Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Opinion: Relevance of resurrecting abortion debate in Canada questioned

Canadian public opinion on the subject has not changed significantly for years, new poll shows.
Canada-law-biffspandex-Eplus-Getty Images
People who support a total ban on abortion in Canada represent only 10 per cent of adults in this country, a new poll shows.

For the past few days, federal and provincial politicians in Canada have been paying a lot of attention to the United States. A draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court that was inexplicably leaked to the press suggests that the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the country in 1973 may be overturned.

Canadians are no longer being subjected to American news as much as they were during the Donald Trump presidency, when the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices were the opening story in domestic newscasts. Still, social media has been riddled with varying opinions on what a leaked draft opinion in another country might mean, and elected representatives have been quick to defend Canada’s status quo on abortion.

Research Co. and Glacier Media were in field last month before the leak. We revisited two simple questions that we asked in 2019 and 2020, seeking the views of Canadians on pregnancy termination and their appetite towards a broader debate on an issue that has not been prominently featured in domestic politics.

Right now, 44 per cent of Canadians believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances, down four points since 2020. More than a third (37 per cent, up one point) say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, while 10 per cent (down two points) think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

The numbers have not shifted dramatically since the first time I asked this question in 2013. The group that endorses the possibility of pregnancy termination without an explanation has always been larger than the one that calls for a review of the circumstances behind the decision.

Support for legal abortion under any circumstance drops with age, from a high of 48 per cent among Canadians aged 18 to 34, to 42 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and to 43 per cent among those aged 55 and over.

There is also a gender gap.

Practically half of women (49 per cent) think pregnancy termination should always be legal, but only 39 per cent of men concur with this point of view.

This year marks the first time that we register one in 10 Canadians suggesting that no person should be allowed to go through an abortion under any situation – a proportion that rises to 14 per cent in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. A vocal group, perhaps, but not one that would be eagerly courted by elected politicians.

The overtures of some centre-right parties to organize events and rallies seeking to outlaw abortion appears to be misguided. A majority of Conservative Party of Canada voters in the 2021 federal election (54 per cent) would like to allow the practice under certain circumstances – not ban it. This is a significant departure from the 57 per cent of New Democratic Party (NDP) voters and 48 per cent of Liberal Party of Canada voters who think no restrictions should be placed.

The proportion of voters who would be willing to make pregnancy termination illegal is minimal across the board (six per cent among New Democrats, nine per cent among Conservatives and 10 per cent among Liberals). Simply put, there is not a lot to gain from an unmitigated anti-abortion stance.

In four different surveys conducted in 2013, 2019, 2020 and 2022, we have seen consistent majorities of Canadians preferring not to discuss this matter. This year, 53 per cent of Canadians say there is no point in reopening the debate about abortion right now.

Just over one in four Canadians (26 per cent) think a debate on abortion is long overdue in Canada and the discussion should be reopened. This represents a one-point increase since 2020, but well below the level observed in 2019 (37 per cent).

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court leak, Canadians did not seem eager to revise the country’s state of affairs on pregnancy termination. Conservative voters are not particularly adamant either, with 30 per cent calling for a new debate on abortion – higher than the sentiments of those who cast ballots for the New Democrats (26 per cent) and the Liberals (24 per cent).

There have been suggestions that the Conservative Party is seeking to place restrictions on abortion. The outcry has not been accompanied by facts. While one of the candidates for the leadership – Leslyn Lewis – has discussed the issue primarily from the standpoint of sex selection, her key rivals have not. Jean Charest and Patrick Brown went on the record to say they do not plan to challenge existing regulations. In February, the Campaign Life Coalition announced it would not endorse Pierre Poilievre because of his stance on abortion.

As was the case during the Trump years, Canadian politicians glance at the United States for posturing. Most Canadians do not think this debate is warranted now, and they have felt that way consistently for almost a decade. Speeches in legislatures, press releases and tweets warning of impending problems here, or expressing concern with what could happen in a foreign country, help little.

The problems of Canadians now – housing, inflation, health care and COVID-19 – are significant. Our elected representatives should stop pretending that Roe vs. Wade applies north of the 49th parallel.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from April 25 to April 27, 2022, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.