Prime Minister Stephen Harper keeps saying that he doesn’t want to re-open the abortion debate, and his backbenchers keep trying to do it anyway. Last week, Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott of Saskatchewan asked that Parliament create a special committee to study “what legal protections Canada ought to provide children before birth.” Mr. Vellacott’s motion came days after his colleague, Ontario MP Stephen Woodworth, asked that Parliament “legally recognize the equal worth and dignity of every human being” – including, Mr. Woodworth said in an interview, “newborn infants… people in coma… people with severe mental defects… [and] children before birth.”
If I believed that Mr. Vellacott and Mr. Woodworth actually cared about the unborn, I might respect their arguments. There’s a lot of work to be done protecting babies and children, and it would be great if the federal government showed some initiative about doing it.
I’d consider the MPs truly sincere in their concern for Canada’s fetuses if, for example, they referenced the 17 per cent of abused women who report that their partners first became violent when they were pregnant. Domestic violence is one of the biggest worldwide health issues for pregnant women, and since it’s linked to low birth weight and health problems from cerebral palsy to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, taking steps to reduce it would fall handily under the umbrella of protecting the unborn.
If either man ever spoke about people in this country suffering from lack of good prenatal care – from middle-class families in oil-rich Fort McMurray to transient homeless mothers – I might see them as allies in the movements to pay midwives fairly, and get more of them practicing in rural Canada.
Neither MP’s motion is actually likely to make it to debate. To earn my respect, they could swap grandstanding in Parliament for the guts to initiate a full investigation into an Environment Canada study that found that hydrocarbon pollutants from the bitumen extraction in Alberta’s oil sands is linked to birth defects and developmental delays in babies born up to 100 kilometres away.
But neither Mr. Vellacott nor Mr. Woodworth has ever shown interest in such issues. Stephen Woodworth says that his motion is not specifically targeted at Canada’s abortion laws, but both men have been publicly supportive of restricting abortion access multiple times in the past. Their motions are less about fetuses and babies, and more in line with a creeping, Atwoodian crackdown on the behaviour of pregnant women, bringing Canada into line with harmful policies around the world. Things are obviously worst in countries where abortion is fully illegal, like El Salvador, where Cristina Quintilla was found guilty of purposely inducing a miscarriage, even though she and her boyfriend were devastated by the loss. Restrictions on abortion are supposedly for the sake of children, but her 30-year sentence will leave her eight-year-old son without a mother for the rest of his childhood. Last winter in Ireland, Savita Halapavannar died when she was 17 weeks pregnant, bleeding to death after being denied a termination for a fetus that was already miscarrying. Both of these women were happily pregnant, and their mistreatment is a revolting insult.
Even where abortion is technically legal, pregnant women are increasingly being penalized for miscarriages and stillbirths. Thirty-eight U.S. states have fetal protection laws and it’s now common for American women to face actual murder charges for “offences” ranging from drug use during pregnancy to delaying or turning down a Casearean section. These cases are illogical to the point of insanity. They’re also the direct result of vague pronouncements on fetal rights and “personhood” that treat women like biological implements, not people – the type of vagaries found in the smug, icky motions introduced by Mr. Woodworth and Mr. Vellacott.
Since the Harper government came to power, Canada has awarded Diamond Jubilee medals to criminal anti-abortion activists, refused to fund international organizations that include abortion among their maternal healthcare tools, and seen declining access to hospital abortions (in New Brunswick, only one hospital provides the service and women must now pay if they access the service at a private clinic). Meanwhile, 30,000 Canadian children currently languish in foster care and quality daycare is impossible to find across the country. On Sunday, Industry Minister James Moore was asked how Canada should address the fact that one in seven children currently live in poverty: his answer was to spout platitudes about how wealthy a country this is, then let out a chuckle while asking “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.” It’s not hard to figure out the real priority of Conservative motions on the unborn – and ensuring that the country’s fetuses grow into healthy babies and happy children is not it.