This week the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country's prostitution laws. In a unanimous decision, the court held that all three of Canada's prostitution-related prohibitions -- including the law against soliciting sex in public -- violate the constitutional right to life, liberty and security of the person. Parliament now has a year to come up with alternatives for restricting the sex trade in ways that don't run afoul of constitutional guarantees.
This is welcome news. Despite Stephen Harper's ideological libertarian roots, it's impossible to imagine his government ever having taken a new approach to consensual adult prostitution without being forced to do so. But forced the government has been, so let's hope it will now take the view of prostitution it should have all along: seeing and treating it as work. Work that can involve danger and nuisance, yes. Work that most of us would strongly prefer our grown children did not choose. But work just the same. And work that will take place whether the government bans it or not.
There are are of course serious moral and practical problems raised by prostitution, but like most moral and practical problems, these are best dealt with through societal pressure and restrained regulation, respectively. As the Supreme Court's decision recognized, harsh criminal penalties are far less suitable for the job given that they simply force prostitution underground, making life unconscionably dangerous for sex-workers.
The Conservatives are clearly not happy about the development. Canadian Press quotes Justice Minister Peter MacKay as saying that the government is "concerned" about the judgment and is "exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons."
The government is not wrong to be looking out for the health and safety of everyone concerned. It's just unfortunate that it seems convinced the criminal law is the best tool to achieve that end. At least now, thanks to the Supreme Court, the rights of all -- including the sex workers at greatest risk -- will have to be duly considered.
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