OTTAWA, Ont. — Whenever Americans debate abortion rights, Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition fires up its fundraising machine to activate thousands of its members who will open their wallets at a moment’s notice.
When POLITICO published on Monday evening a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees abortion rights to American people, the socially conservative advocacy group didn’t waste the moment.
“It’s very fortuitous timing for us,” said youth coordinator Josie Luetke, as she rhymed off the political races in which CLC is now directing its considerable resources — the federal Conservative leadership contest, a June election in Ontario and even city elections in the same province this fall.
News that Roe v. Wade is poised to be overturned reverberated north of the border where abortion is legal, though routinely used as a wedge issue in political campaigns.
The CLC fundraising powerhouse is doing everything it can to support Leslyn Lewis in the Conservative leadership race, for example. The Ontario MP is the only candidate who meets the group’s rigid test of moral purity.
“If candidates want our support, they have to be 100 percent pro-life,” said Luetke.
No vote goes unnoticed.
In 2020, Lewis finished third in the party’s leadership race, scooping up social conservative support and building a powerful core of supporters.
“I certainly expect the draft ruling will serve as a motivator for pro-lifers here,” Luetke said.
Social conservatives are looking toward May 12, the date of the annual March for Life rally, which typically draws thousands to Parliament Hill.
Lewis has only an outside shot of winning the race, but her anti-abortion position gives her sway over a contingent of the party that is likely to grow in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion.
Abortion was decriminalized in Canada in 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down a 1969 law that legalized only certain abortions.
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government attempted without success to craft a new law in response to that ruling. Conservative MPs occasionally still use private members’ bills to force the debate onto Parliament’s agenda. But no federal government has successfully passed legislation that limits abortion services.
Progressive parties like the Liberals and New Democratic Party consistently pledge to maintain that status quo, while expanding access to safe abortion services.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to POLITICO’s reporting was unequivocal. “The right to choose is a woman’s right and a woman’s right alone,” he tweeted. “Every woman in Canada has a right to a safe and legal abortion. We’ll never back down from protecting and promoting women’s rights in Canada and around the world.”
For conservatives, the issue is far more complicated. Abortion rights are a perennial wedge issue in Canadian elections. Whenever a Conservative candidate opens the door to limiting or criminalizing the procedures, progressives launch attack ads.
On last year’s federal campaign trail, it took just four days for the Liberals to raise the specter of an anti-abortion Conservative government.
On Tuesday, the federal Conservatives under interim leader Candice Bergen took no chances in the wake of POLITICO’s reporting.
The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star both reported on an early morning memo she circulated to caucus with instructions not to comment on the scoop.
But later in the day, Conservatives in the House of Commons refused to support a Bloc Québécois motion to “reiterate that a woman’s body belongs to her and her alone and recognize her freedom of choice on abortion for any reason.”
Elements of the Conservative Party’s social conservative wing, fired up by the CLC’s rhetoric on moral issues, want more than just the bare minimum. They’re not afraid to point out that elected Conservatives will only enjoy their support if they vocally join the cause.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to keep his Conservative Party united even as he consistently pledged not to reopen the abortion debate, but both of his successors as party leader struggled to manage competing interests in the ranks.
Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole were both turfed after a single election. O’Toole was dismissed by critics within his own party as a closet Liberal. He was ousted by his caucus this February, in part because he was abandoned by social conservatives.
In the wake of the draft opinion south of the border, the six candidates running to succeed O’Toole are scrambling to clarify where they stand on abortion.
The CLC had already declared the frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre, as “not supportable” based on his voting record in the House. He was once a reliable vote in their corner, but more recently moderated his stance. In 2012, Poilievre voted for a motion that would have studied the definition of a human being. He also supported a 2010 private member’s bill that would have created a criminal offense for anyone who coerces a person to have an abortion.
But in 2020, when Poilievre was considering a leadership run, he committed to the same policy as Harper. His campaign reiterated that commitment in a statement sent to POLITICO.
Patrick Brown, the mayor of the Toronto suburb of Brampton and a former MP who’s also running for leader, fired off a pledge early Tuesday to “always support the right of a woman’s decision on her reproductive health. Full stop.”
He also committed to “encourage other options,” such as adoption, which enraged critics on social media who accused him of pandering to anti-abortion party members.
By mid-afternoon, fellow candidate Jean Charest tweeted a statement. “I am pro-choice. A government under my leadership will not support legislation restricting reproductive rights,” he said. “While I respect the democratic rights of MPs to bring forward private members’ bills on matters of conscience, I will not vote to support them.”
Lewis is unswayed. In a statement, Lewis pledged to ban sex-selective abortions, increase funding for “pregnancy crisis centres” and cut off federal funding for reproductive health overseas. Her record on CLC’s website indicates she personally opposes all abortions.
CLC hoped to fill the party’s leadership ballot with like-minded candidates. Luetke said the organization encouraged members to donate to the campaigns of Joseph Bourgault and Joel Etienne, both of whom claimed to have raised enough to cover the party’s C$300,000 entry fee and compliance deposit.
The party ruled neither candidate met the requirements for candidacy.
Bourgault’s campaign appeared to have scored a massive boost in its final days. A week before the April 29 application deadline, he said he was still short C$175,000. Within a week, he reported to supporters that the campaign had topped C$400,000.
Luetke wouldn’t comment on exactly how much CLC’s efforts contributed to that haul. But her group has a track record of making a dent in leadership races.
In 2020, CLC claimed to have signed up 26,000 members for Lewis and another candidate, Derek Sloan. That was more than double their sign-ups three years earlier when their preferred candidates, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, finished fourth and seventh.
Luetke said POLITICO’s bombshell reignited the abortion debate north of the border.
“Sometimes it’s just a little bit easier mentally just to disconnect from the whole issue,” she says. “Victories like this one are a reason to get involved once again.”