Private Members’ Bills on contentions issues stand very little chance of actually getting as far as a final vote in the House of Commons. Bills seeking to either tighten abortion laws, or to widen access, are a case in point.
A recorded vote on a Private Member’s Bill relating to abortion would be of great value to lobbyists and individuals on either side of the debate since it would show where each MP stood. In the absence of government-sponsored bill on the issue it is the only way of keeping track of the MPs’ election promises. It is precisely for this reason that Private Members’ Bills on abortion are “talked out.” The tactic ensures that MPs’ votes on the subject are not recorded. Any MP wishing to keep his views to himself simply does not enter into the debate on the Bill.
Introduction and First Reading of a Private Member’s Bill take place during the Routine Proceedings on the House and the Bill is placed on the Order Paper to await its turn for Second Reading. First Reading is automatic (the Bill is not, in fact, “read”) and no debate takes place.
Private Members’ Bills are debated in one-hour allotments, four days a week. An MP may speak to a Bill only once, although he or she may speak to any subsequent amendments to it. During the first eight hours of debate, each speaker is allowed 20 minutes for his speech, plus 10 minutes to answer any questions on his arguments. Subsequent debate is limited to 10 minutes per speaker.
Debate on a Bill continues for as long ads there are MPs wishing to speak to the topic. If the Speaker of the House sees that no further debate is desired, the “question is put.” In other words, the Speaker asks if there is a consensus that the Bill be voted on. A “Yes” vote at this stage sends the Bill on to be studied further in committee. A “No” vote means the end of the Bill.
If there is a consensus for a vote to send the Bill to committee for further discussion, there are two options. The Speaker either measures the amount of support by estimating the number of hands raised, or, if five members rise to request it, the House divides. That is, bells are rung and those not present in the House for the debate would be alerted that their presence was required for a recorded vote.
The process of “talking out” means that the Bill is debated for the full hour allotted to private Member’s business that day. At the end of that time, the Speaker moves on to other business and the Bill returns to the Order Paper to come up again in its turn. The length of time this takes depends on how many Bills are on the list to be debated.
In the January issue of The Interim we reported on Svend Robinson’s (NDP Burnaby) Bill to remove abortion from the Criminal Code and thus further widen access. We said that the Bill was defeated when it was, in fact, talked out. Depending on how many Bills are at present on the Order Paper, Robinson’s Bill could return during this session of parliament for further debate.
Lawrence O’Neil’s bill
On January 17, Lawrence O’Neil (PC Cape Breton Highlands-Canso) moved that Bill C-254, his Private Member’s Bill to amend Section 251 of the Criminal Code to provide legal counsel for the unborn child, be read the second time and to be sent to committee for further study.
Mr. O’Neil argued that legal representation for the unborn child is not a revolutionary concept. “Abortion is illegal in this country, in general terms, and legal only in certain exceptional cases” he said. “Because we as a society have recognized the rights of the unborn children to continue [their development in the womb].
He noted that parents and guardians have a legal duty under the Criminal Code to provide the necessities of life for a child under 16 years of age. He pointed out that an unborn child can sue, after birth, for injuries prior to birth and that he or she has rights in respect to inheritance.
Section 251, he said, does not allow a woman “to terminate the lives of unborn children on one’s sole desire without any grounds whatsoever.” The Code requires the doctors to make a decision based on medical evidence.” Nevertheless, he charged that “many people have decided to turn a blind eye to the strict requirements of the Criminal Code and to allow this flagrant abuse of the rights of unborn children to continue.”
Mr. O’Neil concluded that his initiative is an opportunity for the House to ensure that the “widespread violations…come to an end.” These are criminal offences, he argued, and it is time that the practices in this country reflect the law in this country.”
Next to speak was Jim Jepson (PC London East) who congratulated Mr. O’Neil on sponsoring the Bill. He said that it is a basic element of fundamental justice “enshrined in our Constitution,” that those accused of a crime have a right to legal counsel when standing for trial.
He believes there is “no greater contradiction” than that “thousands of unborn children who are not accused but innocent are tried, sentenced and executed every day without the right to counsel.”
This would not be “legislating morality,” he said. “The effect of this Bill would be to improve the quality of whatever decision is made by a mother, her doctor and the therapeutic abortion committee.” He continued.
Decisions are made by weighing information and choosing between alternatives. This Bill would allow the unborn child’s legal counsel to present to the committee information about the child’s interests. What is to be gained by excluding certain information pertaining to a child’s best interests from a decision relating to the pregnancy? The only reason that could exist for not wanting that information presented is the fear that it might influence the mother, perhaps even traumatically, so that she would change her mind. However, is that not the best possible reason for gathering information before a decision is made? This information is so important precisely because it might make a woman think twice about an abortion and it might save the life of her child.
