Playing whack-a-mole with abortion issue

Russell Wangersky
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Keep your eye on the mole. Or more to the point, keep your eye on the motion — Motion 312, that is. Next week, on Sept. 26, to be precise, a private member’s bill from Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth will be voted on in the House of Commons.

The motion would set up a parliamentary committee to “review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth …”

You can parse it many different ways, but you might as well call it what it is: an attempt to use a back-door process to revitalize the abortion debate in Canada. Its supporters are coy about it, but even Woodworth admits the abortion issue is at the centre of the motion.

The motion isn’t being given much chance of success. The prime minister has said the government isn’t going to tell its members to vote for the measure, and says he has no intention of reopening the abortion debate. Because of that, opponents of the motion have let it drop off the radar — many people believe it’s already gone.

It may soon be, as early as Friday’s vote — but that doesn’t mean opponents should let their guard down.


Because this kind of private member’s bill serves two purposes with the current Harper government. It often acts as a kind of trial balloon, loosely judging public reaction without committing itself to action.

It also sometimes quietly lets a government move its own mandate forward while blaming someone else for the motion — like MP Candice Bergen, who introduced a private member’s bill to remove the long gun registry, a move that later became official Conservative policy. (Bergen was Candice Hoeppner when she introduced the bill, and has since officially changed her name back to her birth name.)

But this bill is worse, in its own way, than honestly and publicly opening the debate over abortion. (A debate that, by rights, is long gone and dealt with.) It’s a creeping step-by-step erosion of rights: a redefinition of a fetus as a child takes one class of people — pregnant women — and competely removes a section of their right to control their own bodies.

Look at the notion pragmatically: pregnant women who discover they have breast cancer may choose to put their own lives at risk and delay treatment until after a baby is born. With a redrawn map of the status of a “human,” that choice would no longer be available. Go even further: a pregnant woman drinks a glass of wine. Is she to be charged with serving alcohol to a minor?

The abortion debate is one that pits different beliefs against one another.

My own personal belief is that the state doesn’t belong inside a woman’s body, dictating decisions that affect a woman’s rights to life and liberty.

That’s pretty much what the Supreme Court of Canada said, too, in R. vs Morgentaler: “the right to ‘liberty’ contained in s. 7 guarantees to every individual a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life. Liberty in a free and democratic society does not require the state to approve such decisions but it does require the state to respect them.”

Truth is, I’m uncomfortable even being involved in the debate.

Why? For the very reasons the Supreme Court speaks of: I have a problem with imposing my beliefs in a way that crushes someone else’s rights, especially when there is no way that my own rights (being a man) can be threatened by the discussion at hand.

You don’t, for example, see anyone campaigning for a law banning vasectomies because they would limit the rights of future proto-humans — as, for that matter, would any form of contraception.

My concern, in this particular debate, is that only one side of the argument is being heard — because, with the government publicly saying it doesn’t support the motion, the other side of the argument has left the field.

Because of that, politicians might will be getting a skewed view of how much support the motion might have.

It may seem like a horrible waste of time to keep having to come out and fight to ensure, time after time after time, that this barn door remains closed, and that pregnant women have the same rights as everyone else.

Let your guard down, though — even once — and Woodworth and a bunch of other old men who don’t have to practise what they preach will ride boisterously right through, claiming that a vocal minority equals a huge majority for their cause.

You can be tired — even exhausted — with the debate. But when those horses are loose, it will be too late.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. Email:

Organizations: House of Commons.The, Supreme Court of Canada

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    September 28, 2012 - 12:06

    Is a child in a woman's womb not already "brought into the world," or is the interior of a woman's body supposed to be somewhere out in the "fifth dimension" or is it supposed to be cyberspace or what? Sorry to sound disrespectful, but that's about the clearest way to make that particular point. There may be a difference between bringing a child into the world and bringing a child out into the world, but killing a child is still killing a child whether the child is in a womb in a room or out of a womb into a room. In either case, the child does not enjoy it, as shown by the ultra-sound video "The Silent Scream." Or so I have read; I've not myself seen it; I fear it would disturb me far more than the prospect of drowning unwanted kittens.

