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Backbench Tory files motion to study 'human being' definition

An protester waves anti-abortion placards on Parliament Hill in 2006.

Bill Grimshaw/bill grimshaw The Globe and Mail

An Ontario Conservative MP has filed a motion in the House of Commons asking parliament to form a special committee to study a 400-year-old definition of a human being – a move that effectively brings the emotionally divisive issue of abortion back on the table.

It's a subject that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said he has no interest in revisiting.

Yet Stephen Woodworth, the MP for Kitchener-Centre, says he just wants a "respectful dialogue to update a 400-year definition of a human being."

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Dodging reporters' questions if his end goal is to reopen the abortion debate, Mr. Woodworth said Canadian law, which defines a human being after they are born, has its roots in British legal treatises written in the 17th century.

"Whatever views one has about other issues, does it make medical sense in the 21st century to say a child is not a human being until the moment of complete birth?" Mr. Woodworth said.

His motion filed Monday says the special committee would report back to the House of Commons on medical evidence it finds to demonstrate if a child is a human being before birth, the legal ramifications of this current standing law and options to update the law.

Right in the middle of Mr. Woodworth's press conference, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson issued a statement saying that while private member motions such as Mr. Woodworth's are in accordance with the rules of Parliament, "the Prime Minister has been very clear, our Government will not reopen this debate."

Mr. Harper quashed suggestions during the 2011 election campaign that the Conservative government would introduce laws to reduce access to abortions. Earlier In 2010, Mr. Harper voted against a private-member's bill that would have added new Criminal Code penalties for coercing women to have an abortion.

"As long as I am Prime Minister, we are not opening the abortion debate," Mr. Harper said. "The government will not bring forward any such legislation, and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am Prime Minister."

While Mr. Woodworth maintains any conversation he had with the prime minister on abortion is private, he said, "But I can tell you, I am very comfortable as a Member of Parliament with raising this issue."

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Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Mr. Harper is "the most controlling prime minister we have ever seen" and she found it "totally appalling and unhelpful" that Mr. Woodworth has tabled this motion.

"We don't want to go back to the dark ages. We want to move forward … we've already talked about increasing access in other provinces like PEI."

Meanwhile, NDP Status of Women Critic Françoise Boivin said Mr. Woodworth "should call a spade a spade."

"The Prime Minister has said he doesn't want to reopen the abortion debate, so it shouldn't be allowed to be back-doored in like this," she said. "I'm not blaming Mr. Woodworth for putting in this motion and it's within his democratic right to do so. But obviously the next step of this motion would be to modify the Criminal Code. This is a back-door attack to what you can't do directly."

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