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With abortion bill delays, Wynne’s Liberals have outdone themselves on the cynicism front

In the weeks and months ahead, women seeking abortions in Ontario may continue to be harassed by protesters seeking to humiliate them.

They may be yelled at, personally insulted, accused of being murderers. They may find their paths toward clinics obstructed as gruesome images are waved in their faces. They may be spat at.

Along with medical staff performing the procedures, they may have cause to feel intimidated – not just in the moment but afterward, if they are photographed by anti-abortion activists on their way into clinics.

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But, hey, that's just the necessary price to pay to stir up a bit of trouble on the benches of a provincial opposition party.

It takes some work for a government that has been in power for a decade and a half, with more than its fair share of scandals and about-faces and nasty traps painstakingly laid for its opponents, to surprise with its cynicism. But this week, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals outdid themselves – turning down the opportunity to quickly help people they consider to be vulnerable and instead first use them as pawns in their re-election strategy.

It was nice to believe, briefly, that the Liberals' unveiling this week of legislation to create protest-free zones of 50 to 150 metres around abortion facilities (along with similar bubbles around homes of staff who work in them) was motivated by human concern only. Sure, related safety and privacy issues are not exactly new, and a provincial election does happen to be just months away. But recent reports say the scale and intensity of protests has surged, especially outside a clinic in downtown Ottawa, and Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi appeared genuinely moved by them as he made the announcement on Wednesday.

It was also tempting to roll eyes at Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown's response: that he was pro-choice and would support the legislation, but also that the legislation was part of Ms. Wynne's "agenda" to sow division. His implication was that the Liberals were more interested in drawing out social conservatives within his party than in protecting women's rights, which in the absence of evidence seemed self-absorbed.

And then the Tories put the Liberals' motives to the test by proposing an immediate vote on the legislation with the potential for unanimous passage. And the Liberals failed that test miserably by turning down the Official Opposition's offer.

To believe the Liberals' explanation for why they want to drag this out – that they want to make sure there is ample time for "health-care professionals, women's groups and other advocates" to review the bill – requires a level of credulity that nobody paying attention could possibly possess.

For one thing, there has already been much consultation since the government began working toward the legislation last spring, and people who were consulted now seem eager for the resulting bill to become law. For another, the Liberals gave the game away when, minutes after rejecting quick passage, they sent out a news release highlighting Mr. Brown's inconsistency on abortion rights.

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Maybe it is smart, politically. Mr. Brown has been very inconsistent – anti-abortion as a federal MP, pro-choice now that he is a provincial leader. The longer this issue is in play, the more friendly fire he will come under from socially conservative Tories who supported his leadership bid and feel betrayed. Maybe anti-abortion members of the PC caucus will start popping off, helping the Liberals paint the entire party as regressive.

Or maybe the Liberals are making the case for why they have spent too long in power, and doing it better than their opponents ever could.

The bill they are declining to pass need not be universally recognized as necessary and urgent to see why that is. Reasonable people can argue it will infringe on freedom of expression, that there has been too much focus on a few bad apples among protesters, that police can already crack down on the worst of them where needed.

But the thing is, the Liberals, by their account, believe the rights of patients and medical staff are being violated and possibly their security regularly threatened, and that the legislation they are now stalling on is the solution.

They may care about those people. But street corners outside abortion clinics are not the Liberals' world.

Their world is inside the walls of Queen's Park, and after so long in power, they are failing to see past them – to see that people dealing with real-life problems do not care about the games they are playing there, and are betrayed by them.

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Ontario to create safe zones around abortion clinics (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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