  • Herb Morrison
    September 28, 2012 - 09:26

    The pros and cons of abortion will continue to be debated with no possibility of a consensus being reached pertaining to the rights and wrongs of abortion. Pro-life groups do a considerable amount of crowing about the sanctity of human life, while ignoring the fact that. Yet there is very little written or spoken concerning the quality of that same human life. Look around you, people. Why should anyone be compelled to bring a child into the world if that same child is born into a community, where social problems lead to that same child resorting to sniffing gasoline or engaging in other forms of behaviour, which are either self-destructive or criminal in nature.

  • Colin Burke
    September 28, 2012 - 08:03

    For those of you who want arguments which are not impervious to reason, how does this reasoning suit you?: People deserve the effects of what they do. Therefore people who do what makes people parents deserve to be parents. If people have responsibilities because they are parents, then all parents have the same responsibilities. One responsibility parents have because they are parents is the duty to keep their children alive; if some parents have not that responsibility, then no parents are responsible,just because they are parents, for keeping their children alive. Therefore all parents must keep their children alive if they can. Keeping children alive includes forgoing abortion.

  • Valkyri
    September 24, 2012 - 19:29

    First of all, abortion is a medical procedure (and it should stay that way) which is determined and decided between a woman and her doctor. There are not many (if any) doctors that perform abortions over 20 weeks out there and the few that do occur, are due to compelling circumstances. Doctors are pretty bright people, bright enough to know that an "abortion" after 24 weeks is not an abortion, but an induction - and will not do it. Such as in the case of mandatory minimums, neither the public nor the legislators can ever know the story in its entirety of every case that that walks into the doctors office or in front of the judiciary. Judges need to have the freedom to grant sentences based on the facts that they hear, and doctors, they too make the decision on whether they will perform an abortion based on the case at hand. Thus, there is absolutely no reason for abortion legislation at all - because we trust those that we are supposed to entrust with our health. Last time I checked, doctors aren't in the business of aborting fetuses in later pregnancy, they're in the business of providing the best health care to their patients. After what, 7 years of University, including ethics - I think we should be able to trust doctors not to perform abortions on viable fetuses. Just like we can trust the educated lawyers who have become judges after 7 years of University education FOCUSING on ethics to choose an appropriate sentence for an offender. Why do people insist that laws be created when we have a body of professionals that specialize in their respective (and respectable) professions? Do you really think you know better than a doctor or a lawyer? Of course you do, you morally righteous... Let's take a quick glance around the globe, not at some woman in the UK trying to induce labour, but to the horn of Africa. There's a place that genuinely needs some therapeutic abortions, just think of all the starvation and death that could be prevented with a neat little medical procedure. But, the "pro-lifers" don't give a crap about what happens to the child, it could be born only to die in pain and their stance will never change - because they're weird like that, they live in a bubble. If people don't like abortion, they shouldn't have one. They should go out on their high horses and trot along to the shelters and the streets feeding the poor and hungry, they should be throwing every available cent they have to lunch programs in schools, they should volunteer at the soup kitchens and get out there into the real world and fight poverty. They should come and protest war with all us kooky left-wingers. They should advocate for strong social programs and supports. Until they do that then I simply refuse to believe they are "pro-life" - but rather cognitively dissonant.

    • Lane
      September 27, 2012 - 12:23

      Valkyri: There is no factual basis for your claims that abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy are rare, we should be able to trust doctors not to abort viable fetuses, and doctors "aren't in the business of aborting fetuses in later pregnancy." The fact is, there are doctors at private clinics throughout Canada who perform abortions for profit. It is indeed a "business". Some of those clinics specialize in late-term abortions. And private abortion clinics are not required to report the number of abortions they peform, so we really have no idea how prevalent it is. Just because someone is a doctor, that doesn't automatically mean they are so ethically perfect that their activities should not be circumscribed by law.

  • grisha
    September 24, 2012 - 14:39

    Russell - To begin, I have really not noticed any hesitancy on your part in imposing your beliefs on someone else's rights in the past. Your advocacy seems seems to revolve more around the right involved than a consistant live and live viewpoint. My own personal belief it that the zygote is an individual from day one. When someone advocates the rights of such a being that is promoting the welbeing of the being, not his/her own. I personally do not become involved as I believe that we are better with one less decendent of an individual who is so narcississtic and self absorbed as to demand precidence of their own "rights" and convenience over those of those of the smallest and most innocent. A sort of Darwinian selection favoring the unselfish over the self absorbed.

