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When Did Canadians Stop Believing in Discussion?

10/30/2012 01:33 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST
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This piece was originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald

A considerable number of attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of thought suggest that we are a much weaker country than we believe ourselves to be. We no longer value diversity but prefer assimilation. If you disagree with the consensus, you will suffer the wrath of the despotic majority.

Take for example the recent motion in Parliament to study when life begins. When Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth announced he was putting forward M312, a fiery rainstorm of hate and opposition rained down on the Conservative caucus. A grand conspiracy was immediately formulated, accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of masterminding a scheme to reopen the abortion debate, even as he himself stated he would vote against the motion. In the minds of the opposition, the media, and the public, Harper wanted to end women's rights and effectively send us back to the nineteenth century. If the debate was reopened, the world as we know it would end.

Some Canadians were so quick to strike down any challenge to the consensus that they resorted to bullying and insulting anyone who was not completely against M312. Pro-choice rallies were held all over the country, Canadians were glued to their keyboards spreading their deepest thoughts on this horribly unconstitutional motion online, and as I can imagine, many MPs were busy reading angry letters from their constituents, including Minister for Status of Women Rona Ambrose. She, among a handful of dissenting Cabinet Ministers, voted in favour of the motion. People were outraged that a minister responsible for the Status of Women would actively campaign against women's rights. Feminists around the country, including NDP MP Niki Ashton called her a disgrace and called for her to resign.

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But what did M312 actually entail? Passing the motion would not have passed any laws, nor taken any considerable steps towards limiting abortions -- which would itself be a mess in the courts. The motion was only a suggestion that -- had it passed -- the House of Commons would have a discussion about the definition of when life begins. The House of Commons struck down a motion to discuss. Discussing is its job.

Currently, a child only becomes a person at the moment of complete birth in the eyes of the law. A child has no rights and no status as a human being until the moment it sees sunlight. While this allows for the possibility of abortions at any moment throughout a woman's pregnancy in Canada, it has much deeper implications that every pro-choicer should consider.

After the vote on M312, which failed to pass on September 26, Rona Ambrose tweeted "I have repeatedly raised concerns about discrimination of girls by sex selection abortion: no law needed, but we need awareness!" She highlights an important issue any of her committed detractors were too stubborn to consider.

A Canadian Medical Association Journal study suggests that "multiparous women born in India were significantly more likely than multiparous women born in Canada to have a male infant." The CMAJ data shows that Indian women in Canada have a 1.36 ratio of boys relative to girls, an unnaturally low number of females. Abortions advocates cite a woman's right to choose when she is to have a baby as the main defense for their cause, but most say nothing about abortions solely for the control of sex. There is no settled consensus on whether this is an ethically permitted practice in Canada, and it is an issue that could certainly benefit from debate.

The lack of abortion laws can also lead to a fetus being abused without repercussion. If a fetus is not a human being, then it does not have human rights. Anyone with a functional brain would find it outrageous that a man inflicting violence on a woman that results in a miscarriage would suffer no more penalty than if she was without child. Similarly, anyone would be horrified at the sight of a pregnant woman drinking or smoking heavily, horrid behaviour which the law protects. Women should indeed have the right to choose, but there should still be some legal consideration for the worth of a fetus.

Both these issues, and a number of others not mentioned, show weaknesses in the current laws. While many have argued against M312 on the basis that the abortion issue is settled, it clearly isn't. Legislation may or may not be the answer. But elected representatives need to have public discussions that bring these issues to light in a civilized manner; not to yell, ridicule, and call for others to resign because we don't like what they have to say. We can't solve problems by ignoring them.

The Canadian tendency to refuse to listen to anyone with a different opinion is not new. It was alive and well when Ann Coulter was prohibited from speaking at University of Ottawa in 2008 for making a racially charged comment, when Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones was refused entry into Canada this month, and when some expressed outrage that Canada would not ban the Innocence of Muslims movie that was blamed for fatal protests in the Middle East. We may not like what they all have to say, but we are mature enough to handle it. If anything, the repulsive presence of Terry Jones in Canada would only highlight the ugliness of Islamophobia and teach tolerance by example. The beauty of a democracy is that we don't always agree, but that disagreement doesn't give us ground to silence each other. Our country will not grow by limiting diversity of thought.

We are better than this, Canada. Our nation is recognized for its ability to compromise. We know that there are two sides to the same coin and that no issue is completely black or white -- especially the issue of life. We don't shut down debates, we embrace them and strive for civilized discussion. We seek to understand how our opponents think in order to see the whole situation clearly, not discredit them because they have a different opinion. Such behaviour would better fit Russia, Iran or China, not a developed democracy like Canada.

As Chris Selley pointed out in the National Post, Britain recently had a similar debate initiated by its Women's Minister, Maria Miller. Only instead of voting on a motion to discuss when life begins, Ms. Miller made her intentions clear: she wanted the legal abortion period to be reduced from 24 weeks to only 20 weeks -- a far cry from our unlimited time frame.

If comparing the insane reaction Ms. Ambrose received in Canada for a minor motion, you would think Ms. Miller was crucified by the public, but no. No one called for her to step down, no one protested. David Cameron's government released a statement saying he had no intention of changing the law -- as Mr. Harper did -- and it ended there. No hard feelings, no controversy. Just a well-functioning government. The world was not going to end.

Canada is 145 years old, independent, and maturing, but we could still learn something or two from our former Motherland.