As a young Canadian woman, I have grown up knowing that there was a certain security related to being born in my country. I am not talking about political or economic security, but rather the way in which my rights as a woman were entrenched in the Canadian constitution, the Criminal Code of Canada, and Canadian Employment Insurance.
The constitution guarantees me equal treatment and pay, it allows me to love who I want without discrimination. If I were to have a child, I will have the option of taking a partially paid maternity leave since 2000; in addition, I have never worried about my access to women’s health services like mammography, medical exams, birth control, or abortion. This past year, as private members’ bill m-312 was debated three times in parliament and voted on this week, I began to question whether or not I would live the remainder of my life with the same rights, freedoms, and protections that I have known for my first twenty seven years.
Private Members Bills and Motion 312
A private members bill allows a member of the governing party of our legislative assembly, parliament, to bring forward bills to be read, debated, and voted on. The member of parliament must not be a minister (or hold any specific portfolio, as I think it’s called in the US) and the bill can only be brought forth, discussed, and debated during allocated private members’ hours. In April of this year, MP Stephen Woodworth put forward Motion 312 to be debated and voted on during these private members hours. This past week brought the debate to a close, and the motion was defeated by 203-91 votes.
The motion, in essence, suggested the formation of a committee to redefine when life begins in Canada. According to the Criminal Code of Canada Subsection 223(1), human life begins when “[A child] has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not (a) it has breathed; (b) it has an independent circulation; or (c) the navel string is severed.” Motion 312 wanted a government committee to assess the scientific and medical evidence available on when a fetus becomes a person. Because of subsection 223(1), Canada allows abortions at any time throughout pregnancy, though late term abortions comprise less than 1% of abortions in Canada and late abortions are almost always due to lack of fetal viability. While this motion may appear rather innocuous at first, its innocuous ambiguity is exactly its problem. The motion is essentially a personhood bill cloaked in the disguise of an inquiry, opening the door for a discussion which has been settled in Canada since the 1990s. Depending on when the committee (consisting of 7 government ministers, 4 opposition ministers, and a chair – let’s assume Woodworth) decides when life begins there are implications not just for the practice of safe and legal abortion, but also the sale of Plan B and other types of birth control which prevent conception, and even miscarriage.
Voting and the Fallout
This past week, parliament voted on the motion and it was defeated 91-203. Our Prime Minister (Conservative Party of Canada) voted against the bill, keeping his promise “not to reopen matters which have been settled.” The most controversial person who voted in favour of M-312 was Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose. Ambrose was relatively silent about her decision for this vote, and when she answered questions, it was a vague reply about her record on violence against women and her concerns about sex selective abortions. Ambrose’s late and short reply is somewhat characteristic of the silence, distance, and scorn with which our government treats debate and controversy. I saw Ambrose’s reaction as mirroring government’s treatment of the Robocall scandal.
Overall, I feel that while with private members’ bills, MPs are often allowed to vote with their conscience, Ambrose should have considered her station. Her vote was a slap in the face to Canadian women, approximately 70% of whom (according to a recent National Post survey) believe that abortion should be safe and legal. She is the parliamentarian who is given the job of representing women in the country, and with her vote, she misrepresented the will of the majority of Canadian women.
Speculations have been made about whether or not this was merely a piece of political theatre, with Stephen Harper allowing the bill to go to debate in order to pander to the more religious right wing factions of the party. Many people have suggested that the debate over M-312 is of little consequence. “Well, at least it was voted down!” Personally, it has reminded me that while we have it pretty good in Canada, rights and freedoms can be taken away in the blink of an eye. I might not always have the freedom of choice of where I work, of who I love, and of when I have children. I think it’s pretty easy, as a Canadian woman, to become sort of complacent (or at least that was the case with me), resting on the laurels of our $4-a-month birth control. Situations like M-312, however, remind us that while “matters have been settled” under the law, people gave their hearts, their time, and even their personal safety to get us where we are today. Keeping our right to choose also may end up requiring a fight.