  • Lorena
    September 24, 2012 - 12:47

    I find it interesting that those so oppossed to an abortion law and re-opening this debate had mothers who gave them life! Aren't you fortunate? Men and women involved in Pro-life issues are speaking up for those who can't, the most vulnerable in our society, the unborn child. When will our government and country embrace life, not death? I agree this debate won't go away and I am praying for the day when just like slavery was abolished, so it will be with abortion, that our society will wake up and see we are destroying our future and hurting women. God created mothers to be life-givers, not destroyers, and He designed fathers to be protectors.

  • Doug Smith
    September 23, 2012 - 22:00

    The issue of abortion is one that won’t go away for a variety of reasons. However, there is a way to end the necessity of 95% of abortions. The reasons show us the way. The reasons for abortion are varied. According to Women’s Health over half the women experienced birth control(contraceptive) failure. Abortion in Canada ca. indicated 21% stated inadequate finances as the reason for abortion and another 21% said not ready for responsibility. Only 1% required abortion because of rape or incest and 3% pointed to the fetus having possible health problems. Therefore, by making all contraceptives free and readily available and making birth control education compulsory in grades 7 to 12, we as a society could do away with the necessity of 95% of abortions. Who would oppose such a program? Only religious zealots, impervious to reason. Doug Smith, GFW

    • PETER
      September 24, 2012 - 13:53

      DOUG SMITH, as a religious person I don't often agree with you, but considering the way our society is going, in this case you are spot on. My only addition is is also teaching abstenance to these school kids as a form of birth control, not only abstenance of course, that will not work for all, but as part of the overall program. I love my church and my beliefs, but we are dealing with a huge problem here that will not be solved by beliefs in religion as not every one believes anymore. Great idea the Doug, I may hold a strong religious dogma and beliefs, but I'm not impervious to any reasonable way of dealing with this issue.

    • Carl
      September 24, 2012 - 14:40

      There are some problems with your reasoning. As you point out, over half of women who got abortions cited contraceptive failure. This means free contraceptives would have done nothing to prevent those pregnancies. You also assume that if contraceptives were free everyone would plan their sexual activity well enough to actually use contraceptives, which would not be the case. And even those who used them would not necessarily use them correctly. For all those reasons, I don't think using tax dollars to pay for contraceptives would make a big dent in the number of unwanted pregnancies. However, you do cite one interesting fact that suggests a partial solution... You point out that 21% of women who get abortions do so because they do not feel ready for the responsibility of being mothers. If those women could be persuaded to put their babies up for adoption, the number of abortions could be reduced significantly.

