Government whip gives ‘most stridently pro-choice’ speech

On April 26, the private member’s motion of Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Centre) calling for the creation of a committee to examine the modern medical and scientific evidence of whether the unborn child is a human being and the human rights ramifications of those findings was given its first hour of debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Woodworth spoke in favour, while four MPs opposed the motion, including the Chief Government Whip.

Woodworth’s motion, M-312, Special Committee on Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code, seeks to address the fact that the Criminal Code says that an unborn child is a legal person until it has completely proceeded from the mother. Woodworth says that the legal tradition behind the subsection goes back at least 400 years and that scientific knowledge has advanced in the four centuries since. He said Parliament has an obligation to discuss the issue and update the law if necessary.

Leading up to the debate, opposition MPs told the media they were concerned that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would allow a backbench MP to re-open the abortion issue, even though Woodworth’s motion does not contain the word abortion and Harper told the House that he regretted the committee examining private member’s business determined M-312 was votable. He said he would vote against the motion.

In answer to opposition attacks on the government for permitting an MP to bring the issue before the House, Harper replied: “Every private member can table bills and motions in this House. Party leaders don’t have any control over that … this particular motion was deemed votable by an all-party committee of the House. I think that’s unfortunate. In my case I will be voting against the motion.”

Woodworth addressed the reluctance of so many of his parliamentary colleagues to discuss the humanity of the unborn child. He told the House: “In the 1850s, nine highly educated, civilized judges of the U.S. Supreme Court decided that African Americans were not persons under U.S. law. If members had been in Congress then, would we not have put up our hands and said that is wrong?” He continued: “In the early 20th century, nine highly educated, civilized judges of the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not persons under all Canadian laws. If members had been in Parliament then, would we not have put up our hands and said that is wrong?”

Woodworth acknowledged that his motion could impact abortion: “If the evidence tells us that a child is a human being before the moment of complete birth, will we close our eyes to the truth simply to justify abortion?”

Three opposition MPs – NDP Françoise Boivin (Gatineau), NDP Niki Ashton (Churchill), and Liberal Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre) – joined Gordon O’Connor, the government whip, in speaking against the motion.

Boivon was incredulous that the motion was even being discussed. She said: “When I was elected in 2011, if someone had told me that I would be here on April 26, 2012, having a “conversation on the fetus,” I would have asked what planet this was.”

Boivon claimed the motion was part of the Conservative’s anti-women agenda and falsely said that it seemed only men supported M-312. (Mississauga South Conservative MP Stella Ambler was the only MP present when Woodworth introduced his motion during a press conference earlier this year.)

“Hedy Fry,” in the words of a Maclean’s editorial, “rambled on, Fry-like, about everything from multiple sclerosis to The Handmaid’s Tale.” Little of it was pertinent to the debate, but she also charged the Conservative government with an anti-women agenda. “Are we going to lock women up and force them to carry a child to term?” she asked.

Ashton, who spoke last, reiterated the anti-women theme, before trotting out the hidden agenda canard. “If the Prime Minister did not want a woman’s right to choose to be debated, we would not be here tonight,” the former NDP leadership candidate said. “What is interesting is the Conservatives felt the need to tell Canadians something else so those same Canadians would vote for them. They waited until they won a majority to then uncover their hidden agenda.”

But it was a Conservative MP and member of the government who made the most news and spoke most forcefully against Woodworth’s motion. O’Connor, responsible for party discipline as the chief whip for the government, not merely spoke against the motion but gave what the CBC’s Kady O’Malley called the “most stridently pro-choice speech in the debate.”

O’Connor repeated standard pro-abortion arguments, saying, “the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision, and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount and take precedence over that of the state.” He claimed abortion “is part of the human condition” and thus “no matter how many laws some people may want government to institute against abortion, abortion cannot be eliminated.”

The whip added, “I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code. There is no law that says that a woman must have an abortion. No one is forcing those who oppose abortion to have one.” He accused pro-lifers of attempting to “turn back the clock.”

Campaign Life Coalition immediately sent a letter to their supporters in O’Connor’s Carleton-Mississipp Mills riding urging them to defeat him in the next election. Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, condemned O’Connor’s comments. He said that while “Stephen Harper has never been pro-life and desperately wants to avoid the issue” it was “completely unnecessary for the whip to speak in such pro-abortion terms.” Hughes said that while Harper has indicated there will be a free vote on M-312, he wonders “if the whip’s strident speech will push some pro-life Conservative MPs to vote against it.”

Harper and Liberal leader Bob Rae have said members of their caucus will be allowed to vote their conscience. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said his caucus will oppose the motion.

The Woodworth motion is expected to return to the House of Commons for another hour of debate and a vote in June or September.