On May 17, Conservative MP Leon Benoit (Vegreville-Wainwright) introduced a bill in Parliament to recognize unborn victims of violence. Bill C-291, an act to amend the Criminal Code (injuring or causing the death of a child before or during its birth while committing an offence), saw first reading. Benoit hopes to address, however narrowly, the fact that Canada is the only Western democracy that fails to recognize any rights for the unborn child. In the United States, 30 states have some form of fetal homicide law and in all other countries, women can seek legal and/or civil recourse for damage or death regarding their unborn children.

Speaking to the bill, Benoit said, “Current laws protect women who are victims of violence or at least, they are meant to do that. However if a woman makes a choice to keep her child, there is no protection under current law for that unborn child.”

Aidan Reid, Campaign Life Coalition’s director of public affairs, told The Interim he was very happy to see the bill introduced, although he stopped short of calling it a pro-life bill.

Reid said it is “about time that we bring in legislation protecting the child in the womb when it is injured” for women who want to carry their baby to term. Reid noted that while even property is protected in law against damages, there is no legal penalty for harming an unborn child.

Benoit’s bill would require prosecutors to apply additional charges when an unborn child is harmed or killed during the commission of a crime against the mother.

Benoit introduced the bill noting the 2005 fatal rifle assault on Olivia Talbot, a 19-year-old expectant mother in Edmonton, at the hands of a former boyfriend. He has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, leading Olivia’s mother, Mary Talbot, to press politicians for an unborn victims of violence law. Talbot told the Toronto Star she considers herself “pro-choice,” but sees the law as being necessary as a matter of justice for women who have decided to keep their babies. Talbot’s grandson was killed at 27 weeks’ gestation, well past the point of viability.

Benoit is adamant that C-291 “is not an abortion bill,” because the bill is written to specifically address when women are deliberately targeted for violence. Because studies indicate that pregnant women are more vulnerable to violence, Benoit said it was time to provide additional protections for would-be mothers.

CLC national organizer Mary Ellen Douglas said the law as worded should stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny. In the past, the Supreme Court has denied that unborn children have any rights. She described as “paranoid” anyone who would oppose the bill because it might lead down the path of outlawing abortion.

Reid added he was “interested to see who opposes the bill,” because it would betray an anti-woman and anti-child bias. “This bill is pro-woman,” Reid explains, “because currently, there is no recourse for women who lose a child during the commission of a crime.” He said that currently, there is nothing that can be done for women who lose a baby at the hands of another person. “We are saying that losing a child doesn’t matter,” he said in disgust.

But Mary Eberts, co-founder of the feminist Legal Education and Action Fund, does not see it that way. She said if C-291 passed, it would inevitably lead to restrictions on abortion and that a fetal homicide law is merely symbolic and therefore, unnecessary. Eberts said adding additional homicide charges would neither lead to greater punishments for those convicted of crimes nor deter those considering committing them.

Such is the direction of the debate. The pro-abortion side claims that any extension of rights to the unborn threatens abortion-on-demand. Thus, it promises to fight tooth and nail against C-291. But a majority of Canadians don’t see it that way. Although polls consistently show respondents divided on abortion, according to a Leger Marketing poll done last year, the vast majority support a fetal homicide law. While it may be that the lines are drawn along the familiar pro-life/pro-abortion divide, Reid is hopeful the bill can pass. He said if “everyone looked at it honestly and (would) think about it critically, it would pass easily.”

Talbot told the Star she talked to Stephen Harper about the issue during the election campaign and, while he was non-committal, he was understanding. What she doesn’t understand, though, is how no one can care about her dead grandson, whom she was able to hold briefly, alive, after the slaying. “He was just barely nicked by the bullet,” she explained, “which was horrible, but he was perfect. He had long black hair and 10 fingers and 10 toes, and everything about him was perfect.”