Seldom do Canadians discuss the status of preborn life. Parliament has not examined issues associated with abortion or matters related to or touching upon it, in a substantial way, since Brian Mulroney was prime minister. But thanks to the efforts of a Conservative backbench MP, for nine months, Canadians, their political representatives, and the media talked about whether or not the current law that defines a child in the womb as not a person for legal purposes is a just law.
Days before the Christmas break in 2011, Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP first elected in 2008 in Kitchener Centre, called for an examination on whether the Criminal Code’s Subsection 223(1), which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth, should be amended in light of modern scientific information. Opposition MPs and feminists were quick to condemn Woodworth, saying he was re-opening the abortion issue.
In an interview with The Interim last month, Woodworth, a lawyer, said he decided in the Fall of 2011 to do something about Subsection 223(1), calling it “the most vile, most unjustifiable, most tyrannical law in Canada,” and explaining, “I had only one opportunity in seven years” in Parliament to do something to “deal with the most problematic law.” He took that opportunity in 2012.
Woodworth noted that Section 223(1) was based on a “400-year-old definition of human being” and in January 2012, he introduced a motion, M-312, that called upon the House of Commons to create a special committee that would examine “modern medical science” to determine if “children are in reality human beings at some time before the moment of complete birth,” and the “human rights implications” of those findings. Andrea Mrozek of the ProWomanProLife blog repeatedly noted Woodworth’s initiative was a motion that would not change any law, but rather call for the careful consideration of evidence and a debate.
Woodworth told The Interim last January he wanted a “respectful dialogue” in Parliament and amongst Canadians, with an eye to updating the “four-century old definition in light of 21st century information.”
Early on Woodworth seemed to be playing coy, insisting he was only calling for a committee to examine the evidence and that he had no preconceptions of what the committee would find. However, as the year went on, he would tell audiences that it was “dangerous” and “unjust” for the government to say “some human beings are not human” when it comes to the benefits and protections of the law. He told a press conference, “a law which denies that someone is a human being, without any relevant or scientific evidence, is not a just law.”
While he always hoped it would pass, Woodworth was never under any illusion it would be easy. He told The Interim that M- 312 was “not about abortion, but it was pro-life.” Still, the parliamentary press corps, the opposition parties, the leadership of his own party, and abortion advocates went on the offensive to attack the bill and Woodworth himself. He was maligned as a right-wing extremist, a pro-lifer who was forcing the Prime Minister to violate his own campaign promise not to re-open the abortion debate. Never mind that the motion was a private member’s bill, not a government initiative. Never mind that the motion was about scientific inquiry and debate and would not change the existing abortion license. Never mind that Woodworth himself was once a Liberal, running as a candidate for the party in 1988.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told The Interim that Woodworth “grew with the experience” of promoting M-312 in Parliament and across the country, but did not become cynical, and he “worked under stress but rose to the occasion.” What most impressed Hughes was that Woodworth “refused to be intimidated by those who mischaracterized his motion as something it was not.” Despite being personally attacked, Woodworth never relented; in fact, it seemed his resolve only grew.
The Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on MPs to vote against M-312. One cabinet minister told The Interim he never faced such pressure from the PMO on any other issue. The Government Chief Whip, Gordon O’Connor, delivered a strident defense of abortion during the first hour of debate on M-312 in April. Woodworth will not say what conversations he had with colleagues or the PMO, but other MPs said the Prime Minister was determined to minimize cabinet support for M-312 and wanted to see the motion defeated with the hope the issue would go away.
Slowly, more MPs spoke up in favour of M-312. Immigration and Citizenship Minister, Jason Kenny, the most prominent pro-life member of cabinet, often told the media that it was party and government policy to allow free votes on matters of conscience.
The initial debate in the House featured supporters of the motion explaining why the law needed updating while opponents maligned M-312’s supporters for re-opening the abortion issue. Not one critic of Woodworth or his motion defended the 400-year-old law. O’Connor’s speech garnered the most attention and the signal was received by many MPs: vote against the motion because the Harper government chief whip spoke against it. But the arguments raised by M-312 supporters, that modern science proves a child is a human being, were never rebutted.
In May, Woodworth addressed the National March for Life, as he does each year. But this time he received the loudest cheers and was greeted like a rock star in appreciation of his motion. In previous speeches on Parliament Hill before the March, he laid the groundwork for M-312, highlighting the absurdity of a law stipulating that a child is not a human being if a toe is still inside her mother. This time, however, he spoke specifically of M-312, urging his colleagues to “courageously follow the facts” and permit the debate to continue. “How many Canadians believe that birth is a moment of magical transformation that changes a child from a non-human to a human being?” He said that medieval understanding of human life came from an era “when leeches and bloodletting were standard medical practices.”
At the same time as his motion was hitting the parliamentary Order Paper, his mother became ill. Olga Woodworth was 90, had Alzheimer’s, and suddenly stopped eating. He was dealing with this family medical emergency in March, the month before the first hour of debate was scheduled. While there is never a good time to deal with a sick and elderly parent, the timing was inopportune considering he was trying to shepherd his motion through Parliament, winning public support for M-312 and garnering the backing of his colleagues. His mother’s condition “made it more difficult,” he told The Interim, especially “when it became clear that her condition was irreversible.” Her doctor refused to assist providing nutrition or fluid considering her age – “age doesn’t matter if one needs nutrition or water,” Woodworth explained – and Stephen Woodworth and his family were forced to watch her deteriorate.
