This month, Canada’s Parliament will vote on whether to re-open the thorny issue that has bedeviled philosophers and theologians for over two millennia: Are women human beings?

OK, the actual question up for debate in Motion 312 is whether “a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth” — but you can’t have it both ways, or even halfway. Any legal rights given to a fetus must be taken away from the pregnant woman, period. Even under a majority Conservative government that is gradually snuffing out women’s ability to exercise their human rights, the supporters of Motion 312 have a huge hole to dig before they can hope to bury those rights forever.

The many fatal flaws of Motion 312 have been pointed out repeatedly by myself and others, but allow me to emphasize two key points:

1) The motion has no other purpose except as a vehicle to re-criminalize abortion. But access to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental right for women, protected under constitutional guarantees to bodily security, life, liberty, and conscience. It is impossible for women to achieve equality without control over their fertility.

2) The motion’s sponsor (Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth) has exploited a linguistic confusion in the Criminal Code, which states that “A child becomes a human being… when it has completely proceeded, in a living state from the body of its mother.” But the clause defines when a fetus becomes a legal person, not a human being in the biological sense. One has nothing to do with the other, yet the motion wrongly conflates the two. The science of fetal development does not dictate whether a fetus should have constitutional rights.

In other words, the motion is rendered entirely moot by the already well-established primacy of women’s rights under the law, and it doesn’t even make sense because it misreads the Criminal Code. Just these two flaws alone are so lethal to the motion, that if it were to pass, the resulting Parliamentary “investigation” would devolve into farce. Luckily, there’s an easy and perfect remedy that would nullify the motion and pre-empt any more like it. As suggested by blogger unrepentant old hippie, we can simply amend the Criminal Code to the correct term “person” or “legal person” instead of human being.

Why do Woodworth and the anti-choice movement believe this motion will advance their cause or have any chance of winning? Is it perhaps that they fail to see the motion’s flaws because they can’t really envision women as full human persons? Defences of the motion have included outright scorn at the very concept of “women’s rights” (by a woman no less!), and ongoing extreme reluctance by Woodworth to even acknowledge that giving rights to fetuses has something to do with women or their rights.

At least we can take heart that Woodworth’s own governing party has exhibited much more common sense on the matter. The Chief Government Whip strongly repudiated the motion, citing women’s rights, and Prime Minister Harper has reportedly warned his MPs to vote against it. Seizing the moment, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has launched a “Crush Motion 312” campaign with the aim of driving down the “Yes” vote to an historic low number for any anti-abortion bill or motion.

Given all the blunders and obstacles littering the path of the doomed Motion 312, what does this portend for the types of anti-choice campaigns we might see in the future in Canada, and their chance of success or failure? Remarkably, a deep schism has come to light in the anti-choice community — a disagreement over the types of abortion restrictions deemed acceptable. Canada’s national anti-choice group, Campaign Life Coalition, will not support “measures that create exceptions to abortion (rape, incest, health of the mother, genetic defects, and gestational)” because: “It is counterproductive and wrong to promote or accept abortion legislation that arbitrarily divides humans into protected and unprotected classes.” Some anti-choice groups and activists disagree, but essentially this means that bills trying to ban abortion after 20 weeks, or in cases of fetal anomaly, are a dead letter in Canada. The CLC would, however, support “incremental measures that would lessen the harm of abortion by reducing its incidence and protecting health-care workers (such as defunding abortion or conscience legislation).”

The two latter ideas have been attempted many times over the years and have never gone anywhere. Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott has introduced a conscience bill six times since 1998. The most recent incarnation was in 2008 and was particularly preposterous. It would have allowed health-care workers the “right” to deny any health care to any patient for any personal religious reason, with no repercussions whatsoever — even making it a crime to fire or reprimand a doctor for refusing to do their job.

Numerous campaigns to defund abortion have popped up in Alberta and other provinces in the last two decades, but all have failed. Last October, Campaign Life Coalition organized a Toronto rally to defund abortion in Ontario. The campaign seems to have petered out now, although they are still gamely collecting petition signatures. For what purpose is not clear, since the McGuinty government told them in January that “the government has no plans to delist abortion.” It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to defund abortion for a variety of reasons that anti-choicers studiously ignore.

Campaigning for abortion laws, or preferably one big law that wipes out all legal abortion without exception, is a perennial anti-choice pastime. The upstart website “We Need a Law” hopes to “build a groundswell of support from across Canada for abortion legislation.” Long on anti-choice propaganda and short on evidence, it’s another mystifying example of anti-choicers arming themselves with their own delusional reality and invented set of “facts” to make their case. They seem unaware of the real reasons an abortion law cannot and should not be passed in Canada — and why such laws should be repealed everywhere else. In short, abortion restrictions produce zero benefits and cause numerous, often catastrophic harms to women, families and societies.

Anti-choice activists are also determined to get rid of bubble zones around abortion clinics so they can freely harass patients. Protesters Mary Wagner and Linda Gibbons have been arrested and jailed countless times for deliberately violating court injunctions by demonstrating at abortion clinics. The anti-choice movement has nothing but praise and support for these two convicted criminals, despite their fanatical commitment to violate women’s privacy and interfere with access to necessary health care. In Canada however, justice and the rule of law has almost always prevailed over clinic protesters, and this year was no exception. Wagner is now back in jail and being refused bail for invading an abortion clinic, just after she finished a 6-month sentence for a previous violation. And Gibbons, who has spent a total of 9 years in jail so far, just lost her case at the Supreme Court level. The justices ruled 8-1 that she could indeed be charged criminally (rather than civilly) for disobeying the civil injunction that protects the clinics’ patients from protesters.

However, perhaps the most embarrassing disaster for the anti-choice movement this year was their attempted desecration of the 1970 Abortion Caravan that jump-started the women’s movement in Canada. A radical anti-choice group called The Centre for Bioethical Reform drove their large Fetus-mobile across Canada this summer, calling it the “New Abortion Caravan.” Dubbed the Crapavan by pro-choicers, the truck displayed large graphic photos of alleged aborted fetuses on the side. Although the goal was to launch an 18-year campaign to end abortion by showing Canadians the “truth,” the tour outraged and repelled the citizenry, attracted numerous pro-choice protesters who outnumbered Crapavan supporters, and died a quiet and ignominious death at its “grand finale” in Ottawa.

Of course, the failures and overreach of the anti-choice movement should never lull us into complacency. One key reason they’re stumbling is because Canada is still a socially liberal country with legal protections for women. But things could change as right-wing groups infiltrate the halls of power in Ottawa. In the U.S., a similar strategy to get right-wing Christians involved in politics, even just to vote, has paid off handsomely for the religious right. It took 30 years, but they’re now in total control of the Republican Party. The extremism of many of its elected officials is downright bone-chilling. One result is a War on Women that is raging out of control, with an array of reproductive health care becoming increasingly unavailable, and abortion care restricted or criminalized. The cost to women’s rights and lives is high, and will continue to escalate if Republicans win the November election.

The Canadian women’s movement can’t afford to look the other way. We must fight right-wing attempts to erase women’s gains, even if those attempts have little chance of success. After all, the hard-won accomplishments of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s, including enshrining equality rights in the Charter and getting the abortion law thrown out completely, are largely responsible for today’s anti-choice failures. Let’s continue not giving them an inch.

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: Jenn Farr/Flickr

What’s Harper up to? Award-winning journalist Karl Nerenberg keeps you in the know. Donate to support his efforts today.


Joyce Arthur

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, a national pro-choice group in Canada.