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Women weigh in on Bill M-312, the right to choose, and each other

Malika Bourboun | Fulcrum Contributor

Illustration by Megan McArdle

ACCORDING TO MERRIAM-WEBSTER, the term “polarize” is a transitive verb which means to “break up into opposing factions or groupings.” A cursory glance at the fall-out from the free vote on Bill M-312 that took place in the House of Commons on September 26th, and it is this definition that springs to mind when seeing the divisive effect abortion continues to have on Canadian society and its national women’s movement.

On February 6, 2012, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener-Centre) filed Motion 312—also known as Bill M-312—with the Clerk of the House of Commons requesting that Parliament strike a special committee to review the legal status of the foetus under subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code. Private member’s bills are legislative motions introduced by MPs who are not cabinet ministers. Typically, MPs will use these motions to initiate discussion on key policy issues or to request Parliament take specific action regarding them.

Although Bill M-312 was defeated by a vote of 203 to 91, its impact continues to reverberate throughout the House and the nation. Making good on his campaign promise to not re-open the abortion debate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not vote in favour of the bill. However, 10 cabinet ministers or ministers of state did, including the Minister of State for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose. Needless to say, Ms. Ambrose’s vote did not go unnoticed, and the responses it generated leaves no doubt that Canadians continue to feel very strongly about the right to choose.

SEE ALSO: I am pro-contraception [Blog]


Two solitudes

Women weighed in within hours of the vote, and their reaction was anything but lukewarm. From Brantford to Burnaby, the responses that poured in from Ambrose’s supporters and detractors ranged from warmly congratulatory to viciously vitriolic.

On one hand, you had journalists like National Post columnist Barbara Kay defending a minister who “dared to vote her conscience on Motion 312” and was therefore “effectively excommunicated from woman-dom”. On the other, you had chief executive of YWCA Canada Paulette Senior shocked that the Minister for the Status of Women voted in favour of a motion that “really goes against the work we have been doing for over 140 years in Canada.”

In an article published by the Calgary Herald, REAL Women of Canada (RWC)—a pro-life women’s group that lobbies in support of anti-abortion legislation—commended Ambrose for her “courageous stand in support of life”. Others, like ProwomanProlife blog founder Andrea Mrozek, contend Ambrose’s stance signals a more inclusive type of feminist discourse that encourages Canadian women to be both supportive of women’s rights and willing to discuss abortion or its opposition. According to Mrozek, there are “many women, [Mrozek] included, who do not see so-called abortion rights as part and parcel of women’s rights”.

The latest 2012 data from Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid, two of Canada’s leading public opinion research firms, indicates there’s merit to Ms. Mrozek’s claim. According to the January survey conducted by Angus Reid, 53 per cent of Canadian women favour some type of abortion regulation. Ipsos Reid’s July poll found that at least 62 per cent of Canadian women want these restrictions legislated.

According to pro-life advocates inside and outside the political arena, the foetal rights debate is long overdue. Conservative MP Bryan Hayes of Sault Ste. Marie explained his support of Motion 312 in an interview with Maclean’s magazine.

“This piece of legislation states that a child is not a human being before the moment of birth,” he said. “The definition of when someone is officially declared a human being is 400-year-old legislation, and I think conversation needed to occur as to whether or not that piece of legislation makes sense today.”

For pro-life members of the medical world, like Canadian Physicians for Life (CPL), denying the existence of pre-born beings robs the pro-choice movement of legitimacy and credibility.

“Every Canadian doctor knows that the unborn child is a live human being,” CPL president Dr. Will Johnston said in a statement following the Canadian Medical Association’s decision to oppose Bill M-312.

Dr. John Shea, a spokesperson for CPL, gave an interview to pro-life publication Lifesite News where he explained why foetal rights need to be recognized.

“When the ovum and sperm unite, a single-celled human organism is formed… this organism is a human being, a person at the single-cell stage,” he said. “From that point in time he or she has rights. Anybody who denies that fact is denying biological reality.”

For Kasey Smith*, a third year biomedical sciences student at the U of O, it’s those very bioethical considerations which make abortion so controversial. Smith struggles with the issue’s highly subjective and complex nature.

“Although we have a right to choose what to do with our body, [as a scientist] I know the foetus is alive,” she said. “So I’m kind of on the fence about whether restricting abortion constitutes a step forward or back.”

Christabelle Sethna, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Women’s Studies, favours a more open dialogue that embraces the complexity and uncertainty women on both sides feel about abortion. An expert in women’s health issues, Sethna’s research on sex education, contraception, and access to abortion examines the narrow conceptual framework that makes it difficult for any comprehensive understanding of a woman’s right to choose.

“The whole pro-choice vs. anti-abortion position is a red herring,” she said. “Oppositional positioning of the abortion issue does not accurately depict its complexity. Each pregnancy is different. The issue is not when does life begin, the issue is can a woman sustain a child from pregnancy onward, her commitment to raising it.”

However, Ms. Sethna views the introduction of private member’s bills like M-312 as an “attack on abortion by stealth.”


