When pro-life Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth stood in front of a podium facing a room packed with journalists Monday he knew he wasn’t facing a friendly crowd.
“You’re here to get a nice controversial story,” he told reporters at the National Press Theatre as he began pleading with them for support.
Since December, Woodworth has taken to the media circuit telling reporters, the public and his constituents that he believes babies who are still in the womb should be recognized as legal human beings and that legislation which only sees them as human once their toes have seen daylight makes no sense. He has filed a motion calling for the formation of a special committee to determine when a human being is formed and, based on that conclusion, what the consequences would be of recognizing a fetus as a human being before it leaves the womb.
“At some point in your life you made a commitment, a personal commitment to the truth,” the Kitchener MP told journalists. “At least that’s what the rest of us expect of you. Has anyone here abandoned their commitment to the truth? Don’t you want truthful laws?”
A calm and friendly fellow with a gentle demeanor, Woodworth told reporters that what he is proposing is not to blow open the abortion debate but rather to have a discussion about an outdated 400-year-old law.
It’s a tactic that those who champion abortion rights are fearful of, but that self-described pro-life politicians suggest is the only route open for them.
“I’ve learned that whenever you hear the term ‘reopen the debate’ that is simply code for they want to recriminalize abortion,” Joyce Arthur, the executive director of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada told The Huffington Post Canada.
“They have to be more covert about it and sneaky and say ‘Oh it’s not about abortion, we care about the human rights and the rights of women’ but really that is just a cover,” she said.
While Arthur worries opponents of abortions are using different tactics to sell their message, the opponents themselves worry the message isn't being heard by the government at all.
The Conservatives are “hypocrites,” suggested Mary Ellen Douglas, a national organizer with Campaign Life Coalition.
“They claim that their MPs can say whatever they like and then they send in another MP from the Prime Minister’s Office to shut them down before they can do anything,” she said in an interview this week. “That’s hypocritical.”
It’s time to reopen the abortion debate, Douglas argued. “It is 40 years time to reopen it. It never should have happened in the first place. And what is (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) afraid of, you know? He has a majority … I don’t know what his fear is. But whatever it is, it is certainly holding him back,” she said.
Campaign Life Coalition has spent decades working with MPs and trying to get legislators who oppose abortion elected to Parliament.
“These MPs should be able to speak their minds and their conscience and act that way,” Douglas asserted.
“We have to have politicians with morals. In visiting MPs, I’ve had some politicians say to me, ‘I am personally opposed but I can’t impose that on other people.’ Excuse me? …That’s what we elect you for, to stand up for the moral issues! We don’t elect you to go there and blend in with the woodwork. We expect you to earn your money."
Now that the Conservatives have a majority, Douglas is hoping some backbench MPs will start speaking out.
They’ve been relatively silent because they fear losing their position and being disciplined, she said.
“Having the courage to stand up and do something often leads to some kind of discipline. They certainly need a jolt of courage,” Douglas added.
Unsurprisingly, Woodworth’s motion raised questions once again about the Conservatives’ hidden agenda but the government was quick to distance itself from its MP’s motion. Their efficient response led most media outlets to describe Woodworth's actions as going rogue.
Woodworth himself seemed caught off guard when a journalist informed him during his news conference that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, a man whose voting record used to reflected a pro-life stance, had just issued a press release saying the Conservative government would not reopen the abortion debate.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW
Woodworth won’t reveal what conversations, if any, he has had with the Prime Minister. But he told HuffPost he doesn’t like to surprise anybody and “it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
The married father of three refused to discuss the feedback he has faced from fellow caucus members on not raising the abortion issue, although he acknowledged a range of views have been expressed.
“Some people are nervous when such an issue is raised. Some are supportive, some probably take the opposite point of view, I’m not sure I would call any of it pressure,” Woodworth said.
“Suffice it to say, I’ve filed my motion and I’m proceeding with it and I don’t expect to fall off the face of the Earth because of that,” he added, with nervous laughter.