Hughes praised Woodworth. “It took a great deal of courage” for him to lead this pro-life fight, said Hughes, especially considering the pressure he faced from within caucus and the personal tragedy of his mother’s illness he dealt with at the time. He said lesser men may have buckled. Richard Marchuk, a Kitchener lawyer who has worked with Woodworth for nearly three decades, told The Interim in May that there was no better MP to tackle this issue under the circumstances: “Stephen is a good man; he’ll see this through.”
After the first hour of debate in April, it was expected that M-312 would come up for second reading in late May or early June. Woodworth had heard that Liberal MP Scott Brison, a social liberal, had traded an early date with someone else and thought perhaps the Nova Scotia MP would want to switch again to have his own private member’s business considered earlier rather than later. They agreed to trade and Woodworth bought some time and postponed the parliamentary debate until after the summer recess. Woodworth spent most of the summer taking care of his mother, who passed away on August 22.
With or without the Kitchener MP, the public debate was just beginning. Newspaper editorials and columns about prenatal life appeared in the major dailies and local papers across the country. Talk radio discussed the topic. And this being 2012, social media such as Facebook and Twitter ensured that anything tangentially related to preborn life was easily shared with friends and family by regular folks.
As the summer recess came to an end, the debate outside Parliament picked up. Meanwhile, the level of debate in Parliament did not improve after the summer break. Opponents of M-312 were still unable or unwilling to defend the status quo, stubbornly debating the tired trope of a Conservative hidden agenda.
In late September, Parliament gave M-312 a final hour of debate and on Sept. 27, it was defeated 203-91. More than half the Conservative caucus voted for it, including 10 members of Harper’s cabinet. They were joined by four Liberal MPs.
Hughes said that the vote was a “victory for democracy” as MPs in the Conservative and Liberal parties voted their conscience. Several MPs who are not pro-life said they voted for M-312 because they favoured continuing the debate. Maclean’s reported “Woodworth’s motion is just the most obvious in what have been several signs of life” from the Tory backbenches.
Woodworth told The Interim he was disappointed that M-312 did not pass, but he did say he was happy that it engendered a broader public debate. “Absolutely, I’m happy with the debate,” outside Parliament, he said. “Most people outside the House of Commons got it.” Outside Parliament, he said, there was “a consensus – polling, media – that our existing law and failure to recognize the worth and dignity of every human being is wrong.” He said “literally tens of thousands of cards and petition signatures in favour of his motion” showed widespread support for addressing the injustice of Subsection 223(1).
He added: “Obviously I would have preferred it to pass – it was always a goal, but it was not the only goal.” He said that the public debate showed that Canadians want something done about the issue, but that “a preoccupation with abortion prevented it from being dealt with.”
Woodworth said that the greatest challenge he faced trying to get M-312 passed is the same challenge he faces now: “to get Canadians and Parliament to understand the democratic principles that should apply to Subsection 223(1).” He did not anticipate such virulent opposition because he underestimated the commitment to abortion both inside and outside Parliament.
Two positives that came out of the M-312 debates is that it exposed the opposition to the status quo, but also revealed that the public and Parliament can have a debate about these topics and neither the country nor the Parliament buildings will fall apart. “We’ve proven that a discussion of this issue can take part in a reasonable way.” Yet, Woodworth added he was very disappointed that opposition to his motion “did not address the core issue” as they were “preoccupied with abortion.”
CLC’s Jim Hughes said that regardless of the result of the final vote, Woodworth and his motion “galvanized the pro-life movement to work to get M-312 passed” by writing their MPs, becoming engaged online, and talking up the issue in their own circles. He said it has been a generation since grassroots pro-life supporters were this excited by any political initiative.
At the end of the year, Maclean’s labeled Woodworth a rebel in their Power List cover story, ranking him 24th among the “people who really run the country.” . Woodworth, whom Maclean’s also labeled a “maverick,” said, “to have my name on an august list would be encouraging to many people who supported what I did.” But he notes that he was not a rebel or a maverick: “I followed the rules. I was within Conservative Party policy. I generally have good relations with my colleagues.” Although he said a “tiny group” of Tory MPs “were not happy with their preoccupation with abortion becoming public and they are not happy with me … most people have a good view of me within caucus.”
He said he is surprised that even two or three months after M-312 was defeated, he encounters many people who are interested in fixing the 400-year-old definition of human being. Woodworth said, “I’ve done my part and will continue to do it as long as I’m able.” His immediate plans include challenging abortion activist Joyce Arthur to join him in supporting a resolution calling upon Parliament “to enshrine in law the dignity of every human being.” So far she has not accepted. He will travel across the country to talk about these issues.
He said the lesson of M-312 is that pro-life MPs must determine how to be most effective at changing the situation. “The fight for human rights has to go on,” he said. He also hoped that the extreme opposition to addressing this issue would subside.
Hughes told The Interim that Woodworth deserves to be named this paper’s Man of the Year because he challenged an unjust law, inspired the pro-life movement to action, and refused to back down when the going got tough. “We need more MPs who are willing to lead on important issues,” Hughes said. “Standing up for principle is so very difficult and rare, and when an MP goes against the grain, they deserve whatever accolades they get.”