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Abortion: The debate in 2011

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On Wednesday, December 21, Stephen Woodworth, the MP for Kitchener Waterloo, attempted to reopen the debate on abortion in Canada. In part one, I looked at why the reopening of the debate was inevitable:

"It was inevitable because one side framed its argument around the idea of a foetus being a mass of cells or tissue and bristled at any suggestion that it might be something more. It was inevitable because one side of the debate named itself with a word (choice) that -- via anti-gay rhetoric -- has been devalued and re-spun into something that is perceived as a whim or delusion (possibly to the eventual chagrin of those engineering the spin, considering that faith, too, is a choice). It was inevitable because the devaluation of choice has resulted in a loss of libertarian allies who have been otherwise hijacked by an Ayn Rand-ian ideal. It was inevitable because the choice side of the debate was afraid to debate, not wanting to reopen and risk losing the hard-won fights from decades ago. It was inevitable because a new generation of people who never experienced those debates are hearing mostly a one-sided argument, and confronted with visceral ultrasound and surgical photos to emotionally herd them into step. It was inevitable because one side of the argument knew that it could bide its time and come back with a vengeance."

It should be noted that the campaign to denigrate the concept of choice was not limited to the way it was used to devalue and invalidate LGBT people. This Olympian feat of spin to claim that God is anti-abortion and pro-choice all at once notwithstanding, anti-abortion activists are now trying to use the issue of sex-selective abortion to divide feminist communities and conflate sex selection as part of the choice equation:

"If there is one restriction on abortion the vast majority of Americans support, it is eliminating sex-selection abortion. Yet many of those who, in theory, should be most troubled by the targeting of unborn females are adamantly opposed to outlawing the practice.

... The law as it stands facilitates the coercion that forces women to abort their daughters. It's easier for a husband to pressure his wife into aborting her unborn daughter here in the U.S. than in India or China, where sex-selection abortions are illegal."

As with any highly-charged issue like this, I should preface this with an acknowledgement that my views in this series may not represent those of the parent website or other contributors. What follows is a characterization of the activism and not the people. When I talk about the personhood agenda, for example, not all anti-abortion people or organizations have that as an objective.  Likewise, not all pro-choice people or organizations have made a policy of avoidance, but it is what has tended to happen.

Recently in the U.S.

It's worthwhile to recap the "defund Planned Parenthood" wave of 2011, and its origins.

Around the time of the 2009 U.S. federal election, a sting operation was done to discredit an organization (ACORN) which helped poor and disenfranchised (and often Democrat, although the organization never told people who to support) voters to the polls. A videographer and accomplice posed as a pimp and sex worker, went into several ACORN offices to seek assistance, made statements that implied that human trafficking was involved, and then disseminated video of instances where it seemed that ACORN employees were assisting (or at least failing to report) human traffickers. The organization had been almost completely defunded by federal and state governments, and was forced to close its doors by the time evidence surfaced that the videographer had creatively edited his footage, had made claims that were actually false, and that the whole operation was a sting designed to create "gotcha" videos to kill the organization.

It worked so well that Live Action decided to do the same thing to Planned Parenthood. But PP employees weren't as keen about assisting human traffickers, and several offices reported to the parent office about unusual inquiries. By the time PP head office reported human trafficking activity to the FBI, they already suspected a sting operation....

Republican legislators there pressed ahead anyway, claiming that the videos that surfaced in later weeks were 100% unedited (later disproven) and conclusive proof of PP aiding human trafficking (also disproven). Even though the human trafficking aspect (which first came into use because of its effectiveness in developing an anti-prostitution "rescue" industry) fell by the wayside, defunding Planned Parenthood became the catch-phrase for attempts to cut all funding for womens' reproductive health, including cancer screening, contraception and more (Title X), and also became a deflecting rallying cry for a pile of legislation (both state and national) to limit access to abortion, without actually making it illegal. While Title X funding ended up being the one and only thing that Democrats didn't compromise in order to avoid Republican efforts to entirely shut down the federal government, anti-abortion opponents have won at driving their issues to the forefront, even ahead of the U.S. economy.

