On Dec. 15, the House of Commons voted down C-510, a private member’s bill that would have amended the Criminal Code to add coercing an abortion to its list of offenses. Rod Bruinooge (C, Winnipeg South), who introduced the bill, said it was necessary to ensure that pregnant women did not have to choose between protecting themselves and the children they were carrying. The bill was dubbed Roxanne’s Law after Roxanne Fernando, a Winnipeg immigrant who was beaten and left to die at the side of a road in 2007 by her boyfriend and his accomplices, reportedly after she refused his demand to have an abortion.
Abortion advocates both inside Parliament and out insisted that C-510 was a stealth pro-life bill intent on granting precedent-setting rights to the unborn. NDP MP Irene Matheyssen and Liberal MP Marlene Jennings were among those who spoke against the bill in early November, describing it as an assault on “a woman’s right to choose.” Campaign Life Coalition British Columbia president John Hof said in a press release that C-510 “was about ensuring women were making the decision without pressure.” CLC national president Hughes said it was ironic that those who chortle choice would oppose a measure aimed at preventing coercion.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and other Conservative opponents of C-510 said the bill was redundant because coercion was already against the law. Bruinooge responded that such an argument was “cover” for the bill’s opponents. He explained, “The fact that no one has ever been charged with coercing an abortion in Canada is absolute proof that clarification of the law is desperately needed.”
Two days before the vote, there was an hour of debate in the House. The bill was supported with speeches by Bruinooge, Kelly Block (Saskatoon–Rosetown–Biggar, CPC), Bev Shipley (Lambton–Kent–Middlesex, CPC), and David Anderson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board, CPC). Speaking in opposition were France Bonsant (Compton–Stanstead, BQ), Nikki Ashton (Churchill, NDP), and Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton–St. Albert, CPC).
Block, who seconded the bill, said that a vote for C-510 was a vote in support of mothers. “We need to promote a culture of respect for women who make the choice to be mothers,” she said. “We need to give Canadian women the assurance that the law would be there to protect them when they take on the monumental responsibility of bringing children into the world.”
Block responded to opponents’ arguments saying that while not all abortion coercion ends in violence against the woman, “any successful attempt at abortion coercion will always result in the death of that woman’s wanted unborn child.” She said, “Turning a blind eye to this reality violates Canadian’ high standards of justice and human rights.”
The 178-97 defeat in the House vote means the bill will not go to the Justice and Human Rights Committee for hearings. Campaign Life Coalition had several issues with the bill but urged MPs to bring the bill to committee where its shortcomings and flaws could be amended. Among the concerns was language that seemed to concede that abortion is a permissible option. Still, CLC met with MPs in support of moving the bill to the committee stage and pressed its supporters to encourage their elected officials to allow debate on the bill to continue at the committee level.
Other pro-life and religious groups were more enthusiastic about C-510, including the Canadian Bishops’ Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and Priests for Life Canada.
Joanne McGarry, executive director of the CCRL, said that C-510’s demise was “unfortunate” because if it became law it “could have reduced the likelihood of forced abortion.” McGarry complained that, “It is unfortunate that any mention of abortion law is usually stopped by the strong opinions the topic ignites on both sides, and by politicians’ reluctance to address the issue.”
Among the politicians reluctant to address abortion is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has repeatedly said through various spokesmen that he has no intention of re-opening the issue. He was among more than 40 Conservative MPs that joined the NDP, Bloc and all but 10 Liberals in voting against C-510. The Prime Minister’s Office has been consistent in declaring that Harper has no interest in re-opening the abortion issue.
Hughes said if the Prime Minister couldn’t support the bill, he should have stayed away from the House altogether. “Whoever advised him didn’t do him any service,” Hughes said, calling the vote against the bill a “political miscalculation” because it could alienate social conservatives who comprise a large portion of the Conservative Party’s base.
“For all the people that have argued all along that Mr. Harper is pro-life, perhaps this will show them once and for all that he isn’t, he doesn’t have a hidden agenda,” said Hughes.
The Association for Reformed Political Action expressed outrage at the vote. “What kind of leaders refuse to protect pregnant women who want to keep their child?” commented ARPA Canada’s director Mark Penninga. “We need to ask the MP’s who voted against it how exactly they can justify their vote, especially given that all of the arguments raised in the House against it were answered in detail.”
After the bill was defeated, Don Hutchinson, vice president and general legal counsel of EFC, said that he would like to see opponents of the bill who claimed it was redundant to educate the public about prosecuting coerced abortions and said if “no charges begin to appear in Canada’s justice system for coercive actions … then I encourage Mr. Bruinooge – or the Justice Minister – to do the right thing and reintroduce Roxanne’s Law.”