  • tara
    September 23, 2012 - 13:40

    I received in the mail,a full page,(as presented), a propaganda full page of "want"and "desirere"garding the was difficult to define what the MP wanted from me,it was evident he was solicititing a response,on one hand he presented as re-writing the consititution,re-writing the criminal code,there were lots of emotional beckoning of "protecting of the unborn"and of course there was the desired making up to "strike up a committee" to debate this issue of the criminal code,there was a lot of "wants" on this big paper".,i was unsure what this MP wanted from me. This committee would have million of dollars of expense accounts as one MP stated,if anything "we will eat well",as a proud Albertan I know about committees,none attendance and lots of pay,the MP's I spoke to could not even provide an estimate on the costs of the committee.Unfortunately speaking to the MP'soffice they could not define what they wanted from select Canadians by solicitating,I expected the MP's office to be unable to define what I asked them,as I was giving the expected response,I was more interested in defining the sincerity of the intent,so thenas usual I am ignored,belittled,or threatened,as a social advocate I am used to this response,no sweat.I told this MP he should not manipulate his consitituents regarding this matter,I reminded this MP "maternal health is important to all rural women" and should be open for discussion i investigated further about theseM312 mail outs,as indicated by my investigation these mail outs were purposefully strategized and targeted ridings while omitting other ridings,if anything the individualswho believe the actions of their MP's are worthy should ask why were some ridings omitted in this "lobbying effort?",this question alone will give great insights of the sincerity of the intent of the strategy behind this false was evident the cueing came frome the Conservative Party of Canada,someone should ask the reason for political strategies on such an important issue.The target ridings came from previous election results.As of present and verbally indicated from the Prime Minister's Office,the Honourable Mr. Harpers riding did not mail out to his constituents,upon examination of the selective ridings,there is a pattern of prejudices.if anything someone ,somewhere should feel cheated,why the select ridings?The more I was to investigatethe sincerity of these mail outs, there was evidence to question the sincerity of the intent of mail outs.At present I have a complaint with the economic internal board, the speaker of the house "the Honourable Mr. Sheer placing the question," if public money,political strategies should be used to manipulate MP'sconsituients,regardless of the issue?I have asked him to inviestigate the orchestrated strategy of target ridings.As indicated by one MP's office,"playing"with this topic has a predictable response and it is easy to play this response.I interviewed management of the RCMP,they claim they were not consulted on this re-writing of the criminal code and are more then sure it would be impossible to enforce such laws,also important to note the RCMP states this is not a traditional means to re-write the criminal code and it would be easier to re-write the code by more traditional means,individuals should lobby the Conservative party and Mr Woodworth for easier,more effectivemeans of correct access/ process's.Once again political influences and the RCMP are unified,how do you re-write the criminal code without the participation of the RCMP? important to note MP's could not provide any stats on this subject.,because they know the stats would open a new type of accountability of social responsibility,they might have to talk about social programs..I figure if the the criminal code is to be re-written there would be some type of evidence/stats which indicates "re-writing the criminal code is needed",Canadians have voiced many more issuesthey would like to see change in writing the criminal code, this M312 makes the rewriting sound so attainable.These are not the normal methods for re-writing the criminal code,but it sure generates alot of response,I guess this is what counts.They have a saying in Alberta politics, dominate the agenda with other things and them when noone is looking,ram other bills forward.I asked the rural MP's about the restructuring of the grain industry after the fall of the Wheat Board,it seems everyone but farmers are putting their two bits in the new design,the MP's don't care about this, alot more could have been placed on that big piece of paper.Possibly theCanadian public should examine they have been "had"by the presentation of this private members bill and ask the Conservative Party for correct influences of motivating the agendas,if I was a pro- lifer I would ask MP's for a better successful process,an inclusive process, I would carry the issue on to the next election,demand respect for the issue.Canadians have been purposefully hoodwinked regardless of what M312 means to you, and more so they are using public money to do so.The costs of orchestrating this private members bill has cost Canadians alot from mail outs,dining,lobbying,etc and everything in between,interesting enough when asked to examine the results of the money and information of these M312 mail outs,one is told it is private,important to note these mail outs returning address was the Parliment Buildings in Ottawa. Political parties use public money to generate predictable response,specifically knowing they are manipulating the responders,the money used to do this should be for everyone to see,ask your MP for the breakdown of costs for this make believe lobbying effort .Important to note,in my corner of the rural world, maternal health issues are important and I do not believe Ottawa should govern maternal health issues,and besides its a Provincial Jurisdiction not Federal,MP'sknow.This MP also purposefully divided his constituients through baiting division, this bothers me,further yet this M312 is meant to divide.

  • Steve
    September 22, 2012 - 22:21

    Canada is the only democratic country with NO abortion law of any kind. The Liberal party of Canada took the official position in the 80s and 90s that it would seek to balance the rights of the women and the rights of the fetus. What would be wrong with that? You cite cancer treatment for a pregnant woman as an issue. Surely exceptions could be made in situations like that. Also: see the UK case this week of a woman who has been convicted to an eight year sentence for self-aborting her fetus at eight months's gestation. In Canada, she would be let off scott-free. Horrifying.

  • Aunt Lizzie
    September 22, 2012 - 20:51

    Russell, your comment about "the redefinition of a fetus as a child" is pretty radical. In 2004, when the Quebec government was recruiting doctors trained to perform late-term abortions, Henry Morgentaler himself told the Canadian press he had "ethical problems" with late-term abortions. He was quoted as saying, “We don’t abort babies, we want to abort fetuses before they become babies. . . Around 24 weeks I have ethical problems doing that.” So, Russell, what do you think you know about fetal development that Henry Morgentaler does not know?

