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Abortion and the Right to Vote Your Conscience

(Also published in the Huffington Post )

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), has announced that anyone who wants to be a candidate for the LPC must commit to voting in favour of pro-choice, if and when it comes to proposed measures on abortion.

This is a step too far.

For the record, I am pro-choice.  I feel very strongly that having access to safe, legal abortions is fundamental to full equality and independence for women. Although it takes two to get pregnant, the consequences of a pregnancy and birth – particularly an unwanted one – fall far, far more heavily on the woman than the man. They require major, life-changing sacrifices by the one who must bear that responsibility, and it’s almost always the woman. That is neither equality nor independence.

I also support the fact that the LPC is officially pro-choice. The LPC has made it very clear that equality and independence for women is a fundamental goal, and every person who wants to put him or herself forward as a potential candidate for the LPC knows that the LPC is officially pro-choice, even if it is not something that they personally agree with. That’s true for a variety of key policies, not just abortion.

However, having that knowledge and awareness is very different from being required to be, and to vote, pro-choice. Except in rare cases (mentioned below), requiring any MP to vote in a particular way runs contrary to some of the basic tenets of our democracy.

It is true that, from time to time, you need discipline in a political party – particularly on fundamental party policy issues. For example, if a government does not achieve support on a budget or a spending bill, it can be a matter of confidence, and the government can fall. So-called  ‘money bills’ are therefore ‘whipped’, which means that MPs are expected to vote as one. In those rare cases, if someone doesn’t vote with the Party, he or she can face demotion, other party discipline, and in extreme cases expulsion from the Party’s caucus.

But for most other issues, if the leader of a Party wants, or needs, discipline on votes, he or she should persuade members of the team, not simply impose his or her will. Persuading is usually harder than forcing with discipline, but it makes for a much more cohesive team in the long run.

Members of Parliament are asked to vote on a large variety of issues – economic, environmental, international, social and more. It is impossible to have everyone agree on every issue every time. Indeed, part of an MP’s responsibility before voting on any matter is to do the research, learn the issues, consider whether proposed legislation would fix something or (as can happen) make it worse. Canadians do not want, and do not vote for, a herd of trained seals. The voters expect a certain independence of thought.

In situations where an MP is torn between voting against her or his own views and voting against the Party’s leadership, they also have the option of staying out of the House, and simply not voting. It’s not a perfect solution, as quite a few elected politicians feel strongly that they weren’t voted into office to abstain. But it can be a compromise in touchy situations. Ultimately, it must be a truly exceptional situation for one to be willing to allow Party discipline to trump the right of MPs to vote according to their own opinions, particularly on issues of conscience.

Abortion, now brought back into the news, is a very personal and often difficult subject. There are many people for whom I have great respect, who – for reasons of religion, morality, ethics or otherwise – do not support open access to abortion. These include many members of the Liberal Party of Canada who have been, who are, and who will in the future (I hope) be excellent candidates – and MPs – for the Liberal Party. Many have contributed immensely to this country, and many more will in the years to come. There are many other economic, financial, international and social issues that MPs must deal with all the time, and an anti-abortion stance does not prevent great work and influence on so many other issues.

Finally, aside from the right or wrong of this issue : practically speaking, such a requirement of potential candidates could prevent a large number of very capable, thoughtful people from contributing to the LPC and the country. That would be a shame.

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