Woodworth said he’s thought about the tricky position he’s placing some of his colleagues in —people such as cabinet ministers Vic Toews, Lynne Yelich and Jason Kenney (who ignored a request for interview) — who may feel caught between voting against the government for whom they speak or voting against their deeply-held religious beliefs.
“I have thought about it, yes. I haven’t come up with any grand conclusions,” Woodworth said.
He believes his motion has been watered down to such a point that it should not anger his peers.
“I have drafted a motion which is about as mild as I can think of to deal with the issue that I have raised. You know, I haven’t proposed any answers to any questions, I haven’t proposed any legislation that would compel anyone to do anything, I have simply requested a study,” he said.
FREE TO VOTE YOUR MIND?
Members of Parliament are generally allowed to vote as they wish on private members’ bills, Woodworth pointed out.
The House of Commons’ rules, in fact, are drafted in such a way as to encourage MPs to speak their mind on non-government legislation.
“I’m not aware of any regulations anywhere that indicates that a Member of Parliament has any limitation on the private member’s business that they can propose in the House,” Woodworth told HuffPost defiantly.
Conservative Party spokesman Fred Delorey confirmed the party’s policy declaration states the Tories believe in “restoring democratic accountability” to the House of Commons by allowing free votes.
“All votes should be free, except for the budget, main estimates and core government initiatives,” the policy states.
The principal is so important that maverick Conservative MP Brad Trost told HuffPost it’s been confirmed twice in the document for greater certainty.
“On issues of moral conscience, such as a abortion, the definition of marriage and euthanasia the Conservative Party acknowledges deeply-held personal convictions … and the right of Members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultations with their constituents and to vote freely,” the second part of the article reads.
That same document, however, clearly states that reviewing abortion laws won’t be the government’s policy.
“A Conservative Government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion,” article 62 says.
Self-censorship and the current cultural expectation that MPs “absolutely vote always the same way” are the two reasons, Trost cited for MPs toeing the party line.
The Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Humboldt said he knows of MPs who self-censor because they think they’ll get promoted and move up the ladder.
“A lot of censorship seems to be self-censorship as people wonder, ‘Will I get punished for it?’ ” he told HuffPost.
Woodworth said he’s not worried about getting punished.
He once supported a motion by Liberal MP Stéphane Dion calling on the Conservative government to put more money into green energy initiatives and he wasn’t reprimanted, he said.
“Very few of my Conservative colleagues supported that but I did and nothing happened to me bad,” he said.
Many social-conservative groups speculate, however, that this is why some MPs choose to shut up.
“I’m sure there is career pressure. To be blunt, I don’t think that Woodworth is going to get a cabinet posting any time soon,” said Andrea Mrozek of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
“(Conservative backbench MP) Rob Bruinooge is an example of someone who has done an admirable job of balancing tough issues. He got re-elected and is an admirable MP representing his constituents but also speaking his mind on issues of importance — and some would have said prior to him being vocal on the abortion issue, that he might have been cabinet material,” Mrozek said. “So there is a price I suppose if you really value cabinet postings.”
Woodworth laughed at the suggestion he might not get a cabinet post or even become a committee chairman.
“No, I don’t worry about that, I’ve been here for three and a half years and played the role that has been assigned to me,” he told HuffPost.
Trost, an opponent of abortion who hasn’t been shy about putting the issue on the front burner, said he has been in Ottawa since 2004 and is under no illusion that he’ll ever make it to cabinet.
“Yeah, I missed finance portfolio by just about an inch, I was just about there. Jim (Flaherty) was about to retire and go to Bay Street and I was going to get it until this surfaced,” he joked.
Over the next four years, more MPs will start speaking out on abortion, Trost predicted.
“As people realize that no matter how hard they work or what they do, the promotion is not going to happen, irrespective, I think a lot of MPs relax and start speaking out.”
Frustration on the part of many socially conservative MPs about the lack of government movement might lead to more action, he suggested.
