Woodworth? ABORT! ABORT!

This morning I recounted the somewhat bizarre tale of a Republican North Party member of Parliament who tabled a private member’s bill to, in a semi-oblique way, spark debate over access to abortion in Canada. To my sincere surprise, the bill’s author (Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener) was rebuked by all parties in Parliament, including by a high-ranking member of his own party. Considering the fact that a sizeable proportion of the RNP voting base is anti-choice, it seemed odd for the government to come down so heavily on its own MPs motion, especially to have a high-ranking member dish out the tongue-lashing.

As I said in this morning’s post, all that really matters is that women’s reproductive autonomy is preserved and appears to be well-safeguarded from Parliamentary interference, even under this government. However, what I am profoundly unclear on is why this motion – doomed to fail as it was – even saw the light of day. There are a number of potential explanations I can think of, and I will spend a little time on each one.

1. The obvious one: everything is exactly as it seems

Stephen Woodworth, acting within his privilege as a private member of parliament, bucked his leader’s wishes and tabled a bill that nobody liked.

It is the case that any member of Parliament can put forward a bill for the general consideration of the House of Commons without needing consent from their party leadership. It is entirely possible that Stephen Woodworth is so passionate in his desire to restrict women’s choices (or so infuriated at the idea of a 400 year-old definition in a 6000 year-old world) that he simply couldn’t help himself. Prime Minister Harper, giving an uncharacteristically long leash to a zealous MP (who would seriously embarrass his government), was forced to make his pro-choice wishes clear, and asked Gordon O’Connor to do the honours.

The reason I don’t buy this one is that the Prime Minister runs an incredibly tight ship. He knew this motion would fail, and that he would be blamed for his MPs truculence. The smart damage control move, especially if he didn’t want to alienate the religious right (which he absolutely has), would have been to save Gordon O’Connor and instead ask another back-bench MP to give a long-winded speech about the importance of religious freedom while quietly instructing his party to vote against the motion or else. None of these things happened, which means someone within the RNP power structure assented to this.

2. The fractured one: the party is coming apart at the seams

This motion is the result of a behind-the-scenes mini-coup on the part of frustrated social conservatives tired of having their issues ignored

Stephen Woodworth may have felt a subtle shifting in the winds as scandal after scandal began to shake the foundations of the Harper government. He may have felt that the time was ripe to flex some anti-choice muscle, while the government was weak and couldn’t afford to alienate its voter base. What better time to introduce a bill like this? He could peel off both the anti-choice vote in the RNP caucus as well as other pro-choice RNP MPs who were afraid to lose support in their ridings.

If this is what happened, Stephen Woodworth is even more stupid than I original gave him “credit” for. The Prime Minister has most of his MPs by the short hairs, and Stephen Woodworth is a nobody from a tiny riding. If anything, the RNP gains popular support by dropping the hammer on this upstart fundagelical and his wildly unpopular ideas. Considering the fact that the NDP is 100% pro-choice, the Liberal party is 80-90% pro-choice and only 61% of the RNP caucus is anti-choice, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this strategy could garner enough votes to pass.

3. The clever stunt one: this was all political theatre to gain centrist support

Stephen Woodworth jumped on his sword in a brilliant strategic move on behalf of the RNP to tack away from their reputation as equivalent to American Republicans, and thereby pick up support in the middle.

With his support in the polls slipping, someone in the back room of the RNP political apparatus might have suggested allowing (or even instructing) Stephen Woodworth to put his motion forward with the full knowledge that it would be struck down. By having a high-ranking party member stomp all over the bill, Prime Minister Harper sends a strong message to the centre of the Canadian electorate that he is not beholden to the social conservative wing of his party.

Except that he is beholden to the conservative wing of his party, and they are the kind of people who will remember this event forever (and vote accordingly). Those in the centre are not nearly so monomaniacal in the issues they care about. Besides, the RNP isn’t running for anything for at least another 3 years – it makes absolutely no sense to start trying to govern for centrist support right now. Now is the time you push through all the stuff you know is unpopular but you hope people will forget by the next election.

4. The grooming one: Stephen Woodworth or (and?) Gordon O’Connor are being pushed into the spotlight

Stephen Woordworth is being moved off the backbench to appease the right wing and/or Gordon O’Connor is being positioned to carry the torch for the libertarian wing.

Knowing that the right flank of the RNP is becoming progressively more agitated by the lack of attention being paid to nullifying gay rights (a.k.a. “family values” issues – as though gay people don’t have families), Prime Minister Harper is elevating Stephen Woodworth as his token fundie. He takes a hit in the polls now, but come election time there’s Stephen reassuring everyone that he is there to stand up for their small-minded beliefs. At the same time (or as an added bonus), party whip Gordon O’Connor is being branded as a pragmatic centrist in time for the next cabinet shuffle (as other MPs who have disgraced the party are quietly moved into the background).