Mr. Jepson suggested that a legal counsel might describe the development of the child in the womb and discuss the alternatives available, such as adoption. He might discuss methods of abortion, informing the mother “for the first time that the child was facing a painful and lingering death. I think a mother would want to know that and should know that,” he said.
“It is time our society lived up to its responsibility,” he said, “and that we are legislators acted in the name of justice and human dignity instead of expedience, opportunism and convenience.” Mr. Jepson said the Bill represented “substantial progress” in the abortion issue and that it deserved the full support of the House.
John Reimer (PC Kitchener) spoke next and suggested to Ms. Mitchell that the issue came up so frequently because it is an important one. “Rather than complaining that the issue keeps coming up so often,” he said, “let us deal with the fact that it does and start addressing it properly.” He said that the Bill deserved a full exploration in committee.
Noting that he had been a member of a hospital board for several years in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, Mr. Reimer commented on his experience. That hospital, he said, approved between 40 and 50 per cent of all the requests for abortions. Nevertheless, abortions were approved for “66 different reasons under the law. I suggest that it was far too liberal an interpretation of the law,” he commented.
Replying to those who argue against forcing morality on others, he said, we must take seriously the argument not to force our morality on others. Therefore, when it comes to the topic of abortion I suggest that we should be as thorough and objective as possible. Rather than talking about the side issues that surround this topic, and becoming involved in all the emotions that come into play, let us address the central issue: are we dealing with a human being who should have the full protection of the law or are we not? If we are dealing with a human being, let us ensure that they have the full protection of the law. If not, let us withdraw this section from the Criminal Code and let people simply do what they wish. We must be as objective as we can.
Mr. Reimer also took the opportunity to point some remarks at government stalling over the Morgentaler abortion clinic:
The House will know that Dr. Morgentaler opened a clinic in Toronto. This was challenged in the courts and he was acquitted. The Government of Ontario appealed and the acquittal was overturned. Now he is permitted to continue with his clinic in spite of that. The existence of the clinic is against the law which specifically states that abortions must be dealt with by a therapeutic abortion committee in the hospitals. Even Grade 3 children could understand that. However, we sit here in our comfortable seats and ignore that fact that as if it does not matter. It is a sad commentary on Members and a sad commentary on our society.
John Oostrom (PC Willowdale) was the last to speak. He said the Bill would be “a fundamental and welcome change to the present procedure” and added that he would be happy to see the Bill discussed in committee.
John Gormley’s Bill
On January 20, Private Member’s Bill C-255, an Act to Amend the Criminal Code (abortion), received further Second Reading debate during Private Member’s hour. The Bill introduced by John Gormley (PC The Battlefords-Meadow Lake), proposes to remove from the Criminal Code the provision of danger to the health of the mother as grounds of abortion.
Bob Brisco (PC Kootenay West), was the first to speak. While acknowledging that he respect Mr. Gormley’s views on abortion and saying that he share those views “in many ways.” Mr. Brisco cautioned that such a Bill was too important to receive discussion during Private Member’s hour. “It is essential,” he stressed, “that we ensure that any decision to amend the Criminal Code as proposed will be taken only after a full examination of all the issues and with the full understanding by all members.”
He said that the risk to a mother’s health today is minimal and suggested that too many are using abortion as a form of birth control. “I am moved to ask why so many fetuses are destroyed,” he said, “where it would be difficult to medically demonstrate a valid and serious health risk to the mother’s in each case.”
Mr. Brisco said that Parliament must decide whether the unborn deserve protection. A “court-imposed solution,” he said, pointing to the U.S. Roe v. Wade decision, has led to an estimated 15 million legal abortions in the last 12 years in that country. In the U.S., he said, “more than one quarter of all pregnancies now end in abortion at a rate of roughly of 4,000 per day.”
He concluded his remarks by referring to the findings of the 1977 Bagley Committee which investigated the working of the abortion law:
The committee also found that most Canadians were neither in favour of removing abortion from the Criminal Code nor of refusing therapeutic abortions under all circumstances. There is no indication that there has been a major shift in public opinion. I say that the only way in which we can make that major shift is by providing the medium, the social and economic opportunity, for the mother to make decision to save the life of the foetus. In that context, it is my hope that as a Private Member I can address myself with dedication to the provision and improvement of our own social structure so that so many of these unborn will have the chance to reach a life of fulfillment and be able to enrich the lives of their natural or adoptive parents.
