On Sept. 21, in front of a packed gallery, the second hour of debate for Stephen Woodworth’s (CPC, Kitchener Centre) private member’s motion, M-312, took place in the House of Commons. Woodworth was joined by several Conservative colleagues calling for Parliament to set up a special committee that would examine the Criminal Code definition of human being in the light of modern scientific evidence, while opposition MPs questioned Woodworth’s motives, saying he was unnecessarily re-opening the abortion debate. The vote on M-312 was scheduled for Sept. 26 (after we went to press).
Woodworth pleaded for allowing a discussion about the humanity of the unborn child in the womb, noting that it was in the Canadian tradition to consider evidence before coming to political conclusions. He said that Section 223 (1) of Canada’s Criminal Code, which stipulates that a child only becomes a human being once he or she has fully proceeded from the womb, is outdated because it is based on a 400-year-old British law that was created at a time before medical science understood fetal development.
Woodworth said passing his motion, “would fulfill our shared vision of Canada to allow, despite extreme and intransigent opposition, a mere study about human rights even if modern evidence might cause some to question our laws.”
The Kitchener MP added: “The sweep of history for 400 years has brought ever greater recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. That bedrock foundation anchors Canada’s essential character.”
Conservative Stella Ambler (Mississauga South) said, “Canadians have different views on this important law, which Motion No. 312 proposes to study, and that is even more reason for Parliament and the House to show leadership.” Responding to opposition MPs that disagree with examining the science underlying the 400-year-old law, Ambler asked, “is it good for Canada if members of Parliament are afraid to even hear evidence about any law?”
Ambler also addressed the argument that the issue has been settled by the courts. The rookie Mississauga MP said, “some say the courts have already settled the question of who is a human being in Canada. To be clear, that is simply not true. Court after court has said, again and again, that this issue is so important that it is Parliament’s responsibility to deliberate on it and resolve it for Canadians.”
Ambler also said it was time to re-examine the law. “This 17th century law was incorporated into Canadian law in the 19th century at Confederation,” she said in her speech. “This definition of a human being may have made sense when it was written 400 years ago, when leeches and bloodletting were standard medical treatment. People then knew nothing about a child’s development before birth. However, does this definition of a human being make medical and scientific sense in the 21st century?”
David Anderson (CPC, Cypress Hills-Grasslands) said, “I have had over 1,500 responses encouraging me to support Motion No. 312. I find it interesting that many of them have come from young women,” which he characterized as a rebuke to the opposition’s argument that M-312 was “an attack on women.”
Anderson, like Ambler and Woodworth, focused on the changing science and need for an honest debate. He asked, “why would a 400-year-old definition of a human being be severed from advances in our medical understanding?” Anderson asked, “do Canadians believe that a child transforms from a non-human to a human being at the moment of complete birth?”
The Saskatchewan MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources, asked the House, “if we presently have a law that decrees a certain human being is not a human being, is that an honest and acceptable law?” Anderson wondered: “Could such a law ever be considered just or legitimate? If Parliament finds itself in a situation where it allows one law that decrees the dehumanization and exclusion of an entire class of people, what are the safeguards that will prevent us from finding reasons to decree that others are not human beings as well?”
Conservative Mark Warawa (Langley) said he was “saddened” by the falsehoods about M-312. He urged his fellow MPs to “not exaggerate, not turn to rhetoric” when debating M-312. He also tried to focus discussion on the merits of the science undergirding the current law. “Why is Canada out of sync with the rest of the world?” he asked, noting “a child whose little toe is still in the birth canal has not fully proceeded from his mother’s body; why does our law take such an unusual position?” Warawa said, “any parent knows that a child is there.”
Warawa said passing M-312 would allow Parliament to implement a fuller conception of human rights. “Let’s protect women’s rights, children’s rights, adult’s rights, all human rights,” he urged his colleagues.
Massimo Pacetti (Lib., Saint-Leonard—Saint Michel), addressing the House of Commons for the first time since the 2011 federal election, expressed “astonishment” that Parliament was debating the issue, and said, “it’s a shame that we’re wasting debate on this.”
Pacetti, who said it was a waste of time to debate M-312, said that instead of having a committee examine the issue, Woodworth should have come up with a definition of human life. “If he really thinks that subsection 223(1) is archaic,” Pacetti said, “the member for Kitchener Centre should try to amend that section, rather than place the burden of research and decision making on a special committee. Why use resources funded by taxpayers so that parliamentarians can hold a debate that the vast majority of Canadians find undesirable and even offensive?” Pacetti offered no data to support his assertion that Canadians find it “undesirable” and “offensive” for Parliament to examine this issue.
Some MPs certainly considered it offensive. Irene Mathyssen (NDP, London-Fanshawe) said she was “offended” by the motion, and described it as a “slap in the face” to women. Her colleague, Sylvain Chicoine (NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant) said he was speaking “with great disappointment” about a motion that seeks “to break down the social peace in our country.”
Mathyssen noted that Woodworth had held a press conference earlier in the week in which he condemned the fact that the definition of human being excluded an entire class of humans – preborn children — from legal protections. Mathyssen said, “the comments by the member are a blatant attempt to misrepresent the facts. A fertilized egg is not a class of people, and I am offended that the member would … open the door to changing abortion rights in Canada.” She said M-312 was “nothing less than an attempt to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.”
Liberal MP Pacetti agreed that Woodworth’s true goal was to ban abortion: “The question, of course, is where would that slippery slope take us?” Pacetti said, “the Liberal Party does not support reopening the abortion debate, in any way.”
Woodworth’s has noted that his motion would not change any legislation or affect any court decision. It would be up to Parliament to act on the findings of the committee, if it chose to do so. In her statement to the House, Ambler said, “for the benefit of my colleagues on all sides of the House, I point out that the only thing Motion No. 312 does is to propose a study.”
Campaign Life Coalition issued a press release congratulating Woodworth and the three MPs who spoke in favour of his motion “for speaking in favor of having the debate” while condemning “the cowardly opponents of the motion who spoke out against having a scientific enquiry.”
CLC national president Jim Hughes said, “Motion 312 calls for parliament to evaluate an outdated 400-year-old law that denies modern scientific evidence that proves that life begins at conception.” Hughes did not mince words about M-312’s opponents: “Those who oppose this motion are anti-science, anti-debate extremists who refuse to accept modern day facts. What a bunch of Neanderthals.”
CLC national organizer Mary Ellen Douglas said, “the human being in every stage of life is deserving of basic human rights,” and “those who oppose a discussion on this fundamental issue are discriminating against a whole group of human beings based on age and development.”
The opposition leaders have all said their parties are united against M-312. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he will vote against it and Gordon O’Connor, the chief government whip, delivered a pro-abortion speech in the spring speaking against M-312 during the first hour of debate. Most political observers consider M-312 doomed and the week before the vote Woodworth said he expected it would be defeated.