Abortion is a bitter, emotional debate in the United States. Abortion is a bitter, emotional debate in Canada. As complex as the Roe v. Wade legal debate is in the United States, the legal history of abortion in Canada is equally intricate.

Though many pro-life activists believe the Supreme Court of Canada legalized abortion through all nine months of pregnancy for any or no reason, that’s not precisely correct. Canada’s top court did strike down Section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which required women seeking an abortion to obtain a certificate from a therapeutic abortion committee, on constitutional grounds in 1988. But the court also urged Parliament to pass a new law that would be in line with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This would be difficult, but not impossible. The House of Commons did pass Bill C-43 in 1989, which would have been a very liberal abortion law meeting criteria laid out by the Supreme Court a year earlier, but the polarizing debate resulted in its defeat in the Senate.

Stifled debate

Since then, there have been no further attempts to legislate abortion. The reasons are political, not legal.

All parties represented in Canada’s Parliament — Conservative, New Democratic, Liberal and Green — are led by politicians who have declared the question settled. The polls tell them Canadians have divided opinions on abortion and no appetite for either a law restricting abortion or the debate it would spark. In general, this relegates abortion to a question of personal moral choice about which the law must remain silent.

Many Catholics blame a militant pro-life movement for punishing every politician for any hint at compromise.

Small steps forward

Canadian bishops have recently tried to modulate the hard-line, no-compromise politics of the pro-life movement. Vancouver’s Archbishop Michael Miller issued a letter last September outlining the legitimacy of compromise, including the idea of laws that would make abortions more difficult to obtain at the later stages of pregnancy.

Citing Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), he made the point that, “legislation which intends to limit the harm done by a pro-abortion law is not itself cooperation with an unjust law but rather ‘a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.’”

Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins endorsed Archbishop Miller’s stand.

There also have been recent muffled cries from the back benches of Canada’s Conservative government, trying to put abortion back on the nation’s agenda. In 2012, against the wishes of his party’s leadership, Conservative Member of Parliament Stephen Woodworth urged Parliament to investigate the scientific question of when human life begins with a view to updating the criminal code. The motion was defeated 203-91.

More recently, Mark Warawa, another Conservative backbencher, attempted to propose a motion condemning sex selective abortions on evidence that the practice of aborting fetuses because they are female is a rising phenomenon in some ethnic communities in Canada. Again Conservative Party leadership and Prime Minister Stephen Harper strongly opposed any debate on such a motion on the grounds it would break a Conservative campaign promise not to reopen the abortion debate.

There are some now who believe there may be more of an appetite for debate about abortion than there has been in many years. So far, the debate remains largely restricted to cafeterias, blogs and classrooms. This spring’s annual pro-life march on Parliament Hill attracted 25,000 from across Canada, according to organizers — 10,000 to 12,000 according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.