“I don’t know if him (Woodworth) or I, if the two of us had spoken out so aggressively, if we had been more successful in a quiet fashion, very possibly not,” Trost reflected. “But as we’ve learned, being more in public and communicating with your voters on these issues does seem to have more effect on the politics of this issue.”
Joanne McGarry, the executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said she believes that many MPs, not only Conservatives, wrestle with the abortion issue because it often pits their own faith against the wishes of their constituents.
“A lot of them really struggle with it and I have a lot of respect for those who do speak out, I think it is a courageous stand especially when they know, to be blunt, that it could cost them votes,” she told HuffPost. “When you look at it that way, it’s no wonder so many of them stay silent.”
Still, Trost suggested with a majority government, MPs have more time to focus on policy issues now that they are not in their riding all the time knocking on doors, raising money and doing voter identification. After four years, he added, MPs will be more comfortable speaking out and there will be more and more private members’ bills and motions rotating through the system giving MPs a chance to have their voices heard.
“It’s going to vary on the MP but some will feel more free,” he said.
THE BIG POLITICAL TENT
Politics is a team sport and going against your team has to be done judiciously.
A party is sort of an alliance of friends and you need friends to get anything done, Woodworth told HuffPost.
“A lone ranger won’t get anything done so you come together with others generally like-minded and you form an alliance, and you say, if you help me on this, I’ll help you on that,” he told HuffPost.
“Sometimes angry NDPers will write me letters and say ‘you know you don’t agree with such and such the government is doing, why don’t you say that publicly and embarrass the government? And I say, what would be the point of embarrassing my friends in public? If I don’t agree with them I can talk to them privately and be more effective.”
“It’s sort of like if your wife is a little bit underweight, do you go around publicly telling people boy I wish my wife would put on a little bit more weight or do you try to encourage her privately? If you want to ruin a relationship, you know what you do. If you want to keep a relationship, you know what you do. That’s the way parties work,” Woodworth, who has been married for 33 years said.
The Kitchener MP said he “may not always agree” with government legislation “down to the last drip and diddle” but that he votes for it anyway because his constituents sent him to Ottawa as a Conservative MP.
But on some issues, he feels, he needs to defy his party’s policy.
“I can’t stop the government from saying what it wishes on that subject,” he told reporters during his press conference Monday.
Woodworth hopes the support he’s extended his colleagues will be afforded to him when his motion comes up for a vote.
“I hope that my performance in committee, and my suggestions in caucus and my support of my caucus colleagues when they need support, I hope all of that helps to build my relationship with my colleagues,” he said. “If you do relationship-destroying things all the time people will run out of patience with you,” he added.
Some of his colleagues, however, suggest Woodworth is doing a relationship destroying thing right now.
Although many in the Tory caucus are socially conservative and would describe themselves as pro-life, they are a relatively quiet bunch.
One of Woodworth’s caucus colleagues, who described himself as pro-choice, said the opponent of abortion have little vocal support.
“You can tell who has support when they speak in caucus and people look up at the sky. Their comments only receive clapping from their own little cluster of supporters,” the member said.
Other sources suggest the Prime Minister is letting Woodworth speak his mind because he represents a substantial part of the caucus that needs to feel its voice is getting heard.
“You need to find a balance between shutting them down all the time and kicking the social conservatives out,” a government official said.
Conservative caucus chair Guy Lauzon had agreed to speak with HuffPost about caucus unity but cancelled the interview at the last minute.
“Our Conservative Caucus ensures the priorities and concerns of local constituents are heard by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. There are several mediums that Members can communicate their priorities, and we listen. Caucus remains completely united behind the Prime Minister's and Government's focus on jobs and growth,” Kavleigh Heathcote, the Conservative caucus co-ordinator emailed HuffPost on Lauzon’s behalf.
Trost suggested that opponents of abortion are a “sizable portion” of the caucus, although the “grey middle” represents the largest portion.
Voting records, previous comments and questionnaire responses compiled by Campaign Life Coalition suggest half the Conservative caucus opposes abortion.
