Jackson Doughart: Are MPs entitled to conscience rights?

Most of the conservative reaction to Justin Trudeau’s new pro-choice party line has focussed on the effect it will have upon conscientious Liberal MPs who oppose abortion. Andrew Coyne writes:

Why was abortion, in common with similarly fraught issues such as the death penalty . . . once the preserve of individual MPs to decide, in a free vote? Because we did not wish to do violence to others’ consciences. By their nature these issues engaged people’s deepest moral convictions, often rooted in religious faith. There was then still respect for the idea that every individual, even in public life, was permitted a kind of moral space, a small inviolable sanctum of belief over which they were sovereign.

I’m uncertain that we should lend much credence to this view of conscience rights for MPs. The reality is that parliamentarians are elected to vote on, and be held accountable for, controversial and “fraught” issues. And the primary way in which they can be held accountable to the democratic polis is through party discipline. If the public doesn’t approve of what a party has done in office or the opposition, it can toss that party out in the next election.

Presumably, matters of one’s “deepest moral convictions” should have something to do with why one would join, and seek to represent in public, a political party in the first place. Saying that an MP has a conscience exemption for abortion laws is like saying that a Texan prison commissioner can conscientiously-object to the electric chair. It’s the nature of the job. And if Liberal MPs or prospective candidates really feel morally-conflicted in a party that holds to a pro-choice line on abortion, perhaps they should leave that party and join the one that does not have such a policy.

As I wrote in my National Post piece on the subject, the Liberals and Conservatives have been playing chicken on the abortion issue for years, using the ploy of “free votes” —which are “free” only in the sense that they free the parties from any accountability to the public—to insulate themselves from any responsibility to carefully consider and act upon the issue. It’s too bad that some Liberal MPs will be put in a tough spot regarding a moral matter, but if it helps to advance discussion and action on the subject then it is well worth it.

The Hustings