This one is certainly the most plausible, since it doesn’t hold any obvious downsides for the RNP, but the question remains why now? Stephen Woodworth could have held on to his stupid amendment until the party was on stronger footing (or never tabled it at all and merely agitated from the sidelines to gain much of the same support), and Gordon O’Connor could have been elevated without any need for fanfare or alienation of social conservatives. This would also require more of a head for political strategy than the RNP has shown to date, preferring instead to bully and demonize their way through the issues.

I honestly do not know the answer. Whatever the truth is, you can bet that none of it is going to come through the official channels of any of the political parties. It will be interesting to see what happens down the road, because for now I am sincerely mystified by last week’s events.

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  1. steve8282 says

    Maybe to deflect that the far christian right poster boy Vic Toews in the party is by his own definition a pedophile?

  2. says

    Toews is a Mennonite. I don’t really think he’s the evangelical poster boy you might think. Plus, he banged and impregnated his 17 year-old babysitter. I really think it’s too late to rehabilitate his image.

  3. Synfandel says

    I suspect that it was initially the obvious one and subsequently the clever stunt one.

    Stephen Woodworth is a genuine, died-in-the-wool zealot on the issue of abortion. Having acquired a seat in the House of Commons, mainly by way of public disaffection with the Liberal Party (his seat was previously held by a Liberal) and on the coat tails of a (then) increasingly popular Prime Minister, Mr. Woodworth couldn’t resist the temptation to use it as a platform for his moral mission.

    The only leverage the PM has to stop him is to deny him cabinet and committee postings if he doesn’t behave in the interest of the government. Mr. Woodworth is the lowliest of back-benchers and knows that he’ll never be given any responsibility by the PM anyway—and probably won’t even be re-elected in four more years. He had nothing to lose.

    Prime Minister Harper is not particularly concerned about his base at this point. He has a comfortably majority in the House and in the Senate and social conservative voters have nowhere else to go, except to fringe parties such as the Christian Heritage Party. He needs to maintain or increase his support in the centre by appealing to moderate and fiscal conservatives and disaffected Liberals.

    By repeating once again that his government will not reopen the abortion issue and by affirming that he would personally be voting against Mr. Woodworth’s motion, the PM has delivered another blow to the notion that he has a “hidden agenda” on social issues and assuaged the fears of the centrist voters he needs to woo.

    After the final vote on the motion has been soundly defeated either in June or in September, Mr. Woodworth will have squandered any political capital he might have had and will probably fade quietly away. I wonder if his Conservative Party constituency association will even choose him as its candidate in the next election.

  4. Mclean says

    I think this was a trial balloon by the party, one where they didn’t care so much if it had legs or didn’t. Clearly there was sufficient backlash against it, so they score points by squashing it. However, if the motion went through (and being not directly related to abortion *in name* they could hope people would be too stupid to realize), they’d score lifelong points with their fundie and misogynistic base. Either way, they get info on how much support they can expect for socially conservative/hot button issues and how lax they can expect the opposition to be about these items at this time, both of which are very hard to poll for.

    Another reason for letting this fly would be the salesperson reason: ask for the ridiculous, and when it is turned down ask for something only slightly ridiculous, and that second is more likely to pass.

  5. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I’m with the “clever stunt” one this time.

    I really believe that they think that the theocratic wing (I don’t hold with calling it the religious right wing, I don’t care if you’re religious and on the right. I care if you want to convert theology into law.) is more beholden to them then they are to the theocratic wing, and thus that they can make this move with minimal consequences on the right compared to the gain in the middle.

    Or maybe they think the consequences will be large in the short term on the right, but even larger in the middle.

    What I’d love to know is if this is part of a long term series of actions (planned or just fitful) that will slowly set the right edge of what is considered “reasonable” in Canadian politics somewhat closer to the center. There’s no chance that a fourth party could have space on the right to make a large difference, and if any got elected to parliament at all, they would almost certainly caucus with the Republican-Norths. In fact, the Conservatives could only gain by creating a semi-artificial distinction between a theocratic party and a purged Conservative party. More centrists could feel okay about voting Conservative and the purists who vote Theocrat wouldn’t have much choice but to caucus with the Conservatives.

    And doing this long before the next election makes sense if the point is to appeal to centrists while allowing purist/theocrat anger either time to die down or time to organize into a non-competing theocratic party.