That sting on Planned Parenthood started in January of 2011. Since then, American legislators have been busy. Here is a very small sampling:

  1. Legislators have tabled laws to defund organizations that provide, counsel elective advice on obtaining or even mention abortion. Legislative and policy attempts have also been made to restrict women's health funding to "Crisis Pregnancy Centers" which provide one-sided information on abortion and even proselytize,
  2. Attempts have been made to make it impossible for abortion clinics to operate (sometimes with unreasonable requirements on the number of and dimensions of broom closets in their facilities),
  3. Bills have been proposed to make it illegal for private health insurance companies to provide coverage for abortion,
  4. Anti-abortion groups have been greenlighted for government grants or to use government agencies to fundraise, such as through state license plate sales, while cutting off organizations that merely counsel abortion as an option from receiving state funds,
  5. Anti-abortion groups have floated fake political candidates to exploit campaign laws, in order to run anti-abortion messages on TV,
  6. An online campaign has been started to encourage people to give up coffee or chocolate or some other favourite habit "until abortion ends." This seems rather harmless, but what it does is push adherents into a 24/7 state of readiness and activism for the cause,
  7. "Heartbeat" legislation is being pushed to establish life as beginning at the weakest signal of a heartbeat, often before a woman knows she is pregnant,
  8. Conscience clauses have been put forward to allow health providers to opt out of abortions and any other procedure they object to, even in cases of emergency,
  9. In the U.S. and throughout the world is that children have been targeted with rhetoric, with schools being picketed, sometimes with graphic signs. In New Zealand, plastic fetuses were handed out to 12-year-olds. In Manitoba, one principal decided to give students full credits for attending anti-abortion rallies and considered making it a regular school activity before being eventually leaving the school amid protest,
  10. Laws have been proposed or passed to require showing ultrasounds, restrict the age of people who can undergo abortions, require a full day or several between when an abortion is sought and when it can occur, prevent medical personnel from providing online consultations about the procedure, require a battery of questions to ascertain in an unclear way whether a woman has been "coached" to seek abortion, and even require doctors by law to recite prepared responses to women that contain false, misleading or intentionally biased information,
  11. Anti-abortion activists have attempted to conflate abortion and racism, calling it a genocide against African-Americans on billboards, and causing a spin-off federal bill to ban sex-selective and race-selective abortions which are a relatively non-existent problem in the U.S... but will certainly cause delays and barriers for women of colour,
  12. While the right to picket and even harass people outside abortion clinics is being defended as freedom of speech, the speech of pro-choice voices has been targeted (most recently, RHRealityCheck), with attempts to defund and silence them, which is in turn trumpeted to intimidate other potential supportive voices.

Some of these initiatives have passed, some have failed and contraception has since come under fire as well (we'll see why in a moment) -- and when these have failed, it has often been at the hands of judges, who realize the troubles with the legal language used (a situation that far-right Conservatives have proposed a solution for). With the extreme ramping-up of the issue, some women have already started avoiding visibility and trying self-abortion... with that too being banned. The "coathanger" self-abortion which at times jeopardized womens' lives and has slipped into memory as something that is almost legend may be about to experience a renaissance.

And then there is the "personhood" approach

The largest amount of support for banning abortion anywhere in North America can be found in the state of Mississippi, where legislators recently put a bill on that state's ballot asking voters to define "personhood" as beginning at fertilization -- a move that would have banned many forms of contraception, raised the possibility of requiring law enforcement to investigate miscarriages and could have even resulted in situations where the fetus' life takes precedence over the mother's (if the attending personnel want to avoid prosecution) in a medical emergency. Ultimately, voters turned it down, but that hasn't stopped other states from doing the same thing with stealthier wording. Some of the previous private member's bills that attempted to address foetal status and / or abortion in Canada were flavours of personhood-style legislation, and Woodworth's December 21 statement hinted that he considers pursuing something similar.

In an America that should be vigorously working on job creation and economic issues, government houses have been stalemated on everything but abortion, which has seen an estimated 600 pieces of abortion legislation brought to the floor in parts of the U.S.

As for Canada...

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not vocally anti-abortion, it's estimated that about 2/3 of his caucus has tended to be, including the man being touted as Harper's likely successor as Conservative leader. There has also been an anti-abortion caucus simmering in Parliament for well over a decade, composed of members from multiple parties (the last known NDP members exited in 2008, and it's not yet known if any newly-elected MPs have joined).

