Canadian women won equality rights 27 years ago when the gender equality clause in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms took effect in 1985. Our Supreme Court has since protected and advanced women's constitutional rights on numerous occasions. Yet, several times since the turn of the 21st century, Parliament has seen fit to debate whether women's rights should be restricted. How can this happen?
I'm speaking of course of the abortion debate, in which anti-choicers pretend that it's all about saving an unprotected class of "human beings" -- fetuses and embryos -- and not about completely subordinating pregnant women to their childbearing function, including forcing women by law to forfeit their own health and lives if necessary. Most anti-choicers, including Canada's national anti-choice group Campaign Life Coalition, want to ban abortion under all circumstances, including to save the woman's life.
Since 2000, there have been 17 anti-choice bills or motions introduced into Canada's Parliament (and a total of 44 since 1987). None ever passed, but in 2008, the "Unborn Victims of Crime Act" passed second reading, triggering a major alarm in the women's movement. It was defeated after an aggressive pro-choice campaign forced Prime Minister Harper to withdraw government support for the bill.
The latest attempt is Motion 312, introduced by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth in February. The motion would establish a parliamentary committee to examine the scientific and medical evidence as to whether fetuses should be included in the Criminal Code definition of "human being." This of course would give legal personhood to fetuses so that abortion can be re-criminalized. The motion had one hour of debate in Parliament on April 26, with a second debate and vote scheduled for June.
The supreme irony of Woodworth's motion is its faux concern over our Canadian law "that decrees some human beings are not human beings," even while the effect of the motion would be to remove "human being" legal protections from pregnant women and give them to their fetuses instead.
Here, Woodworth got tripped up by the anti-choice movement's "fetus focus fallacy," which renders women invisible or irrelevant. He still doesn't realize that most Canadians can see women just fine -- including the inseparable connection between their human rights and reproductive rights. Indeed, when confronted on the issue, Woodworth dismissively referred to women's rights as a concept "not found in the question being debated," as if they were an unrelated sideshow.
But fetuses and pregnant women cannot be considered separately. Any examination of alleged fetal rights that does not primarily consider the serious ramifications for pregnant women would be a dangerous sham, and contrary to global human rights standards. The "right to life" protections in international human rights treaties have been deemed to not apply before birth because of the potential for negating women's rights. Further, the global community has recognized that women cannot achieve equality without control over their fertility, which requires access to contraception and safe, legal abortion.
Why was Motion 312 allowed to proceed in the first place? Many people are confident that Harper deliberately allowed Motion 312 to go forward as a sop to his right-wing base. That is likely true, since Harper is well-known for keeping an ironclad grip on his caucus and the issues raised by his MPs. However, Harper is not the only villain in this piece. On March 8, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion, who is pro-choice, successfully argued to let the motion proceed to a debate and vote (in his capacity as a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs). However, this was after NDP MP Philip Toone objected strongly to the motion, pointing out that,
"Today is International Women's Day. We're debating a bill that has to do with abortion. I thought this had been decided over and over again. I'm shocked and appalled that it's being presented today to this committee."
Toone went on to cite the Supreme Court's Tremblay v. Daigle case, which has already ruled on the question of "when a child gets rights" -- at birth. To this, Dion replied (translated from French),
"I am sorry, Mr. Toone, I share your outrage, but in this case the motion asks for the creation of a committee to examine a problem. Nothing comes before the right Parliament has to debate issues. Parliament is a forum for debate, by definition. I fail to see on what constitutional basis we could prevent the House of Commons from debating issues, even things we don't like. This does not concern seeing whether Parliament can invalidate a court decision; nothing in the motion asks for that. It is asking Parliament to study, to create a committee, to examine an issue, to make a recommendation. I don't see how we can oppose it."
The problem with Dion's reasoning is the underlying assumption that the potential curtailment of women's rights is still a legitimate topic for debate and negotiation, even in the age of the charter and its supposed guaranteed protections. Surely, no all-party committee would recommend a backbencher's motion that, for example, wanted to examine whether black people should go back to Africa, or whether Muslims should have freedom of religion. Some things are just beyond the pale in modern Canada -- except apparently, the basic human rights of half the population. Blogger Jane Cawthorne, author of the Abortion Monologues, put it best:
"There is no reason to put women or any group of people in a position in which they feel threatened and unsafe, in which they feel their rights may be taken away. Women my age and older often complain that young women take their rights for granted. Why shouldn't they? Why shouldn't all of us? To a very large extent, we should be secure in our rights, secure in this country, secure that our government isn't plotting against us. I fault Mr. Harper for putting so many Canadians in a position where they are insecure and feeling unsafe."
I believe that Harper and Woodworth (and perhaps even Dion and most people to some extent) have been influenced by the deeply-rooted social assumption that women's main purpose and fulfillment is to have children, so abortion must be some aberrant, tragic thing that's harmful to women as well as fetuses. Add to that the lingering suspicion that women are less capable than men, both mentally and morally, then combine that with the persistent undercurrent of fear and disapproval of women's sexuality whenever it's expressed non-procreatively, and we have a perfect storm of prejudices that fuel the urge to keep revisiting women's rights, for pregnant women in particular.
The anti-choice movement's "fetus focus fallacy" takes these prejudices as gospel. It assumes that a womb is a dangerous place that must be policed to protect fetuses, because too many women are having abortions to selfishly avoid their natural motherhood duty, or because they're too stupid or naïve to know any better, or because they're the passive victims of coercion by others.
However, pregnant women are the sole biological caretakers of fetuses and always have been. We can trust them to do it well and responsibly. In fact, abortion is part of good motherhood, because it allows women to have babies when they're ready, take better care of their existing children, or not have babies at all if they don't feel cut out to be good mothers.
And when a woman does decide to bear a child, the best way for us to protect that fetus is to guarantee the woman's full rights and give her all the supports she needs for a good outcome. When a pregnant woman is safe and healthy, so is her fetus.