    I’m not saying it’s that well thought out. These decisions are argued about in committee and different people will agree to the plan for different reasons. That’s what makes finding one “reason” so tough – there isn’t one. Some may have incompetently failed to see the consequences while voting aye, other may have been Machiavellian in manipulating the status quo of media perceptions of the parties, others may have been Machiavellian in maneuvering certain people towards certain ministerial positions.

    Although I guess that option 3 is the most likely to have been the most serious driving factor, I don’t see any need to claim that there was only one.

  6. Synfandel says

    An afterthought…

    If I’m wrong about social conservative voters having nowhere else to go; if that wing of the Conservative Party splinters off and forms its own party—something akin to a revived Reform Party or to the Wild Rose Alliance that recently nearly ousted the Progressive Conservative dynasty in Alberta; if the Conservative Party of Canada fractures; I will rejoice in my error.

  7. ender says

    Huh. Mennonites serving in Parliament… In the conservative communities and even in some of the more liberal ones here in the U.S. (and I imagine in Canada as well) there are longstanding debates over whether even voting is too much acquiescence to the powers that be. Interesting.

  8. says

    I went to a university that has a large Mennonite population in the outlying area. As a result, there are a number of Mennonite students there. I had classes with a lot of them. Aside from them being (almost without exception) stunningly good-looking, you really wouldn’t know their religious background through casual interaction. The only way you could really tell (aside from guessing from the last name, or if they lived in a certain residence in 1st year) is to observe their home lives. That is pretty much 100% of my experience with Canadian Mennonites, and I can’t draw any conclusions about things like political activity from them.

  9. Enkidum says

    I’m with the obvious one. Never ascribe to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence. Yeah, Harper runs a tight ship, but there are occasional fuck ups in every organization, no matter how tight the level of control. Occam’s Razor, et al.

  10. says

    But this wasn’t a surprise thing. We knew this was coming for a while. No shot was this just someone falling asleep at the switch.

  11. says

    I highly doubt that it’s case #2 (fractured party). In the past minority parliaments, Edmonton Conservative MP Ken Epp introduced the “unborn victims of crimes” private members bills, which attempted to add an extra level of crime onto injuring a pregnant woman. The liberal interpretation was that this was a back door way to try to give a foetus legal personhood, thereby offering a way to criminalize abortion. This bill enjoyed far more support from the Conservative party, so it’s unclear why Woodworth is getting the smackdown.

    Also, Harper isn’t likely concerned about his religious right base voting for someone else (is the Christian Heritage Party really a threat?) but rather would fear that they won’t vote at all. Of course, he can wave the scary socialist flag now, which may be motivation enough for many of them.

  12. ender says

    I was born into that particular wing of the North American Mennonite church and went to a Mennonite-affiliated college. The last-name game was mostly employed to see if you could date someone since most Mennonites are related to each other somehow or another.

    Mennonites in the U.S. vote about Republican at about a 2:1 ratio. The quirky thing about their politics as a community is of course the whole religious pacifism whatsit…

  13. says

    Right, but coming down on the bill in the way they did is suspicious. If they had, for example, put Del Mastro up there to wax poetically about how important it is to him “as a Catholic” that religious freedom be protected and life be safeguarded, but that Canadian law was pretty clear on the issue and that MPs should just “vote their conscience” (while someone in the back room unofficially whips CPC MPs to defeat the bill), they would have kept the evangelicals appeased and still maintained their posture of centrism.

    Instead, they sent a very senior party official to deliver what is essentially a Jezebel post in the HoC. It’s not just that he’s not worried they’d leave – it’s like he’s actively flouting them for reasons that make no sense.

  14. MichaelD says

    Also having a quick look on a a prolife site O’connor is apparently pro-abortion. They have a little thing about his voteing record and there’s a lot of crap in there he didn’t seem to vote against abortion. So I don’t think its inconceivable that its just his position that might just be why he went ahead and spoke against it.

    link: http://www.campaignlifecoalition.com/index.php?p=Federal_Voting_Records&id=219

    I think probably for my 2cents I take it at face value that Woodsworth didn’t like abortions and people just didn’t like it. Sides Harper has the whole conservative political spectrum and the crime bills and the work on opening up oil to attract conservatives who can probably over look this abortion issue given all that.

  15. Other Point-of-View says

    I’m curious, if this bill hadn’t been shouted down, what would’ve been the next step?

  16. says

    A Parliamentary committee would have been formed. I’m sure it would have been packed with anti-choice MPs who would ignore the science and any points brought up on the other side. If it was a majority anti-choice group, then they would have made a recommendation to Parliament to amend the definition of when personhood begins. That recommendation would be ignored, but it would have kicked up enough dust to re-ignite the anti-choice lobby and make abortion an election issue.

