“I Can’t Believe I Still Have to Protest This:” Abortion Rights in Canada


On April 26th Canada’s Parliament debated M-312, a motion that calls for the formation of a special committee of Parliament to review whether the definition of a “human being” as described in the Canadian criminal code can be extended to unborn fetuses.

Stephan Woodworth, a Member of Parliament with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, proposed the motion, after an extensive media campaign that began in December 2011. The campaign propagated his view that the definition of a “human being” in Section 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada is 400 years old (Canada became a country in 1867) and should be revisited in order “to reflect twenty-first century medical evidence.”

Basically, Woodworth’s motion seeks to give legal personhood to fetuses. If passed, it would allow the prosecution of women for murder if they have an abortion.  It would even allow the prosecution of women for accidentally harming their fetus. Above all, it would allow the prioritization of fetuses “rights” over the enshrined constitutional rights of a pregnant woman!

Although Woodworth stated that his motion was merely to allow for “intellectual inquiry,” it is undoubtedly aimed at reopening the abortion debate in Canada. This became blatantly apparent when Woodworth stated on radio that the motion “certainly allows us to have an honest discussion about the abortion question.”

Woodworth seemingly fails to remember that the abortion question was answered more than 25 years ago. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canada’s abortion law was unconstitutional. When ruling on the Regina v. Morgentaler case, a Justice said: “The objective of protecting the fetus would not justify the severity of the breach of pregnant women’s right to security of the person.” Another added, the state cannot let others decide “whether her [a woman’s] body is to be used to nurture a new life.” In short, as Niki Ashton, a Member of Parliament and Critic on the Status of Women with the New Democratic Party, Canada’s main opposition party, said best, the Justices found that the abortion law, “violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because it infringed on a woman’s right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephan Harper, has repeatedly promised that he will not reopen the abortion debate.  In December 2011, in an article published in Canada’s largest national daily newspaper, The Globe and Mail, the prime minister declared: “As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate… The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister.”

Despite the Supreme Court ruling and the prime minister’s words, it happened, the abortion debate was reopened.  For one hour Parliament debated Woodworth’s motion.  Passionate pleas against the motion came from Canada’s opposition parties and most notably from Conservative Party MP and Government Whip Gordon O’Connor.

Gordon astutely pointed out the fallacy of this motion stating: “The purpose of Motion No. 312, which we are considering today, is to open to question the validity of subsection 223(1), which asserts that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth. If the legal definition of when one becomes a human being were to be adjusted so that a fetus is declared to be a legal person at some earlier stage of gestation, then the homicide laws would apply. As a necessary consequence, aborting fetal development anywhere in the potentially new adjusted period would be considered homicide. Thus the ultimate intention of this motion is to restrict abortions in Canada at some fetal development stage.”

He went on to appeal to individual freedoms in a democratic society. “I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code. There is no law that says that a woman must have an abortion. No one is forcing those who oppose abortion to have one.”

Abortion, as O’Connor expressed, would always be part of society, that it was part of the human condition, and that is why “I want all women to continue to live in a society in which decisions on abortion can be made, one way or the other, with advice from family and a medical doctor and without the threat of legal consequences. I do not want women to go back to the previous era where some were forced to obtain abortions from illegal and medically dangerous sources. This should never happen in a civilized society.”

Near the end of his speech O’Connor rightly claimed: “society has moved on.” As one protester against the motion wrote on her placard outside the Government building, “I can’t believe it but I still have to protest this.”  Unfortunately, she does. We do.  

M-312 will receive a second hour of debate in late June or the fall before being voted on.

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