitely progressive Canadians."

Curran said that was also the case when the Liberals latched onto the confusion over how Scheer would handle the abortion issue, especially since Trudeau received a lot of support from voters in 2015 who may have otherwise voted for more traditionally progressive parties, such as the NDP.

"A lot of those people have been disappointed by the Trudeau government and its record," Curran said. "The best way they can keep them on side is to scare them into voting Liberal. . . 'If you don't stick with us, if you don't vote for Trudeau, you're going to get this guy instead and he's a lot scarier.'"

That plays into the wider Liberal campaign strategy of suggesting to voters that voting for Scheer would be like voting for another version of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, or even Harper.

Curran said the way May handled the issue could also be damaging, as the Greens have been increasing their support among the kind of progressive voters that Trudeau is trying to convince to vote Liberal again.

"If they think Elizabeth May has the same position on abortion as Andrew Scheer, that's going to keep them from voting for her," she said.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

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