  17. Other Point-of-View says

    Hm, I see. Well, as you said, for now it seems the liberals get their wish.

  18. Mary P says

    My understanding is that this motion is still on the books and is coming back in June or September. Somehow I do not see Woodworth withdrawing the motion although all the speakers were against him. I am still concerned that this will go to a vote. Or have I missed something during my brief time away from the internet.

  19. Cynthia says

    Oh please, let this not be a great effort to restrict abortion in Canada. You see, moving to Canada is my plan if we can’t stomp out this ridiculous war on women down here in the States. I just can’t stay here if the govt decides to set up shop in my womb!

    So, I’m really, really, really hoping Canada stays fairly sane – I need you guys to remind me of what a non-women hating country looks like!

    And when I ask you where the warmest parts of Canada are, the least amount of snow, I’m not kidding! Well, mostly not kidding. But I really am tired of a political system that negates my worth because I was born with ovaries.

  20. says

    I strongly doubt that there will be any serious effort to restrict abortion rights here. Most of the country is pro-choice, the law is explicitly pro-choice and anyone trying to change it will get absolutely SLAMMED by the electorate.

  21. calicocat says

    Hope this doesn’t happen, but if another abortion debate comes up it will probably have to do with trying to curtail sex selective abortions, specifically targeting certain immigrant communities. It’s been in the news here in Ontario lately.

    A lot of people may be pro-choice but also think there should be some cut off period or restriction on abortion (for example no abortions after 3 months, or when the heart starts beating, or some other arbitrary milestone) so it could gain some traction and get further than this one.

  22. Synfandel says

    Yes, you’re correct. The motion was debated and will be debated one more time before the vote, which will happen either shortly before or shortly after the summer recess. At this point it appears that it has no legs.

  23. Synfandel says

    I hope you will come, Cynthia. Canada welcomes Americans longing to be free, from United Empire Loyalists to escaped slaves on the underground railroad to Vietnam War draft avoiders to gay and lesbian couples who want to get married to women fleeing the Republican war of misogyny.

    The warmest part of Canada is the lower mainland of British Columbia (i.e. the greater Vancouver area and the Fraser Valley) and Vancouver Island. They’re semitropical because of the warm ocean currents from the south. Vancouver Island gets lots of sunshine; the lower mainland gets lots of rain.

    The next warmest part is southern Ontario, which gets a proper winter with snow and all that, but also has a fairly long, hot summer.

  24. jamessweet says

    I’m leaning primarily towards “the obvious one” as well, for reasons basically identical to Enkidum. Perhaps the reason they sent O’Connor in to do the honors is because, post hoc, they were thinking something along the lines of “the grooming one”, i.e. the reasoning was like this: “Well, this dickhead from Kitchener is not obeying orders, and we’re inevitably going to take a hit with the fundies as a result… but maybe we can make lemonade by positioning O’Connor as a pragmatic centrist, grooming him for a cabinet shuffle.” Eh?

  25. Brian Delaney says

    I think a combination of the described reasons. Some behind the scenes lobbying by the anti-choice and by the time Harper realizes the full extent of the backing for the bill he can’t outright squash it, so he has to let it go through and then takes a firm stand to avoid further scandal. I’d say there has been much screaming and nashing of teeth behind closed doors and things will be very quiet until it is perceived that this has blown over.

  26. says

    The medical community already has guidelines about when abortions are contraindicated. While it is legal to have an abortion up until right before delivery, any doctor performing such a procedure without bulletproof justification would be in some serious trouble. Legislating a ‘cut-off period’ would be a heavy-handed fix for a non-existent problem.

  27. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    The warmest part of Canada is the lower mainland of British Columbia (i.e. the greater Vancouver area and the Fraser Valley) and Vancouver Island. They’re semitropical because of the warm ocean currents from the south. Vancouver Island gets lots of sunshine; the lower mainland gets lots of rain.

    No no no. Not true. Nuh-uh. It’s terrible on VI. Horrible. You wouldn’t like it, not one little bit. Don’t even think of coming here – I mean, going there. ‘Specially if you’re Albertan; it’s all tree-ish and you’d just have to chop things down. It’s so bad some people even vote NDP! (For Americans, they’re the party that is faintly socialist and sadly, too often just plain faintly)

  28. says

    My guess (not having read any comments so far) is that this was #5 The distraction one: Let Woodworth have his day now and thus get the media and the chattering classes to natter on about some social issue non-starter so they aren’t discussing a)cuts to the civil service b)the F-35 fiasco c)Bev Oda’s (or anyone else’s) spending d)the lock-up-refugees-and-let-em-rot bill e)all of the above and perhaps the upcoming healthcare transfers showdown to boot (when the motion comes up again for debate later in the year).


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