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Henry Morgentaler, seen in Toronto in 1988, raises his arms in victory after the Supreme Court ruled the Criminal Code’s abortion provision to be unconstitutional. On Wednesday, the Trudeau government tabled legislation to remove provision altogether.

Blaise Edwards/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government has tabled legislation to remove the anti-abortion provision in the Criminal Code, confirming the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in the Henry Morgentaler case while bringing back the highly contentious issue in Parliament.

Liberal ministers deliberately introduced the proposed legislative change on International Women's Day, cementing their party's status as an unequivocally pro-choice movement. The Conservatives have yet to decide how to vote on Bill C-39, but one anti-abortion leadership candidate, Brad Trost, quickly signalled he opposes the symbolic proposal.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced legislation on Wednesday to clean up the Criminal Code by removing a number of sections that have previously been invalidated by Canada's courts. In particular, the legislation would remove Section 287 of the Criminal Code, which makes it illegal for anyone to "procure the miscarriage of a female person."

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Related: Canada spending $650-million on reproductive rights, including fighting global anti-abortion laws

Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the government wanted to use the March 8 celebrations to reflect the historic decision that decriminalized abortion.

"Our government, without equivocation, recognizes and acknowledges the constitutional rights of women and we are taking the courageous step to ensure that we remove this section from the Criminal Code," she told reporters.

A number of private members' bills have dealt directly or indirectly with the issue of abortion over the years, but this is a rare occasion in which the federal government has deliberately brought the matter to the floor of the House.

The Conservative Party has yet to decide on a formal position on Bill C-39, except to say the amendments to the Criminal Code should not be a government priority.

"While removing outdated provisions from the Criminal Code is an important task, the Liberal government's first priority should be filling the 62 vacancies on the Superior Court," Conservative MP Rob Nicholson said in a statement. "These vacancies have contributed to a growing number of serious criminal cases being thrown out of court and are putting our justice system at risk."

Still, the Conservative Party is in the midst of a leadership campaign in which the issue of abortion rights has been a key differentiator between candidates. As such, Bill C-39 will potentially fuel further debate.

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"I intend to vote against the legislation because I'm symbolically opposed to the change," said Mr. Trost, a social conservative who is running for his party's leadership. "I understand it won't make a difference but I want to signal my clear disapproval to the fact Canada has no legislation regarding abortion."

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said she remembers studying the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion in her days in law school in Montreal.

"I'm very proud to be part of a government that has the courage years later to go ahead and acknowledge the importance of that decision and recognize the importance of women's rights, especially on this important day," she told reporters.

A Liberal MP who is anti-abortion, John McKay, added he does not object to his government's plans to bring the Criminal Code in line with the current legal situation.

"Canada has no abortion law, period," he said in an interview. "That section is a nullity, and all they are doing is removing a nullity."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a conscious move to transform the Liberal Party into a pro-choice movement, going as far as calling on all of his MPs to vote for abortion rights in all instances.

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In a parallel announcement on Wednesday, the federal government said it will spend $650-million over three years for international sexual and reproductive health projects.

"The right of women to choose when, how, with whom, to start a family is one that we all must fight for and defend," Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference earlier in the day. "We can only build a better world, a stronger world with more opportunity for everyone, stronger communities, stronger societies if women are empowered, if young girls are allowed to stay longer in school, if women are respected in their rights to choose their path, their future."

Video: Liberals not opening abortion debate, Justice Minister says (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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