The future of abortion rights

Canada currently has no laws governing abortion. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous 1969 abortion law. Under that law, abortion was legal, but only obtainable under strict conditions. In order to get authorisation for the procedure, women had to first obtain a medical referral from their own doctor and then secure the approval of a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC) composed of three to five doctors based in an accredited hospital. To date, there’s been no new abortion legislation passed since 1988.

Despite this legislative vacuum, Professor Sethna feels the current government is not likely to pursue any re-criminalization of abortion, but rather will focus on preparing the groundwork for increasing restrictions on access.

“We need to safeguard abortion access right now and sensitize Canadian women to what may happen in the future,” said Sethna.

After the vote on Bill M-312, a number of high profile feminists and women’s organizations seemed to share Sethna’s fears of the Harper government’s current direction in light of Ambrose’s now apparent views on the issue.

Fédération des Femmes du Québec, the Canadian Women’s Health Network, and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) have all demanded that Ambrose step down. Joyce Arthur, the ARCC’s executive director, was incensed by the minister’s actions.

“It’s her job to represent the interests of women, to defend women’s rights, promote women’s equality,” she said. “We feel she’s betrayed the women of this country. [Ambrose] seems to think the status of women is a little below that of a fertilized egg. Frankly, we’re insulted.”

Since fear is a great motivator, it may explain why women  responded so harshly to Ambrose. The retribution that followed the minister’s actions was swift and merciless; Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey tweeted, “Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose voted Yea on [Motion 312]. Now waiting for the Minister of Agriculture to vote against corn.” NDP status of women critic Nikki Ashton tweeted that she was “shocked that [the minister] on the status of women supported clawing back women’s rights. Time for a new minister.”

Martha Jackman, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, argues there are legitimate grounds for Ambrose’s resignation. Jackman specializes in constitutional law with a focus on women’s issues and the rights of other marginalized groups. She, too, was appalled by Ambrose’s actions. Although Jackman recognizes Ambrose’s right to her own opinion and religious beliefs, she believes it is not acceptable for her to express them under the auspices of that office.

“Anyone that supported [that bill] does not understand and is not prepared to defend women’s constitutionally protected equal rights,” said Jackman. “[Ambrose] should step down if she is not prepared to do that.”

Jackman rejects MP Woodworth’s claim that Bill M-312 is just meant to facilitate a “benign study” of the 400 year-old definition of a human being in light of new modern medical evidence and explains the legal dilemma it presents.

“Under Quebec civil law and English common law, the foetus does not become a person until it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother,” said Jackman. “Any redefinition of subsection 223(1) pits the rights of the foetus against the mother’s. The issue of the legal status of the foetus is tied to equality rights and abortion and anyone who says the opposite is being disingenuous.”


Raising student awareness

Jackman finds it worrisome that there’s little awareness outside of Parliament, the media, and academia about the reality of foetal rights and the intractability of separating the foetus from the woman carrying it.

“My students have always lived in a time where they had equal rights,” said Jackman. “These gains are very fragile. Young women are relatively oblivious to that fact.”

However, that is not the case for all female students. Stéphanie Fortier, a fourth year U of O student majoring in social services and aboriginal studies, is anything but apathetic toward Motion 312.

“It’s against human rights,” said Fortier. “You can’t not decide on your own life. That has greater repercussions than just having a baby or not. If I can’t choose, then a decision is being forced on me. I’d feel desperate because my rights would be diminished. Reproductive rights and women’s rights go together because they affect each other. They’re a package deal.”

Feminist scholar Joanna Erdman echoes that sentiment. In The Back Alleys of Abortion Care: Abortion, Equality and Community in Canada, she explains why reproductive rights and women’s equality can never be mutually exclusive.

“Access to reproductive and sexual health services is…inseparable from the larger project of women’s political, economic, and social equality,” she wrote. “If women are to be equal…the Charter must be interpreted and applied in fulfillment of a broader commitment to transform social and political institutions¾including our health care system¾in an egalitarian direction wherein women are not only perceived as full members of Canadian society, but believe themselves to be.”

For students like Sahana Sriranganathan, freedom of choice is a crucial component of this type of full citizenship. Sahana, who’s in her first year of criminology and public administration at U of O, identifies as a pro-choice feminist.

“Making choices, including those about reproduction, is up to me,” she said. “Not the state or anyone. I’ve grown up always having abortion as an option. Taking it back wouldn’t be fair because I’d have less freedom of choice.”

For Christelle Rancourt, motherhood’s a personal matter. This is Christelle’s second year studying social services and psychology at the U of O and working with what she calls “feminist concepts”.

“What’s more feminine then motherhood?” said Christelle. “It’s the very source of our womanhood! It is not for the state to decide when I experience that or what I do with my body. That’s my choice. Re-criminalising abortion is just another way the state can control us, like before. The same way men used to control us by keeping us at home.”

In the end, we’re left with two solitudes: polar opposite visions of what a modern Canadian woman should be and her value in the eyes of the state, the law, and society.

Bill M-312: One step forward or two steps back? As always, the choice is yours.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.