Opinion: If abortion is to re-enter political debate in BC, it’ll be from a political party with no MLAs

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VICTORIA — When a leaked document last week indicated that the US Supreme Court was reversing direction on access to abortions, there was a brief, decisive reaction at the BC legislature.

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“Abortion is health care,” declared NDP MLA Grace Lore in a passionate defense of choice, delivered on the floor of the house on May 3. “It is a profoundly personal choice that should not be decided or influenced by anyone beyond the person who is pregnant.

“Today, I think of the women and others who have fought for the right to choose and protected that right, including women in this house.

“I think about the countless women who have died when safe access was denied. Actions like this won’t stop abortions. They will just stop safe ones.”

Lore sat down to a standing ovation from members of all three parties.

Noting the unanimity of the applause, Finance Minister Selina Robinson added her own unsparing view of the prospect of US restrictions spilling over to this country.

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“Any change to access to abortion will be over my dead body,” she said.

Outside the house, BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon reiterated his party’s long-standing pro-choice position.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to supporting a woman’s right to choose,” said Falcon, fresh from the weekend by election victory that secured his return to the legislature.

“Our party position remains consistent in opposing any attempts to restrict or revoke the hard-fought rights that British Columbians have earned.”

Hard-fought is right, and Falcon well knows the history.

The issue erupted after Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the country’s abortion law as “manifestly unfair.”

Next day, BC Premier Bill Vander Zalm ordered the government to stop paying for abortions under Medicare.

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“I want to free taxpayers from abortions,” he declared. “Abortions diminish society’s respect for human life.”

Some members of the governing Social Credit spoke out against Vander Zalm’s move.

But the premier was unbowed. Reporters asked him, what about cases of rape and incest?

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“Don’t ask me those questions,” he said, covering his ears. “I don’t want to hear them.”

Vander Zalm denounced abortions in the legislature.

From the text, distributed to reporters beforehand: “The baby’s body is cut up … without so much as an anesthetic. … No one can imagine such suffering.”

Lives were being “terminated at the slightest whim or notion of women.” Abortion clinics were “profit centers.” I have made the inevitable comparison to the “Holocaust.”

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Even many Social Crediters were appalled.

A week later, the BC Supreme Court restored funding for abortions, ruling that the province had exceeded its powers by cutting off funding for a recognized medical procedure.

Vander Zalm wouldn’t give up.

“We will not have abortion on demand. … We’re not paying to set up some kind of industry to use and abuse people.”

A few weeks later, he had to admit that he’d been unable to persuade his own cabinet to consider means of restricting access to abortions.

“My colleagues didn’t have the moxie to really fight,” he complained, salting a wound that would never heal.

Vander Zalm spent the next three years fighting to save his job, while others worked to force him out.

Eventually he did quit — found guilty of violating his own conflict of interest guidelines over dealings with the buyer of his Fantasy Gardens theme park.

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The Social Credit did not last much longer.

The party, which governed BC with one brief interruption from the 50s to the 90s, was reduced to third place in the 1991 provincial election.

The BC Liberals supplanted Social Credit as the political vehicle for voters on the center right.

Mindful of what had happened to the Socreds, the Liberals regarded the abortion issue as toxic.

In 2000, BC. Liberal leader, soon to be premier, Gordon Campbell, spelled out his position in no uncertain terms.

”A Gordon Campbell government is not changing policy on access to abortion services,” he declared. ”They’ve been deemed to be medically necessary. They are not on our agenda. They are a federal responsibility.”

As for allowing BC Liberal MLAs a free vote on, say, a private member’s motion to restrict access to abortions, Campbell slammed the door on that possibility as well.

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”Our position is that there will be no change. This is the position I would take as premier,” he continued. “And therefore if anything else came up it would be a matter of confidence in the government.”

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No Liberal dared raise the issue during Campbell’s time in office. Premier Christy Clark followed the same line, being resolutely pro-choice.

Not until the Liberals were relegated to the Opposition benches did longtime Liberal MLA Rich Coleman, having held his tongue in 16 years at the cabinet table, do a grandstanding turn at an anti-abortion rally on the front steps of the legislature.

Coleman has since retired and Falcon knows the history well, having served under both previous BC Liberal premiers.

Indeed, Falcon was pretty much a protégé of Campbell.

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His statement last week indicates that on his watch, there will be no reopening the issue that tore Social Credit to pieces.

And after that show of unanimity in the legislature last week, if abortions do re-enter the political debate in BC, the issue will be introduced by a party not currently represented in the house.

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