Kady O’Malley: Tory convention could see return of social conservative movement after decade on the sidelines

After being shoved to the sidelines of the big-C Conservative movement for nearly a decade, ’s might soon find themselves perfectly placed to renew their push for mainstream political influence.

In just three months, card-carrying party members are set to converge on Vancouver for a biennial convention that will not only serve as the official start of the leadership race, but also give delegates the opportunity to debate — and even rewrite — the policy declaration that lays out the party’s founding principles.

Before the party confab gets underway, though, at least two issues of key concern to the social conservative cause are likely to hit the floor of the House of Commons: a new law on physician-assisted dying, which is expected to be tabled by the government well before the June 6 deadline set by last year’s landmark Supreme Court decision, and a proposal from the Conservative backbench that would ensure limited legal protection for the “pre-born.”

Both bills will undoubtedly trigger impassioned lobbying campaigns from all sides of the debate, but Conservative MPs can expect to be singled out for particularly vigorous pressure from those opposed to both abortion and assisted-suicide, given the perception that their party is likely to be more sympathetic to those points of view.

Adrian Wyld/CPAdrian Wyld/CPVeteran Conservative MP Mark Warawa has spoken at previous anti-abortion rallies.

Depending on the timeline, those persuasion efforts could reach their peak just two weeks before the convention, when the annual March for Life rally is scheduled to take place on Parliament Hill.

Even before the government has come forward with its response to the Supreme Court decision on physician-assisted suicide, the Conservatives seem to be staking out a distinctly social conservative stance on the issue, starting with a scathing dissent from the report of the special joint committee charged with coming up with recommendations on how to proceed.

The minority opinion, which was released under the names of the four Conservative MPs on the committee, warned that the main report “falls far short of what is necessary to protect vulnerable Canadians and the Charter protected conscience rights of health professionals,” and suggested that the proposed approach could itself be found unconstitutional as a result.

The party was also highly critical of the initial suggestion from Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc that the eventual vote on the matter would be whipped, although it’s fair to point that they were hardly the only ones to raise a red flag, which likely explains why both LeBlanc and the government appear to have reconsidered that position.

And while Conservative MP Brad Trost wasn’t a member of the committee, he put out a release of his own that condemned the “euthanasia recommendations” as “the most extreme in the world.”

It would, however, be misleading to suggest that the Conservative caucus is united in opposition to any loosening of the assisted-dying laws — former Conservative MP Steven Fletcher has been at the forefront of the right-to-die campaign. It’s also worth noting that the three Conservative senators on the committee — two of whom were appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper — endorsed the main report.

Meanwhile, newly elected Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall has introduced a private member’s bill that would “create a new offence for violent criminals who knowingly injure or cause the death of a pre-born child while committing a criminal offence against a pregnant woman.”

Dubbed Cassie and Molly’s Law, the proposal was inspired by the death of Cassandra Kaake, who was seven months’ pregnant with an unborn child she planned to name Molly when she was slain in her Windsor home last year.

According to Jeff Durham, the father of Kaake’s unborn child and the driving force behind the Molly Matters campaign, Wagantall’s bill “could never be used to subtract from the rights of a woman,” as it is “designed to be an aggravating factor,” which means that it would be a crime only if “the woman herself is first the victim of a violent attack.”

That might well have been his intention, but the language used in the preamble might feed into pro-choice fears that it is an indirect attempt to limit abortion rights.

It includes a specific reference to the fact that “a pre-born child” is “not considered a human being under the Criminal Code,” which was at the heart of Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s failed bid to “start the conversation” on whether that should be changed. (His bid to set up a special committee to look into the matter was resoundingly defeated in 2012, although a majority of Conservative MPs did vote to support it.)

It has also attracted the vocal support of explicitly anti-abortion groups like WeNeedALaw.ca, although even that endorsement stresses that the bill “would not change the status quo regarding abortion,” and a Hill Times report cites unnamed Conservatives expressing concern over potential divisions within caucus.

It’s easy to see how the eventual debate on the bill — which might take place before the convention, depending on how the slots for priority private members’ business are assigned — could put the party’s anti-abortion faction both in the spotlight on the defensive right around the same time as this year’s March for Life.

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While it is by far the largest annual rally on the Hill, and can reliably bring out thousands of opponents of abortion — including many students from local Catholic schools — the number of MPs willing to speak at the event has been slowly, but steadily, falling from year to year.

Organizers might, however, get a boost from the debate over physician-assisted dying, which is not only widely opposed within the movement, but also, it seems, within the Conservative caucus.

The two veteran Conservative MPs who signed onto the dissenting report — Harold Albrecht and Mark Warawa — have both spoken at previous marches, while rookie Michael Cooper is described as “actively involved in the pro-life movement” on the Campaign Life Coalition website.

However, even the most optimistic social conservative is unlikely to hold out much hope on any softening of the party policy that states that a Conservative government “will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.”

But from what we’ve seen so far, the move by Campaign Life Coalition and like-minded groups to focus on physician-assisted dying seems to be right in sync with the rank-and-file Conservative view, and that could put social conservatives on the fast track back from the political wilderness.

About Kady O'Malley, Postmedia News