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 editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.