I’m Pro-Choice, And Even I’m Uncomfortable With Trudeau’s Hard Line On The Issue

Applicants for a government summer job subsidy must avow that they support women’s reproductive rights. This should raise concerns — even for feminists like me.

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Justin Trudeau Pro Choice
Photo, Hector Vivas/Getty Images.

When it comes to Americans, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is more accustomed to adulation than criticism. But this week, the PM was blasted by President Donald Trump’s favourite TV show, Fox & Friends, and a right-wing pundit over his views on abortion. At issue was the PM’s appearance at a recent town hall in Hamilton, Ont., where he discussed the federal government’s Summer Jobs Program, which provides small businesses and non-profits subsidies to hire students during the summer break.

Trudeau was commenting on a new addition to the application process requiring that employers attest they uphold certain values, including women’s rights and reproductive choice. The change came after a review last year found that MPs had approved jobs grants to anti-abortion groups in 2016. (Two of the groups presented themselves as a pregnancy care centres, but refused to refer clients to abortion providers.)

Speaking at the town hall, the PM said participating businesses and groups must now declare their values are in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and if they infringe upon a woman’s right to choose, “that’s where … we draw a line as a country.” Clarifying his statement a few days later, he said, “there is no obligation by the government of Canada to fund organizations that are determined to remove rights that have been so long fought for by women… An organization that has as its stated goal to remove rights from Canadians, to remove the right that women have fought for to determine what happens to their own bodies, is not in line with where the Charter [of Rights] is or where the government of Canada is.”

The change to the application means that some faith-based groups could be disqualified from funding. For instance, the Catholic Church’s official stance is that abortion and homosexuality are sins, and women are forbidden from becoming priests; church-related organizations could not, in good conscience, say they support women’s equality and reproductive rights.

Why Some Women Can’t Get Behind #MeToo — But Wouldn’t Dare Admit ItWhy Some Women Can’t Get Behind #MeToo — But Wouldn’t Dare Admit ItCue the outrage: Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade spun a conspiracy theory that the summer jobs program was the first step towards Canada tampering with U.S. abortion policies: “What message is he trying to send to us, maybe?” Kilmeade asked, before turning to interview an American anti-abortion activist. Former Trump White House advisor Sebastian Gorka called Trudeau and his pro-choice position “reprehensible.”

Here in Canada, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said, “I believe that the federal government should respect the freedoms that Canadians enjoy to have different beliefs and that by imposing personal values of Justin Trudeau on a wide variety of groups is not an appropriate way to go.”

Don’t mistake these concerns for legitimate principles, however. These defences of religious rights are decidedly selective: Fox News routinely attacks Islam, and Kilmeade has baited viewers by referring to London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “London’s Muslim mayor.” Gorka has ties to an anti-Semitic, quasi-Nazi group in Hungary. Scheer leads a party that two years ago wanted to impose a niqab ban; and in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Quebec mosque last year, he opposed Motion 103, a non-binding feel-good gesture to condemn Islamophobia and study religious-based hate crimes.

All this overheated fuss might well be over nothing: The federal government maintains that it welcomes applications from faith-based groups and that being affiliated with a religion “does not itself constitute ineligibility.”

Still, hyperventilating right-wing hypocrisy aside, the way in which the new application requirement has been rolled out, as well as the PM’s statements about it, does (and should) raise concerns — even for a pro-choice feminist like me.

The balance of freedoms is a tricky exercise, particularly when it comes to religion. To varying degrees, the more traditional strains of all major faiths disapprove of abortion and contraception, as well as LGBTQ2 rights. At what point does their right to hold those beliefs infringe upon the rights of others?

Sometimes the determination is clear: as when a group misrepresents itself in order to spread false information about abortion and mislead and prevent women from getting care. Other times, it’s murky.

There’s an important difference between a group whose central mission and labour is devoted to anti-choice efforts, such as picketing clinics or lobbying governments, and a group who holds anti-choice beliefs but whose primary focus is on other work, such as a church-run basketball league or soup kitchen. The way it’s worded, the new pledge in the summer jobs program application does appear to put faith-based groups in a difficult spot. Many groups don’t feel comfortable signing what they see as a pledge that demands they compromise or deny their beliefs.

The government shouldn’t fund projects with the explicit and direct aim to restrict the rights of others, but in its efforts to correct past mistakes, the Liberals seem to be conflating what people think with what they do. A person who is Christian, Jewish or Muslim might believe that abortion is wrong without actively working to prevent women from having one. Or they might attend a church, temple or mosque that preaches homosexuality is improper or perverse, while they themselves treat LGBTQ2 people with respect. When it comes to addressing competing rights, that distinction between beliefs and actions is critical.

Writing two years ago about Stephen Harper’s proposed niqab ban, I compared the fight for religious freedom to the fight for same-sex marriage. Though my rights as a lesbian and woman and the rights of religious groups are often at odds, I respect the right of religious people to live and believe as they choose — provided, of course, I’m afforded the same right.

I’m also among the vast majority of Canadians who support women’s reproductive rights: According to a 2017 Ipsos poll, 77 percent of us say abortion should be permitted — a figure that higher than the global average of 71 percent. Twelve percent don’t agree (and 11 percent aren’t sure). That 12 percent shouldn’t be allowed to impose their views on others, but the fact that they disagree with the majority shouldn’t automatically preclude them from receiving a government grant.

Most of all, though, as a member of a minority group that’s historically been persecuted by governments and by political leaders, I’m wary of any steps by a government of any political stripe that could limit the rights and freedoms of individuals who don’t share the majority’s views. Right now, there’s a PM in office whose beliefs I generally agree with. But what happens when the person in power has opposing convictions and values to my own?

For many, abortion is a complicated issue — some who passionately support women’s rights, still believe there should be some limits placed on the procedure; others who are opposed to it or believe it to be sinful still feel it should be allowed in cases of rape or if a mother’s life is in danger. We can champion and diligently safeguard women’s reproductive choice and access to medical care while allowing room for differing views.

As prime minister, Trudeau has been a steadfast — and admirable — advocate of women’s right to choose, using his platform to defend it and taking steps at a federal — and international — level to protect it. Last year, for example, the Liberal government said it would give up to $20 million to an international campaign to fund global sexual health, family planning, contraception and abortion-related projects, to make up a gap created when Trump banned funding for abortion-related programs.

But Trudeau has sometimes over-reached. In 2015, he announced that as long as he led the party, new Liberal candidates would have to affirm women’s right to choose. “Future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” he said at the time.

The PM has a right to manage his caucus and to expect MPs to vote with the party on certain issues, but given that there’s not been a recent, serious attempt to change federal laws regarding abortion, it felt like an unnecessarily pre-emptive discipline — and, to me, a little like thought policing. Perhaps it isn’t possible for a person to be valuable member of a political party while holding some beliefs that contradict party policy — but, in a democracy, that possibility should at least be debated before being dismissed outright.

It’s worth noting that the PM himself has spoken about how he has grappled with the tenets of his faith when they have clashed with his stand on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Raised and educated as a Catholic, he has described himself as a Christian, with a “deep faith and belief in God.” He’s also discussed his own capacity to separate his personal, private beliefs from his professional, public role. In regards to the summer jobs grant, he should trust that there are other Canadians capable of doing the same.

Watch: Justin and Sophie try not to react to Donald Trump