Conservative Party backbencher Stephen Woodworth has put forward a motion that will result in a debate in Parliament on abortion in the guise of “when life begins,” in April.

This debate is tentatively scheduled for Monday, April 26th, and will call for the creation of a special committee dominated by Conservatives. The motion calls for 7 of the 12 members to be from the Conservative Party, and all to be selected by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC). At least two members of this committee are suspected to be current or former members of the semi-secretive Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus (PPLC), which (along with Woodworth) has vowed to end abortion altogether.  I’ll examine their voting records shortly.

Here is the text of Motion M-312:

“That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth;

“that the membership of the special committee consist of twelve members which shall include seven members from the government party, four members from the Official Opposition and one member from the Liberal Party, provided that the Chair shall be from the government party; that the members to serve on the said committee be appointed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the membership report of the special committee be presented to the House no later than 20 sitting days after the adoption of this motion;

“that substitutions to the membership of the special committee be allowed, if required, in the manner provided by Standing Order 114(2);

“that the special committee have all the powers of a Standing Committee as provided in the Standing Orders; and

“that the special committee present its final report to the House of Commons within 10 months after the adoption of this motion with answers to the following questions,

” (i) what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,

(ii) is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,

(iii) what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,

(iv) what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?

News of Motion M-312 has been slowly rolling out, following a public declaration by Jim Hughes last Thursday, claiming that the “perfect storm” has arrived that will result in the abolition of abortion.

Jim Hughes declares the Canadian war on reproductive rights

I guess if any Canadian far-right figure would want to be known as the person who officially declared the Canadian war on women’s reproductive rights, it would be Jim Hughes. Hughes is the head of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), and also the Vice President of the International Right to Life Federation. CLC operates the 40 Days For Life campaign, the March For Life, and the media project, LifeSiteNews (LSN), which I’ve examined before. He made his declaration on YouTube.

Hughes claims that three events have created a “perfect storm” in which it is now impossible for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to avoid debating laws to restrict or outlaw abortion in Parliament. It’s worth noting how he characterizes these three events. You’ll probably hear about them, because Woodworth’s rhetoric has been fairly lock-step with Hughes’ — I’ll dissect the points as we go along.

The Edmonton Infanticide Ruling

Jim Hughes cites the lenient sentence given to Katrina Effert last year in Edmonton as his first factor. Effert was convicted of infanticide for killing her newborn son and given a three-year suspended sentence. She was able to walk out of court, but will have to abide by several conditions. Which sounds awfully lenient, when you hear it all summed up in one sentence. Hughes adds:

“The judge explained her reason for letting her go by arguing that since Canada accepts abortion, it shows Canadians sympathize with the mother…”

What needs to be remembered is what Hughes is not saying.

Effert was first arrested in 2005, and while serving about eight months in pre-trial custody is sometimes seen as insignificant, she has also mostly been in the court process since then (six years fighting a conviction for murder is probably not a cake walk). In 2006, she was convicted of second-degree murder, receiving an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. This sentence was upheld on Jun. 23, 2009. It’s probably worth noting that the judge who delivered the more lenient sentence last year — Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Joanne Veit — appears to be the same judge who rejected calls for a mistrial and upheld the original verdict in 2009.

Canada has a separate law for infanticide, because the Criminal Code of Canada recognizes that the emotional and hormonal tumult that some women experience after birth that may cause them to undertake something they wouldn’t normally do. There are periodic concerns raised with the law from the perspective of both the socially-right and the socially-left (i.e. the viewpoint that the law may potentially undermine womens’ ability to make decisions for themselves). Infanticide is still a punishable crime, but not punishable to the same extent as second-degree murder — infanticide carries a maximum sentence of five years. Judicial practice has been to consider both charges, but juries have usually opted for the infanticide conviction. In recent years, though, there has been a shift away from that.

When announcing the suspended sentence with conditions last year, Justice Veit stated that Effert’s was a “classic case of infanticide.” There is another Alberta woman facing three counts coming to trial, surrounding similar occurrences in 2008, 2009 and 2011, so this case and the question of infanticide are probably going to be around for awhile.

Veit’s verdict hinged on several factors, including evidence that supported Effert’s claim of being in an emotionally distraught state, that the case fit the classic parameters of infanticide (which the Criminal Code considers a partial defense to murder), that the life sentence did not fit the crime and that there were questions about Effert’s state of mind after the birth. Unfortunately, in an interview afterward, Veit also commented:

“… while many Canadians undoubtedly view abortion as a less than ideal solution to unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancy, they generally understand, accept and sympathize with the onerous demands pregnancy and childbirth exact from mothers, especially mothers without support…”

This has sparked an outcry from anti-abortion activists, who have spun the entire ordeal to make it sound like the very existence of abortion has now led to letting women off the hook for infanticide, without any punishment whatsoever, and leading down the slippery slope toward legitimizing child-killing.