It's a touchy issue. Many Conservative MPs, even well known opponents of abortion, such as Maurice Vellacott, Rob Bruinooge, Kelly Block and Bev Shipley, refused interview requests on the topic.
Liberal MP John McKay, a self described pro-lifer, told HuffPost he feels his opposing views are respected in his caucus. He hasn’t made abortion his issue and he’s not sure how successful other MPs who have will be.
“I don’t see the path forward. It seems to me that even a sympathetic prime minister, such as Stephen Harper, said this is not a debate he is going to open. So are you in effect going to spend political capital and emotional capital on a debate that is not going to anywhere?”
McKay says there are other moral issues that MPs should be speaking out on — such as the Conservatives’ budget which will cut funding to international aid thereby hurting those who need help the most.
Retired Conservative MP Ken Epp told HuffPost that he believes many opponents of abortion refuse to champion ideas, such as his private member’s bill C-484 (The Unborn Victims of Crime Act, which would have established separate homicide charge for a fetus killed when a woman is attacked) because they will be painted as radical anti-abortionists and the debate will focus solely on that front.
His bill he said was inspired by cases such as that of Nova Scotia's Charlene Knapp.
“In 2007, she was 28 years old. She was four months pregnant and she was attacked by an ex-boyfriend who didn’t want her to have this child and he had one of these ceremonial decorative swords. He plunged it into her abdominal area 15 times, according to the testimony given in court and several of those thrusts went completely through her and came out the back,” Epp descrived. “She almost died but the baby did …The guy was charged with assault on the woman but there was no charge for taking the life of the baby.” (The judge in the case sentenced the ex-boyfriend to 14 years in prison).
Epp said his bill clearly stated that regardless of what was set out, the law was not to impinge on the rights of women who choose to end the life of their babies willingly. Still, he said, it became a lightening rod for abortion advocates.
If it had been championed by someone such as Jack Layton, the late NDP leader, Epp said, he thinks it would have been more palatable to supporters of abortion.
Epp’s bill passed second reading in the House of Commons but never became law because an election was called in 2008.
Joyce Arthur, of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, noted that groups like her own react swiftly because legal recognition is a slippery slope to removing a woman's choices.
She also takes offence at Conservatives and Liberals mixing religious views with civic duty.
“People don’t want other people imposing their religious views on them. Most Canadians sense that these MPs who are complaining about abortion, gay marriage, they are coming from a religious view point and a lot of them are fundamentalist Christians, for example and Catholics and they are really bringing their religion in the public sphere and that’s not right …They should stay neutral on issues like that. We live in a secular democracy. And they should be responsible to all their constituents,” she said.
Woodworth, an ardent Catholic, believes he’s just doing what’s right.
“My sense of duty is such that I would be hard-pressed to not raise my voice, at least to that degree on a law that seems so utterly and fantastically unjust,” he said.
And McGarry, the executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, counters that most Canadians are uneducated about Canada’s lack of abortion laws and need to be informed about the issue.
“Most Canadians are ill informed of the debate, they think that because many countries have trimester based rules, we do too, McGarry said.
“When you’re expecting, you start referring to the baby somewhere around four months, nobody thinks it is just of no consequences or status until after it’s born. Nobody thinks that,” she added. “That law (that doesn’t recognize human beings until birth), there is no question about it, it is at odds with the way most people think about pre-natal life.”
Arthur suggested that opponents of abortion are scare mongering.
“Abortions after 20 weeks are already quite rare and not performed by doctors who adhere to medical policies,” she said. “These are very desperate circumstances where (women) need an abortion for medical reasons so there is no point in criminalizing them.”
For her part, Mary Ellen Douglas from Campaign Life Coalition hopes that Woodworth’s motion will encourage the large group of socially conservative MPs to band together and find the courage to speak.
“That is my hope, that this is the beginning of that type of movement where they find the courage to join together and bring in a whole slew of pro-life bills, all aimed at the understanding that life is precious and needs to be protected.”