Canada: Federal private member’s motion M-312 ignites fetus debate

Posted on August 23, 2012

Straight, August 23, 2012 by Gail Johnson

Parliament is set to debate if MPs should re-examine the definition of when a fetus is considered a human being. And local reaction is growing against and in favour of the potential review.

Kitchener Centre Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth has put forward a private member’s motion (M-312) asking that a special committee review a subsection of the Criminal Code that states a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth. A Vancouver pro-choice activist says the intent behind extending legal personhood to fetuses is to make abortion illegal again.

“This is just quite a blatant attempt to get in the back door and recriminalize abortion,” Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, says in a phone interview. “What other reason could there possibly be to extend personhood to fetuses? There’s no purpose other than to get at the abortion issue. We’re concerned not just for abortion rights, but how this would affect the rights of all pregnant women.”

Langley Conservative MP Mark Warawa, meanwhile, says Woodworth’s motion is fair.

“Stephen Woodworth has pointed out that the definition of a human being is based on 400-year-old legislation,” Warawa says on the line from his office. “I think it’s reasonable that we take a look at all pieces of legislation in a reasonable amount of time to ensure that they’re relevant, that they’re based on what Canadians generally support, that they ensure the rule of law, that they’re up-to-date, and that they’re based on scientific evidence.”

Woodworth’s motion, which has its second hour of debate on September 18 with a final vote on September 19, is asking for a special committee to address what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth, what legal impact the current definition has on the “fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth”, and what options are available to Parliament to affirm, amend, or replace the current wording.

In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a fetus has no legal status as a person. In a high-profile case, a Quebec man had tried to get an injunction to prevent his former girlfriend from having an abortion. He said he was protecting the fetus’s right to life, but the ruling made such an argument invalid.

Pro-choice proponents are concerned that, if passed, Motion 312 will trigger a national debate on abortion that could eventually make it illegal, even though Stephen Harper has said he won’t allow such a debate to take place.

Arthur says that the motion is based on a fundamental confusion between the medical and biological aspects of defining a human being and the legal and social aspects of personhood. Personhood is a socially and legally constructed concept, and it is bestowed upon birth for practical and obvious reasons, she argues: “Granting personhood to the fetus means removing personhood from the woman.”

Giving legal recognition to fetuses would not only compromise women’s established rights but also put their health at risk, Arthur says, noting that when the state imposes restrictions on the reproductive rights of women in the interests of “protecting” fetuses, women risk their health and lives by resorting to illegal and unsafe abortions.The only person who can make conscientious and informed decisions on behalf of an embryo or fetus is the pregnant woman herself, she says.

“The motion is not going to pass…but still it’s symbolic of what the antichoice movement is trying to do,” Arthur says. “This really comes down to the basic, fundamental rights of women, and it’s an equality issue. I find it really problematic and insulting, really, that we’re still having to debate in the 21st century whether women should have equal rights. That’s why we’re fighting so hard against it and trying to show we’re not going to put up with this. This [pro-choice] movement is strong, and we’re not going to go backwards on this right.

“With the antichoice movement…it’s fundamentally about their religious viewpoint and trying to impose their religious views onto the rest of society, and in terms of Canadians that doesn’t go down very well,” she adds. “We’re a pretty secular society, and so I don’t think we’ll let that happen.”

Warawa, meanwhile, says that Canada is the only developed nation with no legal restrictions on when an abortion can take place.

“Canada is unique in that it uses the same policy as North Korea, which is no restriction,” he says. “I think it’s important we have the foundation of the definition of human being correct. We have obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that requires Canada to ensure we’re in line with international standards.

“I think the definition of a human being goes far beyond one controversial topic,” he adds. “What Stephen Woodworth is asking is ‘Is Canada in line with international standards?’ It would be up to the committee to study that.…I’m really surprised at why people wouldn’t support having a healthy, scientific look to see what the evidence is and what the international standards are.”

While both pro-choice and anti-abortion groups are asking supporters to sign petitions and send emails and letters to MPs, one women’s organization is using a different approach to send a message to antichoice politicians. People across Canada, including some in Vancouver, have joined members of Lethbridge, Alberta’s Womanspace Resource Centre in knitting “woolly wombs” in protest against Motion 312.

“The thinking is, if they [antichoice politicians] have their own little womb, then maybe they don’t have to mess with the wombs of real women,” Arthur says.

The B.C. Federation of Labour has also voiced opposition to Motion 312. “Such a change [to the definition of when a fetus becomes a human being] would set back, by decades, Canadian women’s rights to control their bodies and reproduction,” the federation’s secretary-treasurer, Irene Lanzinger, wrote in a statement earlier this summer. “The B.C. Federation of Labour has long supported a woman’s right to make her own choice about how to proceed with a pregnancy and has tirelessly fought for many years for the advancement of women’s rights and equality. The B.C. Federation of Labour opposes Woodworth’s M-312 and condemns the Conservative government for allowing debate on the motion.”