The pro-choice movement scored a significant victory last week in the Parliamentary debate over anti-choice Motion 312. It could prove to be a watershed moment, one that could end the abortion debate in Canada forever -- or at least until Christian fundamentalists stage an improbable coup and enslave Canadian women into a version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
But now is not the time to stop fighting -- it's time to secure our victory and seal the deal -- the deal being a solid assurance that abortion will never again be re-criminalized in Canada. The next six weeks leading up to the final vote on Motion 312 is our opportunity to continue embarrassing the government and possibly drag them even further down in the polls.
For those new to the issue, Motion 312 was introduced in February by anti-choice Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Centre). The motion calls for a special Parliamentary Committee to examine the scientific and medical evidence as to whether fetuses should be included in the Criminal Code definition of "human being." If it were to pass, the motion threatens to give legal personhood to fetuses, which would be a quick and easy way to re-criminalize abortion. The motion had one hour of debate in Parliament on April 26, with a second debate scheduled for June 8 and a vote on June 13.
Woodworth got thoroughly trounced in the first round of Parliamentary debate. But I repeat -- our fight is not finished. Yes, Harper and the Conservative government are now desperate to distance themselves from this motion, but further publicity around the next debate and vote is inevitable -- and it will be all bad for the Conservatives. After the debacle in Alberta, where federal Conservatives supported the Wildrose Party only to end up with serious egg on their face, the "Harper government" finds its popularity dropping to the point where if an election were held today, the NDP could conceivably win. Although we'll have to wait till 2015 for a chance to see such a magical thing occur, the Conservative government is vulnerable right now. Anything we can do to lessen public confidence in the government could help spell the end of Conservative popularity.
What happened in Parliament this time was quite different from previous abortion debates and bills in the House of Commons. The first hour of debate on Motion 312 turned into an extraordinary slapdown of Woodworth's motion by five different MPs, all of whom spoke eloquently and forcefully. Not a single MP spoke in favour other than Woodworth himself, who simply repeated the same old tired arguments that had already been refuted in various forums (here's one example).
Several bloggers and commentators have remarked on the significance of Conservative MP Gordon O'Connor's speech that demolished his own colleague's motion (go read his remarkable oration here). O'Connor is a rare pro-choice Conservative, but that's not the only factor at play. It's no coincidence that a senior government MP, the Chief Government Whip no less, got Harper's blessing to tear the motion to shreds. Harper knows that the abortion debate hurts his party and his chances for re-election, which is why he doesn't want to re-open it. Indeed, Harper's statements over the years have gotten even stronger in that regard, evolving from a fairly weak promise in the 2004 election campaign that he would not allow government-backed abortion legislation in his first term, to his withdrawal of support for Bill C-484 ("Unborn Victims of Crime Act") in 2008 after having previously voted for it himself, to his promise in 2010 that he and his government cabinet would vote against Bill C-510 ("coerced abortion").
This time, Harper issued a strongly worded pro-choice statement through his Government Whip that leaves no wiggle room whatsoever. O'Connor's speech was devastating to the hopes of the anti-choice movement, which had a very bad day on April 26 whether they realize it yet or not. The unqualified repudiation of Woodworth's motion by his own government means women in Canada can breathe a collective sigh of relief. There is now little chance of an anti-abortion or fetal personhood law ever being passed in Canada, or even debated in Parliament again -- after June 13, that is. We predict a resounding defeat for Woodworth's motion, because only the most hardcore anti-choice Conservatives will likely vote in favour of it now.
What brought about this remarkable outcome? The answer sheds light on why it's critical to keep on fighting the motion all the way to the vote, even if we're confident it will fail.
After the Conservatives won a majority government a year ago, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) resolved to aggressively fight any legal threat to abortion rights in Canada, even if seemed to have little chance of passing. We didn't want to end up on the same road as the U.S., where the pro-choice movement let some things slide, or negotiated away the rights of poor and minority women in order to save the majority. The anti-choice movement gained momentum and strength as a result, and began to infiltrate the Republican Party at every level. Today, this party of extremists is waging an all-out War on Women in many states, passing hundreds of discriminatory abortion restrictions, slashing funding for basic health care for women, and even cutting off access to birth control, a right that American women won almost 50 years ago. The lesson we can take from the U.S. is to never compromise or take anything for granted. If even one abortion restriction is ever passed in Canada, no matter how seemingly minor, the anti-choice movement will use it as a toehold to pass more restrictions, and it will be much easier to do the second time around. We can never give them an inch.
ARCC began its campaign against Woodworth's motion before he even formally introduced it, by publishing a rebuttal to his arguments. Once the motion was on the table, we switched to high gear, alerting the public, pro-choice MPs, and all our networks, preparing comprehensive counter arguments, asking supporters to write their MPs and send postcards to oppose the motion, starting an online petition, collecting paper petitions for official presentation in Parliament, publishing more articles exposing the dangers of the motion, engaging in a written debate with Woodworth (which ARCC won), and more.
ARCC's systematic campaign inspired or supported other groups and women who launched their own campaigns, some of them wonderfully satirical. Incredulous at such a blatant attack on women's rights in the year 2012, pro-choice people across Canada began knitting colourful wombs to send to their anti-choice MPs, hoping that if they had one of their own, they would stop meddling with the uteri of others. Dozens of women posted questions about their intimate female issues on Woodworth's Twitter and Facebook pages, looking for advice from the "expert." An army of progressive bloggers posted frequently on the issue, mobilizing the troops and increasing awareness around the motion. Then came the Radical Handmaids. Brilliantly playing off of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale in which fertile women are rare commodities turned into reproductive slaves for wealthy or powerful men, this new pro-choice group brought together about 200 supporters at a colourful rally on Parliament Hill the day before the debate. Many women dressed in full Handmaid costumes and carried sardonic signs such as "The Handmaid's Tale: Not an Instruction Manual." The message to Harper and Parliament was clear. Not only will Canadian women never allow the clock to be turned back to the 1960's, they will heap scorn on any government that tries, even if it means parading around in cardboard hats to symbolize the Coming Oppression.
There's little doubt that the successful pro-choice campaign against the motion caught the anti-choice movement and Woodworth unaware and unprepared. Overall, anti-choice response has been quite muted, with very little defence of the motion since its initial introduction. As measured by online petitions, anti-choice support for the bill lags far behind pro-choice opposition. And with the looming spectre of another divisive debate in June or possibly early fall -- a debate that is bound to make the government look bad once again, Harper surely regrets allowing Woodworth to have free rein with his private member's motion.
The campaign against Motion 312 is not so much about defeating the bill (although that still needs to happen so we shouldn't be complacent). It's about showing the strength and determination of the pro-choice and women's movement in Canada in order to discourage and set back Canada's anti-choice movement. Defeating the motion decisively will be a feel-good victory that women need badly right now, given the significant harms the Conservative government have committed against women in many other areas, and the daunting work that needs to be done to restore lost programs and funding, and resume our march to equality. Mobilizing against the motion contributes to keeping the women's movement active and motivated.
Let's not lose momentum! We need to keep signing petitions, sending letters and postcards to MPs, making speeches, blogging articles, knitting wombs, dressing up as Handmaids, and holding rallies and events. Please join in and spread the word!
This article was corrected on May 7 to acknowledge the contribution of bloggers to the campaign against the motion.
Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.