Paul MacNeill

What started as a politically naïve decision to attend an anti-abortion rally, morphed into mudslinging on both sides of the debate with neither side looking particularly good in the process.

Interim Liberal Leader Robert Mitchell should have known better than to accept the invitation to attend the rally. Optics are different when you lead a political party, even for the Third Party Liberals. When media saw Mitchell he refused to discuss why he was in attendance.

Mistake one.

The next day the interim leader attempted to diffuse a growing storm by stating his support of the pro-choice movement and pride in the former Liberal government’s record of bringing to an end the 30 year fight for Island access to abortion services.

By then it was too late.

An online petition launched with the sole purpose of having Mitchell’s political head delivered on a platter. Apparently attending a legal protest is grounds to demand a resignation.

As a direct result, a pro-choice supporter claims to have received verbal and written threats to both she and her family simply for sharing the petition on social media. Charlottetown Police are investigating.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: When a male columnist broaches the subject of abortion he is on shaky ground because ultimately it is an issue about a woman’s right to control her own body. Nothing looks quite as unseemly as aging men telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies.

But the last week is not about the legality of abortion. That question is long resolved, although it took Prince Edward Island far too long to fully acknowledge. We were the last province to provide reasonable access to in-province abortion services, which may explain the sensitivity some supporters feel toward even an inkling that the current status quo could be challenged.

That does not excuse the over-reaction on both sides last week.

Threatening Becka Viau is a serious allegation. Regardless of what side you fall on, it’s unacceptable. But organizers of the petition also over-reached. The issue was never whether Robert Mitchell should resign. He attended a legal protest, not dissimilar to many protests the pro-choice movement has organized over the years.

The perceived sin was attending. Organizers jumped over the most important, and obvious question: Has provincial Liberal policy changed?

Simple answer: No.

But if federal abortion law ever changes, with the resulting trickle-down impact on PEI, the most likely instigator will be the federal Conservative Party, with its strident right wing element. No Island party has shown any inclination to eliminate local access to services.

This is a nuance lost with the petition, a response that smacks of the same not so subtle bullying anti-abortion supporters are often accused of. If there is a valid belief federal abortion law could change (not likely, but given diminishing abortion access in America, a little paranoia is understandable) pro-choice supporters must maximize political allies. This action does little to help.

Just over two years ago, the Liberal government allowed abortions on PEI for the first time in 35 years. Robert Mitchell was part of that government. You would think the Third Party leader would be offered the benefit of the doubt, at least until clarifying why he attended and whether he promotes changing Liberal pro-choice policy. Common sense was set aside in the rush to call for his resignation.

Did Robert Mitchell make a mistake? Politically, yes. The brouhaha shows just how much of a political hot potato abortion still is. Should he resign? No.

Is making threats of violence ever acceptable? Absolutely not.

Is rushing to intimidate without asking the most basic of questions the right way to win friends and influence people, to quote Dale Carnegie? Nope.

If we refuse to talk to those we disagree with, we lose an opportunity to learn. Now the bar is even lower ... we can’t be seen on the same street.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

Publisher

Winner of more than 50 regional, national, international awards for commentary and investigative journalism. Founder of The Georgetown Conference on building sustainable rural communities. Featured in A Good Day’s Work. Talking head for CBC Radio and TV.

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