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Abortion access in Canada

2012: Motion 312 to redefine human personhood.

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This topic is a continuation from the previous essay

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2012-APR-26: Motion 312: Request for Parliamentary committee to debate the definition of the term "human person:" (Cont'd)

Gordon O'Connor, the "whip" of the Conservative Party who hold the majority in Parliament delivered a surprising message in favor of abortion access in Parliament on 2012-APR-26. He said:

"Whether one accepts it or not, abortion is and always will be part of society. There will always be dire situations where some women may have to choose the option of abortion. It cannot be eliminated. I cannot understand why those adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their belief on others by way of the Criminal Code. ... The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state. ... I do not want women to go back to the previous era where some were forced to obtain abortions from illegal and medically dangerous sources. This should not happen in a civilized society." 1

The reason why many pro-lifers want to use the Criminal Code is that by criminalizing abortions, they would be significantly reduced in numbers.

O'Connor seems to believe that there is only one individual involved in the abortion -- the pregnant women. Essentially all pro-lifers believe that there are two human persons or individuals with a stake in the decision: the woman and her embryo or fetus.

He said that Woodworth's bill would "turn back the clock" and that "society has moved on. ... The ultimate intention of this motion is to restrict abortions."

It was unclear whether O'Connor was speaking for himself or on behalf of the ruling Conservative Party. The Prime Minister's office didn't say.

The Toronto Star newspaper reported:

"NDP MP Françoise Boivin called Woodworth’s bill 'a full frontal assault on a woman’s right to choose'.

Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre) said her party would oppose the measure, saying the Conservatives were attempting to outlaw abortion by the 'backdoor.' 'This is shameful. This government is being disingenuous,' said Fry, calling the proposal 'totally untenable and unconstitutional.'

In the Commons earlier Thursday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair took aim at Stephen Harper for even allowing Woodworth’s motion to be debated. 'Could the prime minister tell Canadians why he allowed his Conservative MPs to reopen the debate on abortion?' Mulcair said in question period.

But Harper said an all-party committee decided that Woodworth’s bill could proceed to debate, a move he called 'unfortunate. ... In my case, I will be voting against the motion,' Harper said." 1

On SEP-17, Stephen Woodworth booked the National Press Theatre for a press briefing. He said that his motion would not create an abortion law. It would merely ask to set up a committee to study when personhood begins. Thus, he suggests that Canadians should not fear the motion. He said that under current laws:

"Until a child’s little toe pops out of the birth canal, that child is not recognized as a human being in Canada. ... [It is a law that] dehumanizes and excludes an entire class of people. ... At this point I am not optimistic that I will come close to the 50 per cent required to pass this motion, although I continue to want to meet with Members of Parliament and to try to convince them of that. ... Have we really lost a consensus in Canada that the dignity and worth of every human being must be recognized?" 2

There does not appear to be any loss in consensus in the worth of human persons. However, polls strongly indicate that there is no consensus on when human personhood begins.

He said that he regards the present law as an assault on the principle of universal human rights.

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Support for Motion 312:

A group of about 60 physicians, other conservative Christians, leaders of pro-life groups, conservative Christian organizations, etc.have signed a document titled: "Declaration of Support for Parliamentary Study of Canada’s Legal Definition of 'Human Being'." 3 One signatory was Bruce J. Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). He commented:

"This Declaration is the result of a group effort to encourage Parliamentarians to do the right thing. It comes from the realization that we, as Canadians, can accomplish things better working together than we can pursuing similar goals separately. The Supreme Court of Canada has said Parliament is the only institution in Canada that can make legal determination in regard to the best interests of the child prior to birth, just as Parliament has made similar decision in regard to children after birth. Parliament has done that by defining when a child becomes a human being. With the developments in medicine and science over the last century, it’s time to revisit this outdated law."

A major passage in the Declaration describes various beliefs concerning when human personhood begins:

"We, each from our respective theological, philosophical and professional traditions, understand human life to begin at some point in time prior to that defined in subsection 223 (1) of the Criminal Code of Canada. A significant number of theologians, philosophers, jurists, doctors and scientists consider human life to begin at fertilization. The predominant position among mothers is recognition that the child developing within their bodies is human. Fetology recognizes the pre-born child as a patient along with the mother. The courts are regularly called upon to assess the best interests of the child, including assessment of the interests of the state in the pre-born child. These positions conflict with that of some ethicists who have proposed that the recognition of “human being” occurs too early and should be put off until up to three years after the child has fully emerged from its mother’s body. A parliamentary committee would bring the nation’s best interests to bear on the contrast between these attitudes toward children."

Unfortunately, the Declaration refers to "human life" in one part of this paragraph, to "child" in another, and "human being" in a third part. This is confusing to many people, because the term "human life" is often used to refer to ova and spermatazoa -- that is to refer to non-persons.

Unfortunately, this passage only describes two alternatives:

  1. The belief very commonly expressed by religious conservatives and others in the pro-life movement that the transition from human personhood starts sometime during the process of conception.

