Canadian Politics

Talking About When Life Begins in Canada: Motion 312 and the Minister for the Status of Women

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.

By wannabemusicologist

Wannabemusicologist muses about music as her day job. She also loves martial arts, playing the flute, cycling, and getting her knit on.

14 replies on “Talking About When Life Begins in Canada: Motion 312 and the Minister for the Status of Women”

Late to the party but I had two comments:

1) I follow a bunch of political reporters on twitter.  What a couple brought up was how the voting could reflect how a future leadership race could pan out.  There was also a great tweet in french along the lines of “The minister for science and tech is a creationalist, the minister for the environment hates the environment and the minister for women hates women.” Or something along those lines, my french isn’t _that_ good.

2) A former coworker of mine posted an interesting essay in response to Min Ambrose’s vote on her blog.  Note: the essay does come from a pro-choice & pro-women viewpoint.

I used to live in his riding, and I saw *nothing* that he did/talked about/had meetings or flyers or bulletins about that wasn’t related to the abortion debate.  Nothing on what the government was doing, nothing on he was doing in Ottawa or the riding, nothing!  I wanted to wipe that smarmy grin off his face the entire year I lived there.  Uuuuugh.

As for Ambrose, well…. it’s clear what she and this government think of (other) women.

I think the thing that disturbed me most was hearing from some relatives in his riding how m-312 was “sold” to them. Basically, my relatives we told that the bill was only about restricting late term abortions… which seems disingenuous since it’s a super open-ended motion. Did you get any letters or pamphlets to this affect?



This is so SO SO SO SO IMPORTANT right now, and I feel so enraged that so few people care. I feel like if this were in the states there would be a huge kefuffle (yes probably because more people are Lifers than in Canada so the choicers have to be more active), but AH.

This is just one more terrifying thing that I am seeing in the Harper regime and I am just shuddering that no one seems to want to stop it. From proroguing the gov’t, to the shushing of the civil servants, to the cap on media coverage, to Motion 312 to his absurd spending on the War of 1812. I just want to cringe whenever I hear what else he has up his sleeve.

The worst part is not a single other party leader has the ability to even run the country, which Harper does, with an iron fist, so what choice do we have?

The sad thing is, as a woman in the States, this kind of thing is happening. It’s happening with a frightening regularity. Both in individual states legislation and in national legislation. There is surprisingly (and again frighteningly) little kerfuffle, and even support. In Arizona (the southwest), they have legislated that conception for a woman now begins TWO WEEKS before conception (when a potentially viable egg is released in a woman’s body). Riddle me that, and how that is even possibly conceivable (haha?) to a logical person. That bill was introduced by a woman senator. It makes me sick and so profoundly scared for my future- which isn’t even as secured currently, or in the past, as Canadian women’s.

I can’t tell you how much I love Canada for it’s women’s rights laws. I do hope that more people notice this and fight for the little things- because wannabemusicologist is absolutely right, when people become complacent and take these rights for granted, that’s when they’re most vulnerable…

I couldn’t agree with you more. I can’t believe that in general, the standard response of my peers is “oh well, at least it got voted down!!!” Over 200 private members bills have been passed throughout history (that’s a lot considering how often the bills come from backbenchers with relatively fringe political ideologies). This very easily could have been one of them. And I get that Canadians have issues with and nervousness around protesting, I live in Toronto most of the year, I saw the police crackdown on the g-20… but there are other ways to make noise….I like to write letters/emails to MPs or the governor general. Under this government, it’s sort of become my hobby.

Oh man, that 1812 spending.  It’s ludicrous in so many ways.

I think we have a cultural narrative here that still stays that this is a non-issue, and I think by and large it is.  (There’s always the pro-lifers who’ll rail and protest, but I don’t think they’re anywhere near the majority in this country.)  So we don’t get up in arms about it, because we (collectively) think this is a passing thing and it’s going to be defeated in Parliament, and since it’s not an all-out war as it is in the US, it’s not an issue.  Except it *is* an issue, and we can’t assume that any bill like this will get roundly turfed in the House; 91 MPs voted for it.

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