  • Lane
    September 22, 2012 - 20:44

    Most Canadians don't want a ban on abortion. But most do want some limits on abortion. In fact, surveys show that a large majority of Canadians think such limits already exist in Canada, but they do not. An infant can be legally "aborted" at any moment before the last part of its body has fully exited the birth canal. The majority opinion in favour of limiting abortion to the first part of a pregnancy is stronger in Newfoundland and Labrador than anywhere else in Canada.

  • Carl
    September 22, 2012 - 20:40

    This article is way off the mark. The Supreme Court did NOT say the federal government should not debate abortion. The Supreme Court did say that the Trudeau abortion law requiring a woman to obtain the consent of a panel of three doctors before obtaining an abortion was too restrictive. But a majority of the judges, in their separate written decisions, also clearly stated that the protection of unborn infants in the womb is a legitimate use of the federal jurisdiction over criminal law. In fact, the judges unanimously called on parliament to pass a new abortion law. Several judges went so far as to suggest that access to abortion should be limited to a period ending sometime early in the second trimester. The Mulroney government tried to pass a new abortion law that respected the Supreme Court ruling. The bill was even passed by the House of Commons. But the bill died when the Senate vote was a tie. (Yes, a tied vote of unelected Senators overturned the decisions of the Supreme Court and our elected representatives.) Even Henry Morgentaler did not argue for completely unrestricted abortion at any time until the moment the child is born (which is what we now have in Canada). Morgentaler has repeatedly stated that he believes a fetus becomes a baby around the 24th week of gestation, and that it is unethical to abort babies after that point. Finally, Wangersky completely misses a key part of the quote he uses from the Supreme Court ruling. It clearly says section 7 of the Charter guarantees "a degree of autonomy" over decisions such as abortion. It does not say such autonomy should be unlimited. Indeed, every legal and moral right imaginable is subject to limits. Section 1 of the Charter says so. When your actions hurt another being (not just another human, but even an animal - cats and dogs and even rats are protected by the criminal code of Canada, but a child in the womb is completely unprotected up to the very second it is born), you have overstepped your rights. It stands to reason that when an unborn infant has all its physical senses, independent motor skills and cognition, and is viable outside the womb (which the Canadian Medical Society says is around the 20th week of pregnancy), it is a legitimate subject of protection under the criminal code from undue pain, harm or death. The current absence of any abortion law whatsoever in Canada is NOT the result of any court decision or vote of parliament. Rather, it is contrary to the advice of the Supreme Court, and is the result of the inability of our parliamentarians to come to terms with the issue - a sad reflection on the state of our democracy.

  • Antiharper Cove
    September 22, 2012 - 14:04

    Brilliant, first-rate commentary. Excellent points: the biggest danger with this motion is that all the shock and outrage that it's caused has actually given the handful of fringe anti-abortion wackos much greater publicity and created the impression there's actually a 'debate', while all there really is is a handful of angry misogynist men and their followers trying to revive a long-dead issue. The tactics the Conservatives are using are the same ones that were used to undermine common sense and basic liberties in places like the US and UK, and it's important to be vigilant and not allow that to happen here. Thanks for this wonderful piece!

  • Colin Burke
    September 22, 2012 - 10:11

    "A redefinition of a fetus as a child"? Really? The Criminal Code section in question already uses the word "child" and not the word "fetus." Look it up.

  • saelcove
    September 22, 2012 - 09:41

    Consider the source

  • George Innes
    September 22, 2012 - 07:32

    This commentary is driven by paranoia and left wing innuendo. In the case of the long gun registry which was a very public plank in the Tory platform, Candice Hoeppner was reflecting the party's pomised agenda. the current Woodworth proposed bill is contrary to the PM's campaign promise in the last election where he stated unequivocally that the question of abortion had been decided and that he or his government would not support any future legislation on abortion. This stand has been repeated since the election. Meanwhile an individual MP of any party is always free to bring a proposed bill to the floor, regardless of its merit. I'm afraid that your commentary has been misleading.