  2. The belief that personhood is only achieved at sometime after birth. Associated with this belief is an acceptance of after-birth abortion -- killing a newborn -- in some cases. This position is promoted by a miniscule group of ethicists such as Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva, and Peter Singer. 4,5

Overlooked by the Declaration are at least 11 other conflicting beliefs as were listed in the previous essay. They define personhood as commencing:

  • When pregnancy begins -- defined by physicians as when the zygote is implanted in the wall of the uterus.
  • When the yellow streak forms in the embryo. This will eventualy develop into the newborn's backbone. At this point, twinning is prevented.
  • When the embryo's heart starts beating.
  • When the embryo's heart can be heard.
  • When the embryo loses its gill slits and tail.
  • When the embryo begins to take the shape of a human being.
  • When the mother first feels fetal movement -- a time called "quickening."
  • When the higher brain functions of the fetus first turn on and the fetus becomes sentient. That is it becomes conscious for the first time, aware to some degree of its environment, able to think, feel pain, and hear, etc.
  • When the fetus is viable and able to live outside its mother. The timing of this event is very much dependent upon medical advances. If an artificial womb is developed sometime in the future, viability could occur duiring conception.
  • When the fetus is half-emerged from its mother's body.
  • When the fetus has fully emerged from its mother's body.

None of these alternatives are listed in the Declaration. Instead, it lists only two alternatives: that human personhood begins at conception, or days/months/years after birth. Their second alternative is one that essentially all Canadians would find deeply offensive and immoral. The author(s) of the Declaration appear to be promoting the idea that "personhood at conception" is the only possible ethical belief.

EFC Vice- President and General Legal Counsel Don Hutchinson stated:

"The courts have been faced with many challenging situations dealing with the pre-born child -– potential medical malpractice, intentional effort to kill a child in the womb, efforts by children’s aid societies to protect children in the womb from abusive mothers. In all of these situations, the courts have felt bound by the decision of Parliament to avoid debate and declaration of whether or not Canada has an interest in children prior to birth. ..."

" Motion 312 is not about abortion. It’s about the state’s concern for the best interests of the child prior to birth. It is Parliament’s responsibility to examine that issue. And, it will necessarily involve consideration of whether Canada’s abortion law should be changed from no restrictions to some form of restriction. ..."

"The Prime Minister stated in an interview earlier this year with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge:

'If you want to diminish the number of abortions, you’ve got to change hearts and not laws.'

Yet polling by some of Canada’s most reputable polling firms -– Angus Reid, Ipsos Reid, Abacus Data, and Environics -– suggests that Canadians [sic] hearts are overwhelmingly in support of the Government of Canada declaring an interest in the life of the pre-born child through legislation that at minimum would prevent abortion when the child is old enough to survive outside the womb and address the matter of the increasing number of sex-selection abortions being performed in Canada."

Faye Sonier, Legal Counsel with the EFC, added:

"So what will happen [immediately] if Mr. Woodworth’s Motion 312 passes? I can tell you what won’t happen. Abortion will not be criminalized in Canada. Abortion access will not be restricted in Canada. A child in the womb will not be granted human rights. A child in the womb will not be deemed a person in law. If the House of Commons passes Motion 312, a dozen Members of Parliament, imaginably some pro-life and some pro-choice, will meet from time to time as a Special Committee. As federally elected representatives they will examine a provision of a federal law. They will study the Criminal Code’s legal definition of 'human being', listening to expert evidence, and then report back to Parliament with some proposed answers to the questions put before them."

Ms. Sonier is correct. There would be no restriction on abortion as a result of Motion 312 -- at least there would be no restrictions right away. However, it could conceivably be the first step towards compulsory childbirth for every pregnant woman, and a return of back-alley abortions. Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted agasint the motion, but several members of his cabinet voted in favor, including: Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose, International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, Trade Minister Ed Fast, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Public Works and government House leader Peter Van Loan, Intergovernmental Affairs Peter Penashue, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, and National Revenue Minister Gail Shea.

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2012-SEP-26: Motion 312 was defeated:

Members of parliament defeated Motion 312 by a vote of 91 in favor and 203 against.

The members of all parties -- Conservatives, New Democratic Party and Liberals -- treated it as a free vote. Members of Parliament were thus able to vote for their consciences.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted against the motion, but several members of his cabinet voted in favor, including: Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose, International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, Trade Minister Ed Fast, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Public Works and government House leader Peter Van Loan, Intergovernmental Affairs Peter Penashue, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, and National Revenue Minister Gail Shea. 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. Bruce Campion-Smith, "Abortion will never be eliminated, Tory MP says," The Toronto Star, 2012-APR-26, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  2. Gloria Galloway, "Tory MP concedes 'abortion' motion lacks support," Globe and Mail, 2012-SEP-17, at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/
  3. "Declaration of Support for Parliamentary Study of Canada’s Legal Definition of 'Human Being'," Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 2012-SEP-17, at: http://files.efc-canada.net/  This is a PDF file.
  4. Alberto Giubilini & Francesca Minerva, "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" Journal of Medical Ethics, 2012-MAR-02, at: http://jme.bmj.com/
  5. Tom Bartlett, "Peter Singer weighs in on infanticide paper," Purcolator, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2012-MAR-05, at: http://chronicle.com/
  6. Laura Payton, "Motion to study when life begins defeated in Parliament," CBC News, 2012-SEP-27, at: http://www.cbc.ca/

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Copyright © 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2012-APR-27
Latest update: 2012-SEP-27

Author: B.A. Robinson

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