In Debate: Opposing M-312, Defending Womens Rights

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, the motion being debated in the House today is nothing less than an attempt to reopen the abortion debate in Canada. This is quite literally a slap in the face to women who have fought long and hard for the right to control their own bodies and their ability to determine for themselves when they wish to have children. Motion No. 312 states:

 

 

That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth....

 

The member for Kitchener Centre's desire to open up this debate has an end goal of changing the legislation to enable the fetus to be declared a human being. We are all very aware that such a change in the definition will place Canada directly on the regressive path to banning abortions.

The member for Kitchener Centre held a press conference earlier this week. In that press conference he quite clearly stated that the current definition of a person is an exclusion of a class of people. These types of statements distort the truth. In reality, over 90% of abortions in Canada are done in the first trimester. Only 2% to 3% are done after 16 weeks and no doctor in this country performs abortions past 20 or 21 weeks, except for compelling health or genetic reasons.

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 shamelessly misrepresent the women's rights movement as an example of why we should open the door to changing abortion rights in Canada.

I would like to highlight several legal precedents that have already dealt with the question that Motion No. 312 raises, in particular Tremblay v. Daigle, Dobson v. Dobson, Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. G., Borowski v. Canada, and R. v. Morgentaler.

These rulings have concluded or noted that the fetus has never been a person nor been included in the meaning of “everyone” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; that a fetus must be born alive to enjoy rights, the born alive rule; and that the law has always treated a pregnant woman and her fetus as one person under the law.

We need not look far to see the danger of Motion No. 312. In the United States fetuses have legal personhood rights in at least 38 states, most through so-called fetal homicide laws, which are supposedly aimed at third parties who assault pregnant women.

In reality, these laws are used to justify prosecuting pregnant women under child welfare laws, and they function much like the 2008 bill of the member for Edmonton—Sherwood Park, Bill C-484, which proposed changes to the Criminal Code that would, if passed, also threaten a woman's right to choose. The intent of that bill was to amend the Criminal Code to have two charges laid against anyone killing a pregnant woman, and it would in effect have given legal rights to a fetus, thereby changing the definition of when a fetus becomes a person under the law. While the stated purpose of the bill was the protection for a woman and her fetus, in practice, like Motion No. 312, these laws are primarily used to justify the prosecution of women.

Motions and bills such as these create obvious dangers for those who counsel or perform abortions. They also turn pregnant women into lesser citizens whose rights are subordinated to those of a fertilized egg.

What is absolutely clear is that Motion No. 312 is taking aim at a woman's right to choose and is a direct attack on jurisprudence. Canada was once a world leader in the promotion and protection of women's rights and gender equality. It was committed to the view that gender equality is not only a human rights issue but also an essential component of sustainable development, social justice, peace and security.

These goals can only be achieved if women are able to participate as equal partners, decision-makers and beneficiaries of the sustainable development of their societies. How can Canada be considered a world leader in women's rights when we have members of Parliament suggesting that we revert to the barbaric days of gender inequality through the restriction of abortion?

When abortions are illegal, women do not stop having them. They only take more risks to access the service and these risks can have deadly consequences. For instance, before abortions were legalized in South Africa in 1997, there were an average of 425 deaths stemming from unsafe abortions every year. Today, the numbers are below 20.

In Latin America, most abortions are considered illegal, yet roughly 3.8 million procedures are performed each year and are directly linked to over 4,000 avoidable deaths.

The same happened here. Before abortion laws in Canada were struck down, there were over 35,000 illegal abortions taking place every year. Between 1926 and 1947, there were an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 deaths as a result of desperate women submitting themselves to clandestine procedures.

Despite assurances from the Prime Minister—known for his tight control over his caucus members—that the government does not plan to reopen the abortion debate, there is a troubling trend in the government's backdoor actions and its support for backbenchers who are continually trying to revive this issue.

In the last Parliament, the member for Winnipeg South tabled Bill C-510, An Act to Prevent Coercion of Pregnant Women to Abort (Roxanne's Law). In 2008, as I mentioned earlier, we saw Bill C-484, a bill that nearly the entire Conservative caucus supported, including the Prime Minister.

In 2010, as part of the maternal health initiative at the G8 summit in Muskoka, the government imposed a moratorium on the funding of safe abortions in 10 developing countries, emphasizing the protection of life yet ignoring the consequences of systemic rape in some of those countries. The statistics from those developing countries are heartbreaking. Approximately 70,000 women die each year due to unsafe abortions and 5 million are hospitalized because of complications resulting from unsafe abortions.

Women's groups in Canada fighting for comprehensive maternal health funding were told by a Conservative senator to shut up about abortion or else there might be a backlash. The senator contended that Canada was still a country with free and accessible abortion and to leave it at that.

This thinly veiled threat points to a greater fallacy, that abortion services are in fact available across Canada. Some provinces have very few hospitals providing services. Prince Edward Island has none. Canadian women living in rural areas and those in jurisdictions without an abortion provider travel long distances, encountering significant costs and additional stress. These constraints have the most impact on young women, those who have little job security, or women with significant family obligations.

Turning back the clock and reopening the debate on when human life begins is a dangerous path to take. The Canadian government should be working to strengthen women's rights instead of heading down a path that exposes women to the dangers of illicit, unsafe procedures.

Women in Canada have the right to choose. That has been established by the Supreme Court of Canada, and we demand that the government ensure this right's continuation and that all equality rights are protected. We need a government that will champion programs and policies that ensure that women's contributions to society, the economy, and leadership in this country are respected and encouraged. Access to safe, legal abortions are integral to these rights.

I want to make it very clear that I do not support this motion. New Democrats do not support this motion. We will actively fight against any motion or bill that will threaten a woman's right to choose. It is both frightening and insulting that the men who have introduced these bills and motions have so little respect for a woman's ability to determine what is best for her, her body and her family. The right rests solely with women who choose. No one has the right to interfere. The Supreme Court has upheld that right and so should the members of this Parliament.