In the aftermath of last week’s resounding defeat of Motion 312 in the House of Commons by a vote of 203 to 91, the pro-choice movement has not been celebrating. No doubt, some activists downed a glass of champagne or two, but only because they really needed a drink.
The defeat was the biggest loss of an anti-choice motion or bill in Canadian history. So why the tears in our beer? Blogger Fern Hill watched the vote and describes her reaction:
“As MPs bobbed up and down for yeas and nays, my head was spinning and my gut was clenched. I quickly lost track of the count, but it was crystal clear that this was no crushing defeat. There were waaaay too many yeas. I felt I was going to throw up. My reaction surprised me. It was visceral and emotional and not too rational. When the count was final, I was dazed. Then I saw this tweet from JJ [@jjhippie]: ‘Relieved but still feel like puking. That was like waiting for a decision from a Therapeutic Abortion Committee: remember those?'”
Indeed, we do remember those. Before 1988, a woman had to appear before a committee of strangers — three doctors, almost always male, often anti-choice — who exercised total veto power over her most personal and life-changing decisions. Why shouldn’t women be angry and disgusted to watch women’s basic human rights being put back on Parliament’s agenda, almost 25 years after they won the right to abortion on request, and 27 years after
they won equality? Why shouldn’t women feel threatened and unsafe at the spectacle of 91 members of Parliament, including the Minister who’s supposed to defend their rights, displaying their official disdain for women’s rights to bodily security, life and liberty?
The motion, which wanted a Parliamentary committee to examine whether fetuses should be deemed as “human beings” under our Criminal Code, should never have been deemed votable to begin with. Not only would it have threatened women’s constitutional rights, it posed questions that the courts have already decided — fetuses are not legal persons under our Charter, Quebec’s Civil Code, or common law.
Of course, anti-choice MPs have become quite clever at hiding the true intent of their motions and bills, because to have any chance of success, they can no longer attack women’s rights and abortion rights directly. When a motion is worded innocuously or a bill pretends to protect women, however, Parliamentarians may be fooled into taking it at face value. But the main goal of such initiatives is to establish a toehold from which to restrict abortion as far as possible — ideally to ban it completely without any exceptions and force women back into a child-bearing role. Parliament has no obligation to waste its time on such nonsense.
Perhaps it would behoove Parliamentarians to be more aware of which of their colleagues are hardline anti-choicers, to help them more easily see through the pretense of their colleagues’ bills and motions. The vote on Motion 312 handed us a gift in that regard — now we know exactly who these hardliners are. For years, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has been monitoring the voting records and public statements of MPs around the abortion issue, and listing MPs according to their revealed stance on abortion: pro-choice, anti-choice, or unknown. Of the 106 anti-choice MPs on ARCC’s list prior to the vote, 75 MPs voted Yes and 29 voted No (2 were absent), while 16 of the 54 “unknown stance” MPs voted Yes. None have any excuse for their Yes vote other than fervent anti-choice beliefs, because each one was inundated with letters from our supporters explaining the potential consequences of the motion and asking them to oppose it to protect women’s rights.
These 91 anti-choice MPs need to learn the following lessons: fertility control is the foundation of women’s rights, women cannot achieve equality without contraception and legal abortion, and women’s rights are human rights. MPs’ personal views against those rights — even if most of their constituents agree — never gives them license to vote against human rights in Parliament.
Canadians also witnessed the scandal of 10 members of Harper’s cabinet voting against their own government and leader. Since the “Harper government” had promised to oppose the motion, Harper is accountable for the dishonourable behaviour of his ministers and should discipline them accordingly. In particular, if the Minister for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, refuses to step down after the many loud calls for her resignation, Harper should personally hand her a pink slip.
In all the spilt ink and raised voices over Ambrose’s Yes vote, one telling detail was overlooked by most. Ambrose justified her vote by tweeting her concern over discrimination against girls because of sex-selection abortion. But why would Ambrose bring up that issue when M-312 had nothing to do with it? Ruth Farquhar astutely notes: “I guess she was getting ready for the next attack on women’s rights.”
That attack came the very next day. Conservative MP Mark Warawa introduced Motion 408 asking Parliament to “condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” Since Ambrose has long graced the pages of ARCC’s anti-choice MP list, her tweet certainly raises a few questions worth asking: Is she also a member of the infamous Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus, which works to advance anti-choice initiatives? And did she know about or have any direct role in Warawa’s motion?
Of course, the timing of the new motion is a transparently manipulative ploy by the anti-choice movement to keep the momentum going after losing Motion 312, as well as try to put pro-choicers on the defensive. But we’ve been through this issue before and the pro-choice position on sex-selection abortion is consistent and principled.
Condemning the tools used to carry out sex selection is an unwise distraction. The problem is not abortion, ultrasounds, or urine and blood tests that predict gender — the problem is deeply ingrained societal prejudices that impels some people to choose boy babies over girl babies. The experience of China and India has shown the unworkability of laws criminalizing sex-selection abortion. Such laws are paternalistic and contradictory because they purport to protect women by restricting their rights, when in fact they compound discrimination against women. Many women will resort to unsafe and illegal abortion to avoid having a girl, and some may even face abuse and violence from their families if they bear a girl. Other women may not want to raise a girl knowing she will be discriminated against in a patriarchal culture. The only solution to sex selection is to counter sexist beliefs and practices through public education, community-led initiatives, and progressive social policy that advances women’s rights and status.
In any case, Canada does not appear to have a significant problem with the sex selection of female fetuses, certainly nothing like India and China. Even if it happens in some ethnic communities on a small scale, it would likely be confined mostly to new immigrants, meaning the practice would naturally peter out after one or two generations. The entire issue is really a tempest in a teapot — another covert anti-choice attempt to attack abortion rights in general, just like Motion 312.
Coming back to our reaction to the motion vote, journalist Chantal Hébert chastised pro-choice advocates, saying they “would not know a victory if it’s staring them in the face.” True, the vote was a major defeat in a majority Conservative government, even beating the previous record of 95 votes for the “coerced abortion” bill in 2010, when the Conservatives only had a minority. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that someday we will look back and see this vote as a pivotal turning point in the abortion “debate” — the point of no return to the bad old days of mandatory motherhood and criminal abortion?
However, Hébert compared the abortion debate to that of capital punishment, forgetting that the opposition to abortion is far stronger and more determined and fanatical than the support for capital punishment. We must not forget that women’s freedom is what most anti-choicers dislike more than anything else. Cracking down on women’s rights, including their sexuality and access to health care — is the favourite strategy used by fundamentalists everywhere to gain power. Eternal vigilance is required to keep a lid on them.
The reaction of Canada’s pro-choice movement to the vote does not reflect short-sighted ingratitude — it reflects a keen understanding of the relentless risks to women’s fundamental human rights and a determination to fight any inroad.
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.
Photo: Alexandra Lee/Flickr
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