Motion M-312 and the toe-in-the-birth-canal argument

The second element Hughes cites is Stephen Woodworth’s campaign to debate abortion in Parliament. Woodworth has been angling toward prompting this since a few short days before Christmas, when he issued a statement:

“Canadian law provides no human rights protection whatsoever for children before the moment of complete birth. This results from an unusual Canadian statute which defines a human being as a child who has completely proceeded in a living state from the mother’s body, whether or not the child has breathed. This means that in Canada a child is legally considered to be sub-human while his or her little toe remains in the birth canal, even if he or she is breathing.”

The toe-in-the-birth-canal argument is one of his favorites, second only to his complaint that the only statute in Canadian law defining when life begins is over 400 years old (which we’ll revisit in a second). For some reason, the meme has resonated with younger Canadians, many of whom don’t remember the struggle for reproductive rights and have been misled about or trained to disregard the implications on womens’ lives. Never mind that at-birth abortions performed by medical personnel virtually never actually happen, except perhaps in the possible event where the mother’s life is at stake. This appears to be a roundabout way to declare that legal personhood of the foetus is necessary, and then work backward from there to determine when thast personhood comes into effect. The theory behind personhood bills is that if the foetus can be legally declared a human being, then it acquires legal rights that can trump those of the human being carrying it and whose life would be inalterably changed by it. The idea is also that if abortion can be elevated to murder at any stage, it then becomes a small stretch to argue that all abortions should be considered murder.

When I expressed my support for reproductive justice, I wrote a bit about this:

“Foetal development goes through a myriad of stages. Pro-life advocates often define [life] as being at conception / fertilization (or sometimes even before), the moment that the ovum is fertilized by sperm to form a zygote. Certainly, that’s when “personhood” amendments are designed to establish human life as beginning. Even then, though, the foetus’ quest to live is only starting. Then, it needs to attach itself to the uterus, begin undergoing cell division, and then start cellular differentiation. At any of those stages spanning at least eight weeks, development can fail and the zygote is flushed out during menstruation. If you maintain that life begins at fertilization, then the human body has an entirely natural process that routinely causes uncountable numbers of abortions globally.

“That’s why the anti-abortion lobby also fosters studies to establish life at the first heartbeat, at the first neural signals, at the ability to sense pain, at the first kick. At times, pro-life idealogues have gone even further back to assert that anything that affects gametes (sperm and / or ova) is immoral (thus calling in-vitro fertilization and masturbation into moral question), so while we can speculate on motivations, the pro-life side doesn’t provide any clear answer on when life actually begins. None of the benchmark moments occur at the same stage, so the inevitable conclusion is that life, birth, creation and human genesis as a whole are part of a nine-month process. A foetus isn’t a baby. It’s not a tumor, either. It is life potential. Any hardline stance on either side of that question is doomed to fail.

“The question then becomes whether people are or are not justified in making the decision as to whether that life potential does indeed become life. Should every fertilized egg be made to develop into a human, or are we sometimes justified in stopping that process?”

The toe-in-the-birth-canal is a deflection from Woodworth’s real argument — that the idea of life beginning at birth is outdated, and needs to be backdated several months — preferably nine, but he’ll take what he can get, and work on widening it from there.

CBC’s Kady O’Malley is optimistic that the motion will be defeated, but points out that:

“… what’s interesting about this motion is that, as far as I can tell — and yes, I’ve asked the speaker’s office for a definitive answer — unlike the vast majority of private members’ proposals put forward for the consideration of the Commons, this one would actually be binding.

“If passed, it would direct the House to do something that is entirely within its aegis; namely, strike a special committee with a clear mandate, and a requirement to report back to the House within a certain period of time.”

Like it or not, Canada, the debate has been reopened. The only question now is whether Stephen Harper will live up to his public stance against reopening the debate, and restrict his party’s vote and/or punish the backbencher who defied him.

The Sex-Selective Abortion Claim Comes to Canada

The third event in Jim Hughes’ “perfect storm” is a little more insidious:

“The third event, and really the kicker,” Hughes states, “was a January editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association’s journal. It called for an end to the abhorrent practice of sex-selection abortion.”