John Nunziata (Lib. York South-Weston), spoke next and began by emphasizing that he did not support his Party’s position on abortion. The Liberal Party, he noted, supports the existing legislation. In his view, the law must be changed to give “greater protection to the unborn.” He reiterated an earlier statement he made in the House, “I said I would do what I could to ensure that the legislation is changed.”
Mr. Nunziata then proceeded to give an interesting insight into how Private Member’s Bills can be “talked out.” He said, the issue today is not whether or not we should change the abortion law. The issue today is whether or not a particular Member of Parliament, in this case the Hon. Member for the Battlefords-Meadow Lake, will have the opportunity to have his Bill discussed at the committee stage. We all have views with respect to abortion. However, we all know the process which we are going through here today.
This is Private Members’ Hour. A Bill has been introduced by a Private Member, a Conservative Member. One hour has been allotted to discuss this Bill. The Bill was before the House once before in September. On that occasion a number of Members of Parliament spoke to it. It was decided by the Government at that time that the Bill would be talked out. According to the process which is in place, if the Government does not support a particular motion or Bill, or for that matter, if members of the opposition Parties do not support a Private Member’s motion or Bill, all they need do is talk it out.
I guarantee Hon. Member’s that the Bill which is before us today will be talked out. We will see Conservative members of Parliament talk until the hour has elapsed. Therefore, the Private Member will be denied the opportunity of having his proposed legislation discussed at the committee stage. I call upon members of the Conservative party, those Members who will make the decision with respect to whether or not this Bill will go forward, to allow it to go to committee. In this way we can have a good debate on the subject matter.
Mr. Nunziata referred to Prime Minister Mulroney’s election campaign promise to allow a few vote on abortion in the House. He noted that “some 17 months into the Conservative mandate” the government had not provided an opportunity to fulfill this election promise.
“The government will not allow this Bill to go forward “he repeated, “and I say once again that it is a disservice not only to the Hon. Member but to the people of Canada. It would also lead one to ask about the integrity and honesty of the Government. It is just another example of promises made and broken.”
Cyril Keeper (NDP Winnipeg North Centre) spoke next. Noting that “I am a Catholic and a father,” Mr. Keeper reiterated his party’s position on abortion: That it is a private matter between a woman and her doctor which should be removed from the Criminal Code.
Mr. Keeper used the usual emotional tactics of those promoting wider access to abortion by referring to the supposed numbers of women who would die through illegal abortions. He repeated the cry that more, not less, funding is required for Planned Parenthood. He did not address the central issue which is that the unborn child is a human being deserving of protection.
Edouard Desrosier (PC Hochelage-Maisonneuve) spoke briefly to put his stand on the record:
…I come from a family of fifteen children. If my parents had known the system we have today, you would not have had the great privilege of seeing me in the House this afternoon.
I must tell you I am against abortion. I am against these criminal acts, and I entirely disagree with the member for the New Democratic Party who claimed this should not be considered a crime. I disagree. Anyone who kills a child is a criminal.
I am for the right to life. I think every member for this House should realize that destroying a child in its mother’s womb is a criminal act.
Jim Hawkes (PC Calgary West) rose to respond to Mr. Nunziata’s comments on parliamentary procedure earlier in the debate. He disagreed with Mr. Nunziata’s interpretation of parliamentary procedure. He said, if we were to cease talking about that Bill at this very moment, Mr. Speaker would put the question, the bells would ring. Members would come in and vote on the principle of the Bill. If the majority were in agreement with that principle, then the Bill would go to committee. Therefore, it is not a question of passing the subject matter of this Bill to committee…
However, what the Hon. Member was asking this House to do was to move to the voting stage where you either accept or reject a principle affecting human life. It affects the woman more than the man, the unborn child more than the living child. He asked us to pronounce on that principle after less than two hours of public debate…
Mr. Hawkes’ remarks imply that a “yes” vote on second reading is final approval of a Bill. It is our understanding that, while a vote at this stage does endorse the principle of a Bill, it also enables a parliamentary committee to study the matter in greater depth, calling in experts and interested members of the public to express their views. Once the committee process is complete, a report is tabled in the House and the committee recommendations are debated further by the MPs. It is only after this further debate that a Bill is accepted or rejected by the House.
Mr. Nunziata’s point was that passing the Bill through to the committee stage would allow greater discussion of the topic. This is something the present government seems to wish to avoid since it has not brought forward any legislation of its own which would fulfill the Prime Minister’s election promise of a free vote on abortion.
Mr. Hawkes spoke for less than half of his allotted 20 minutes. However, the conclusion of Private Members’ Hour prevented him from speaking longer. He did not put his own views on the issue on the public record during his speech and requested that he be allowed to resume his argument as first speaker when the debate next comes before the House.