In 1967, before he was one of Canada’s most popular Prime Ministers, then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced a bill that legalized homosexuality and contraception, and also provided for, under certain medical circumstances, a three-doctor hospital committee to approve abortions for women.
“The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” he said at the time.
In 1988, all Canada’s abortion laws were struck down under the premise that forcing a woman to carry a child to term violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court ruled that a fetus is part of the woman carrying it, and not a separate entity, therefore any legal limitations on what a woman could do with her own body was deemed an affront to basic human rights and individual autonomy.
Since that time, women in Canada have enjoyed the ability to make their own choices about their bodies, their pregnancies, and their futures, and have access to safe procedures by trained professionals.
While many organizations, politicians, and individuals have opposed the current abortion laws, or lack thereof, the debate on legality of abortion in Canada has remained, for the most part, closed for the past two decades.
Gone are the days where women are forced to perform dangerous and often fatal self-procedures, or have abortions performed in any other setting than a safe, supportive, legitimate one.
Though in many countries, like the United States, right-leaning political parties have taken an official pro-life stance, Canadian federal governments have been consistently pro-choice. Even Prime Minster Stephen Harper, whose government has been repeatedly criticized in the media for becoming more right wing, has stated many times he is uninterested in re-opening the abortion debate.
Last week Tory backbencher and Kitchener MP Stephen Woodworth brought forward a private members bill, Motion No. 312, to put together a parliamentary committee with the aim of redefining the legal definition of when life begins, stating the current definition of when the fetus exits the womb is outdated.
While his arguments for the motion claimed to be scientific in nature, they were met with intense criticism on social media, by political commentators, and in the House of Commons saying changing this definition would re-open the abortion debate and change the legality of abortions.
On April 26, the motion was debated in the House of Commons.
It was to no surprise that members of the NDP and Liberal caucuses had many negative things to say about the motion and the party that put it forth; even after Prime Minister Harper gave his assurance he would vote against it.
But the most eloquent speech that day was given by Chief Government Whip and long-time Conservative party member Gordon O’Connor.
“Madam Speaker, I offer my response to Motion No. 312. The issue before us, in essence, is on what it is to be human. This has been debated as long as man has existed. Scientists, theologians, philosophers and doctors have all offered opinions.
The House of Commons, however, is not a laboratory. It is not a house of faith, an academic setting or a hospital. It is a legislature, and a legislature deals with law, specifically, in this case, subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code,” he said in his speech. “The purpose of Motion No. 312, which we are considering today, is to open to question the validity of subsection 223(1), which asserts that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth. If the legal definition of when one becomes a human being were to be adjusted so that a fetus is declared to be a legal person at some earlier stage of gestation, then the homicide laws would apply.”
O’Conner later went on to talk about the legal ramifications of adjusting this definition, and went on to add;
“Abortion is a very serious and long-lasting decision for women, and I want all women to continue to live in a society in which decisions on abortion can be made, one way or the other, with advice from family and a medical doctor and without the threat of legal consequences. I do not want women to go back to the previous era where some were forced to obtain abortions from illegal and medically dangerous sources. This should never happen in a civilized society.”
O’Connor finished his speech to say he would be voting against the motion, and urged others to do so.
Met with stunned silence by members of all parties, O’Connor’s measured yet emotional speech summed up better than the heated slams of any opposition party members that this debate ended in Canada over 20 years ago, and will remain closed, despite individual attempts to re-open it.
Though the motion will still be voted on at a later date, its lack of support can all but ensure it will fizzle and die as quickly as past attempts to re-open it.
O’Connor said in his speech that although everyone is entitled to their own beliefs on the morality of abortion, no one is forcing those who do not agree with it to have one. Likewise, those who feel the choice is right for them at a given time should not be forced to do anything but.
In many countries, abortion is still illegal, forcing women to risk legal ramifications and unsafe conditions to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
But last week’s debate, while disappointing it had to rear its head in 2012, should, if anything, make Canadians proud to live in a country where the rights of many are held above the opinions of few.