In January, the interim editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), Dr. Rajendra Kale, argued in an editorial that immigrants (Kale singled out India, China, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines) are bringing sex-selective practices to Canada. India and China have developed reputations for parents aborting female children after obtaining ultrasounds, because of population restrictions and/or the poor to negligible value that those societies are felt to have for women. Kale has recommended restricting access to ultrasound imaging until after 30 weeks of pregnancy, although some testing products on the market could easily fill that void and render his point moot. The CMAJ publication quotes Gwen Landolt, of the anti-abortion and domesticity-idealizing REAL Women of Canada, as an authority and uses statistics that peg South and East Asian populations at 105 males to every 100 females as evidence. Others have responded that the editorial makes racially-based assumptions on data that could have several possible explanations.

This is a classic example of the cross-border pollination of tactics from the American far-right anti-abortion industry. Only one month before, U.S. Republicans introduced the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011” in the House of Representatives, which proposed to ban race- and sex-selective abortions. There was no evidence that such a problem existed to any noticeable degree in America (can you imagine authorities accusing an African-American woman of choosing to abort because the resulting child would be black?), but the tactic was thought to have some potential inusing the energy of racial and gender equality movements to divide feminists (who decry sex-selective practices as representative of social hatred toward women) and to attempt to conflate the choice in “pro-choice” with racial and sexist bias.

In Canada, a recent Angus-Reid poll on sex-selective abortion followed Kale’s publication almost immediately (excellent timing!), and found 60% of Canadians supporting a ban, with the number higher for women (66%). I guess it really is all in how you ask the question.

Neither Panic, Nor Be Complacent

Josey Ross points out that Canada’s R. v. Morgentaler affords significantly more protection for Canadian women than the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, by hinging on the security of the person:

“Since the Morgantaler decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988, precisely zero laws have been passed that regulate or prohibit abortion. However, there have been nearly 40 bills and motions introduced that sought to limit or prohibit abortion. In 1991 women’s right to bodily autonomy was maintained by a single vote when it tied in Senate.

“And while I’m confident that Bill C-43 would have been deemed unconstitutional if not for that single vote, it would have been a nightmare. And it would have been women who paid the steep price of years of legal wrangling.”

Even so, much of the U.S. far-right approach has been to (among other things) cut funding for women’s health organizations, cut public health funding for abortion and contraception, ban private insurance funding, place unreasonable operating restrictions on clinics that offer abortion, require women to view ultrasounds and/or consult ideolocially-driven anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), make them wait several days or weeks for the procedure, and issue conscience-based legislation to make it possible for medical practitioners to obstruct if they’re so inclined, while saddling them with other legislation that requires them to read a discouraging (and sometimes medically and factually inaccurate) script against their conscience, if they’re not so inclined. With Canada’s precedent, it is also illegal to restrict access, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be attempts, like this drive to delist health care funding in Alberta. The Harper Conservatives long ago started the process of disproportionately defunding womens’ organizations in the name of fiscal austerity and have also tried to drop contraception from health initiatives.

There’s no cause to panic, but no cause to be entirely complacent, either. The U.S. has entered an age of gambit-style litigation and legislation in which anti-abortion activists are less concerned about whether a law is unconstitutional than they are with exploiting those few that pass (whether upheld or judicially overturned) long enough and effectively enough to establish other favourable precedents. Far right ideologues have a more difficult job in Canada, but they’ve been watching the fights down south studiously. Whether this will result in lasting damage there or here is anyone’s guess — we’re entering uncharted social territory. I’ll elaborate on gambit tactics in a future post.

Woodworth Wants a Committee to Determine When Life Legally Begins

So Stephen Woodworth and Jim Hughes have angled for Parliament to debate abortion. The motion directs that if Parliament agrees, a committee should be created, its members selected by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC). Campaign Life Coalition provides a handy guide to PROC committee members’ and other MPs’ votes (click the Votes tab) on abortion, personhood and other social issues (including another anathema of Hughes’ — the possible extension of human rights to include transsexual and transgender people). PROC Chair Joe Preston has a perfect record of opposing reproductive justice by CLC’s count, as do Harold Albrecht (believed to be a current or former member of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus), Scott Reid (also suspected with the PPLC) and Tom Lukiwski. Conservative Laurie Hawn has one strike but still gets a CLC green light, and Greg Kerr gets a 2 out of 3 (same no vote as Hawn) — that’s half of the committee right there. Three others of the twelve are new MPs and have no voting history listed as of yet.

That would appear to stack the deck a little, assuming Motion M-312 ever carries. I encourage Canadians who support reproductive justice to be vocal and visible, so that women can speak without shame or fear and so legislators (including your MP) know they can make a positive stand without political recrimination.

(Crossposted to Dented Blue Mercedes)

Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen is a graphic designer and advocate for transsexual and transgender communities in Alberta. She writes on equality, human rights, LGBT and sexual minority issues in Canada, and the cross-border...