The Presidential Debates and Abortion in Canada

No one at work wanted to talk about the first presidential debate from last week.  If you’re a woman, you especially don’t want to talk about it, because you weren’t even a part of it, all your issues, all your concerns, all the rabid attacks on your rights over the past year were completely ignored. Romney didn’t want to go there, but Obama couldn’t seem to attack him on it nor defend the Democratic Party’s promotion of our rights. Does he think only old people watch television while young people scour Facebook and Twitter? He certainly mentioned seniors enough times…

And there were ample opportunities to bring up these issues. After all, by now we know that the economy has everything to do with women’s rights (and when Romney says abortion is not on the ticket, he’s lying), Obamacare is super-advantageous for women, and when Romney started touching oh-so-hesitantly on religious freedoms, what a fantastic time to bring up contraception, the right to choose and maybe even the incomprehensible role of women in Mormonism. It is his religion after all.

For the past several months, we’ve heard how women might be the defining vote in this election – how the ‘war on women’ by the Republican party is oh so real, how the financial gender gap is increasing (we pay more for… everything), and how access to contraception is ridiculously important for poor women, if they’re ever going to access education and the economy (and then we had that whole religious freedoms/contraception debate, which is becoming tenuously moot). We also recently had two conventions centered around women’s issues, with speeches by strong female leaders (Condi Rice, Ms. Ledbetter, Michelle Obama, Sandra Fluke) running amok with buzz words, even in the men’s performances. We’ve been inundated by Obama’s Strong Women messages and sickened by Ann Romney’s attempts to suggest that we shouldn’t even consider women’s issues in this election at all.

The thing about debating controversial topics is that if you’re afraid of raising the issues because of attacks that might ensue, no progress will be made. Opportunities for fundamental change will be missed. Now, it seems like all the fuss was simply pandering for my vote. Because when the debate happened, it was a return to two men debating ‘big’ and ‘serious’ issues, from which women were completely sidelined.


Just look at Canada. At the risk of getting my head bitten off by every feminist in the country, we recently missed a fantastic opportunity to open the debate on when life begins. Before you skewer me, let me pre-empt this by having you know that in Canada, we have no law on abortion. None. So if you wanted an abortion at 8 months, you might be hard pressed to find a doctor who’ll perform it, but it wouldn’t be illegal. On the flip side, if someone stabbed your unborn 8 month child, would that be considered murder? We’re still up in the air on that too (Section 223(1) of the Criminal Code says that a child becomes a human being when it has “completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother.”)

Is it constitutional to not have a law on something as fundamental as the rights over our bodies and the rights to life? And should we not welcome such a debate as a reaffirmation of Canada’s belief in women’s rights, an evolving constitution and recognition of the complexities in this issue as yet undefined by Canadian law?

Here – a little bit of legal history surrounding abortion in Canada. Abortion was illegal until 1969 when Parliament allowed for the procedure in case the health of the mother was at risk. Pierre Trudeau then amended this part of the Criminal Code by stating that abortions could only be provided in hospitals by licenced physicians, again only when the health of the mother was at risk. Terms such as ‘health’ were never defined. (We all know how I feel about defining one’s terms)

In 1988, everything changed. The Supreme Court struck down this section of the Code in the Morgentaler ruling finding that it was not applied equally across the provinces, but failed to define abortion as a constitutionally protected right, and conversely, failed to define a fetus as having any rights at all. Only one justice, Justice Bertha William, wrote in support of a woman’s right to abortion, while all dissenting male Justices wrote what basically consisted of “a woman’s choice not being her own.” Basically. The following year, the Mulroney government tried to pass a bill restricting abortion with severe prison sentences for doctors who didn’t abide by the new law. The bill failed in the Senate.

Fast forward to 2006. Members of Parliament are suddenly concerned with whether injuring a fetus is a punishable crime. Alberta tries to pass a bill making it criminal, but fails on constitutional grounds as the bill does not provide for abortion. The province tries again in 2007 to amend the Criminal Code, but that too goes nowhere.  In the same year, Ontario tries to pass a bill making it a crime to perform an abortion after 20 weeks gestation, but the bill is tabled and gets no second reading in the House of Commons.

Until now, our MP’s have been mute on the subject. When Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth tried to re-open the debate a few months ago (supported, for all the wrong reasons, by the Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose), and when Conservative leader Stephen Harper firmly opposed (as all parties seem to) the motion, the opposition failed to recognize that the majority of Canadians do not support there being no law at all. In 2011, Gallup Polls found that 77% of Canadians think abortion should be illegal in the last 3 months. I’m all for freedom of choice, but I get uncomfortable when confronted with these precisions, mostly because I would tend to agree. Am I okay with abortions being performed when the fetus becomes fully viable? Am I okay with abortions allowed at 8 months? Do I not think criminals should not be punished for harming a viable fetus during an attack?

And if viability is a continuum, how do we enact a bill on this without some serious discussion?

Also, if we’re so against opening the debate, how come we stopped allowing for any of our G8 maternal health and child care money to be spent on abortion in developing nations? In 2010 we pledged $1.1billion, far more than in previous years. Suddenly we’re developing regressive morality overseas without a debate? If anything, this is the issue that should be on the table – why are we severing women’s rights overseas when we can’t even debate them at home?

But, and I feel this innately, we’re frightened. We’re frightened because we know that when questions about fetal rights are raised, all our rights and roles as women come up for judgement. We’ve seen this in the States over the last year, and we know, every day, that we are still fighting for our rights, we are still living in a patriarchal society, we still navigate skewed power relations with difficulty. We read of stories like that of Ina Drew, top investment banker at JPMorgan, and we marvel at her ascension. We admire Hilary, but wonder how the new CEO of Yahoo will be able to juggle her position and her new son. We tire at research pointing to women in power cementing the male status quo, and we long to access a media that does not consistently denigrate our appearance, hyper sexualize our bodies and remove our agency.

But this ideal is still so far away from our truths, so inaccessible, that we wonder when it will be the norm for women, and not amazing ideas to gawk at. And this is why every single hair follicle on our over waxed, rawly shaved and epilated bodies stands briskly on end at the thought that we could even speak about something that might take away the rights we have fought so hard for.

And that is a depressing thought, especially in Canada.

Maybe we’ll get a mention next time Obama and Romney take to the stand again. But so far, in Canada, we’ve quenched Motion 312. Maybe we’ll get to a place at some point that we’re not so scared of re-opening it.

We can only hope.



Photo credit Official U.S. Navy Imagery via the Creative Commons License.

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  • Thanks for this post. We have legal protections and laws related to abortion access and I
    don’t see a need for a law that reaffirms that life begins at birth. But I’m a bit conflicted on what our strategy should be to maintain our rights – I think part of the “let’s not debate this” is wanting to hold Harper to account on his promise not to re-open the debate. There was also a keen understanding that Woodworth’s motion was totally disingenuous – it was a back-door attempt to recriminalize abortion and had nothing to do with “examining science”, as he claimed. The supporters of the motion, the speeches made in favour in the House, and the ties Woodworth has to Christian conservative pro-life groups make that clear.

    I think another issue was a bit of a sense of giving in to the Woodworth/anti-choicers’ message if we let there be another debate – there was this idea that to even debate would be to admit there is a problem with the lack of definition. On the other hand, I didn’t like pro-choicers being seen as unwilling to debate – it may have come across to some as operating from a position of weakness when in reality it was about protecting a win we’d already achieved.

    But that said, part of me wanted to say, “Heck yes, we’ll have this debate. We’ll have this debate and we’ll win it again.” Not sure if we won that it would’ve ended there, but it might have felt like more of a victory.