Michael's Essay: The Pro-Debate Choice


In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code provision dealing with abortion. The court ruled, quite correctly, that this was a matter involving a woman, her doctor and her conscience.

Neither the court nor the country could be in the position of upholding compulsory pregnancy. Since then, Canada has had no law regarding abortion.

In the United Sates, which has a patchwork of regulations, the abortion rate is 25 per cent higher than here.

However, in the past 24 years, in almost every Parliament, there has been pressure to re-open the debate.

When the Harper government took office, there were great and widespread fears that it would seek to re-criminalize abortion.

It never happened and the Prime Minister has said his government will never legislate on the question.

The latest bid to re-open the matter comes from Stephen Woodworth, a Tory MP  from Kitchener.

On February 6th, Mr. Woodworth introduced a motion asking Parliament to form a special committee to study the question of when a fetus becomes a human being.

He said that Canada was still functioning under a 400-year-old law, which says a child is not a human being until it is born. He wants a debate on that matter, sometime in the fall.

Naturally when he made his motion, all hell broke loose.

In a stunningly blunt attack on the idea, Government Whip Gordon O'Connor said Mr. Woodworth's suggestion was unnecessary and possibly dangerous and he would have none of it.

Said Minister O'Connor: "The House of Commons 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."

Mr. Woodworth's motion will in all probability go nowhere. But it does raise an interesting question.

While Minister O'Connor rightly says Parliament is not a house of faith, or medicine or academics, it is a house of debate.

It is in fact the highest temple of debate in the country, where elected men and women are supposed to be able to engage in free and open debate. On any subject.

In writing her 1988 judgment, the late Madame Justice Bertha Wilson noted that the existing abortion laws violated women's rights under Section 7 of the Charter and Section 2A, freedom of conscience.

With grave and moving eloquence, she said the law deprived women of their essential dignity.

Then she went on: "The precise point in the development of the fetus at which the state's interest in its protection becomes compelling, I leave to the informed judgment of the legislature which is in a position to receive guidance on the subject from all relevant disciplines."

Pro-choice groups look upon the new motion as a wedge into the process of bringing in an abortion law.

But after nearly 30 years, no government in its right mind would attempt such a thing.
Abortion and everything around it has become the most divisive, radioactive issue in American politics and we don't want that here.

But isn't there the larger question of what can and cannot be debated in the House of Commons? Mr. Woodworth seems to be seriously purposed; this is not a frivolous issue by any means.

Of course a debate on the subject would re-open old wounds and stir up old animosities.

But isn't that what Parliament is all about?

Isn't it supposed to be a forum for any and all ideas to be disputed, argued, grappled with?
Once we start limiting the things our elected representatives can talk about, we reduce the power of Parliament and by extension, democracy itself.

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