Jason Kenney (then of the Reform Party) co-founded the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus (PPLC) in 1998, with co-chairs Elsie Wayne (PC) and Tom Wappel (Lib). It was first spoken of to mainstream Canadian media by Rod Bruinooge in 2008, and other known co-chairs have included Maurice Vellacott (Cons), Paul Steckle (Lib) in 2005. The caucus had over 70 members in 2009, and based on either their own statements (usually at anti-abortion rallies) or those of anti-abortion groups (often The Interim, the Register or LifeSiteNews), the PPLC has at times included current and former MPs Ken Epp, Brad Trost, Stockwell Day, Derek Lee, Gerry Breitkreuz, Cheryl Gallant, Leon Benoit, Gary Goodyear, Jim Karygiannis, Jeff Watson, David Anderson, James Lunney, John McKay, David Sweet, Dan McTeague, Paul Szabo, Harold Albrecht. There is reason to believe (but no confirmation) that it likely also included Stephen Woodworth, Diane Ablonczy, Scott Reid, Rob Merrifield and Rob Anders. A long list of MPs have attended meetings at one time or another (possibly to observe) over the years, including Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. The PPLC also includes a number of Senators in its membership. In 2009, Religious Right Alert examined the voting histories of then-sitting MPs to attempt to identify more members or possible members.

It had long been speculated that abortion would be raised by backbenchers, as a private member's bill rather than as a government initiative. Stephen Woodworth's December 21 announcement was seen by many as a prelude to one such bill, which could reach second reading as early as February, although no wording has been put forward as of yet.

We have seen this before. Barely over a year ago, Parliament defeated "Roxanne's Law," introduced as an attempt to ban coercion to have an abortion -- which sounds admirable until you realize that coercion is already illegal on its own, and the bill language was bordering personhood in style. In 2006, Conservative MP Leon Benoit also introduced a "fetal homicide" bill with personhood language -- C-291 -- and former MP Ken Epp's "Unborn Victims of Crime Act," C-484, attempted to do the same in 2008. But with the numbers since the 20111 election, the chances of such a bill passing have risen.

Many of the U.S. tactics listed above are unlikely or even impossible to do in Canada, although not as many as we would like to believe. But we have already seen womens' health groups disproportionately high among those whose funding or organizational structure was negatively impacted by the Harper Conservatives and the prime minister originally refused to include birth control in his G8 plan to improve the health of women around the world.

Since the election, MPs Maurice Vellacott and Brad Trost have publicly attacked their own caucus for deciding to restore partial funding to International Planned Parenthood -- funding which was restricted for use in nations where abortion is illegal. The Province of Prince Edward Island has been pressed on at least two occasions to reaffirm itself as abortion-free (PEI does provide health-care funding for abortion, but doctors within the province do not perform the procedure, so travel is necessary). Perennial anti-abortion protester Linda Gibbons, who was previously convicted of violating restrictions on clinic protesters, has pled her case to the Supreme Court of Canada -- and then was re-arrested for violating a court injunction days later (a verdict is still being awaited).

LifeSiteNews, the Campaign Life Coalition-run bastion of journalism which recently targeted organ donation as a moral evil in Canada, recently claimed that an Environics-conducted telephone poll commissioned by LifeCanada allegedly showed that 72 per cent of Canadians want to ban abortion and that 28 per cent prefer a "personhood" type of approach (probably not knowing the problems with it that Mississippians came to realize). There appears to have been some coaching done in this poll that Environics (which uses "a unique social values methodology") even admits to in its report. The cross-border pollination of tactics continues.

Canadian anti-abortion groups have also started staging pseudo-debates with arbitrarily-selected (and possibly unwitting) speakers given the pro-abortion position because no one else wants to reopen the discussion. I stated when Harper won his majority that his political base would not give him any slack on this issue. I also strongly believe that what takes place in the next four years regarding abortion -- coupled with the recent polygamy ruling -- will serve as a template for many of the same groups' battle against marriage equality and LGBT human rights, but that's another article.

And the growth of an active anti-abortion youth lobby in Canada can no longer be ignored, nor can the ability of related organizations to predict and capitalize on political opportunities. A couple days before the Harper Conservatives' surprise announcement of major cuts to health-care funding that could cost provinces billions, Campaign Life Coalition launched a flyering campaign employing youth volunteers to target the ridings of Ontario pro-choice Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs), presciently making a fiscal argument to defund abortion... and adding their own spin to speculate (as though fact) about the motives of women who seek the procedure:

"Campaign Life Coalition estimates that the province spends around $30-50 million every year on abortion, a procedure that is used in the vast majority of cases as a form of back-up birth control.

...They note that this funding comes as the province faces growing demands on the health care system, pointing out that with those funds it could hire 200 or more new doctors, treat 500 more children with autism, or buy 20 new MRI machines."

Because if there is to be less money for health overall, the people with magic timing are going to make it absolutely clear what they feel should be cut first.

Debate? In fact, the worst thing that could happen to the anti-abortion lobby in Canada would be for a debate to happen. They've done quite well in Canada and the U.S. in 2011 without one, while debate has resulted in awareness that brought about resounding defeats in entirely unexpected campaigns.

Next: the root of the debate.

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