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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 26, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE

A motion by a backbench Conservative MP that aims to reopen the debate on abortion has been denounced by members of the opposition as well as senior members of his own party, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Stephen Woodworth, an Ontario Tory, wants the House of Commons to establish a committee to examine the section of the Criminal Code that declares babies to be human at the moment they have fully emerged from the birth canal.

In an impassioned speech to the House on Thursday evening, Mr. Woodworth said those who believe that a fetus becomes human at the moment of birth should have the courage of their convictions and be willing to expose them to an examination of the evidence.

But "most Canadians know that our existing definition dishonestly misrepresents the reality of who is a human being," he said. "When you consider a child before birth, do you see a new human life with a beating heart and 10 human fingers? Or do you see the child as an object and an obstacle, even a parasite?"

Mr. Woodworth does not deny that his motion is an attempt to criminalize abortion. Canada has no laws to govern the procedure, and if a fetus is declared to be a human being, abortion foes could argue that killing it before birth would be tantamount to homicide.

Several other Conservatives agree with Mr. Woodworth's efforts, but at this point, his motion would seem doomed to failure. Not only did the New Democrats and the Liberals oppose it, Mr. Harper and Conservative Whip Gordon O'Connor rejected it.

Mr. Harper said during the spring election campaign that a Conservative government would not bring forward legislation to restrict access to abortion and that any such legislation would be defeated. On Thursday he told the House that he considered the motion "unfortunate" and he would vote against it.

Mr. O'Connor delivered an even more blunt attack.

"I do not want women to go back to the previous era where some were forced to obtain abortions from illegal and medically dangerous sources. This should never happen in a civilized society," he said. "I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their belief on others by way of the Criminal Code."

Mr. O'Connor's statements followed indignant outcries from the opposition benches. François Boivin, a New Democrat from Quebec, said the motion frightened her to death. "Make no mistake about it," she said, "this is a full-frontal assault on a woman's right to choose."

Hedy Fry, the Liberal health critic, asked if Mr. Woodworth would incarcerate women who wanted to have abortions to ensure that they carried their pregnancies to term. She accused the Prime Minister of allowing his MPs to do "through the back door" what he publicly opposes.

Mr. Harper, who has courted the vote of the social right, has given the more socially conservative members of his caucus wide latitude to express their opinions on such issues.

Her organization has a notice about the Commons debate on the front page of its website. The argument that life begins at conception is one that anti-abortion lobby has been making for years.

"Here we are in 2012 with people thinking it's alright to say that you're not a human being until you are fully emerged from the womb," Ms. Douglas said. "I just watched my new grandchild's four-D ultrasound and here is the baby turning around in real time. Science has progressed to show us the humanity of the child."

Even a Grade 8 science text will tell you that life begins when the sperm meets the ovum, she said. "The wool has to come off their eyes eventually and they have to see that this is a human being and, it being a human being, the next step is that it deserves to be protected."

Which is, of course, why groups that favour legalized abortion are so opposed to Mr. Woodworth's motion – to the point of holding a noisy protest on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

"It's quite insulting and offensive, really, because it is a direct attack on women's rights," said Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. "This is a debate we had back in the '60s, '70s and '80s. It's been settled for decades. It's unbelievable that we have to go back to this again."

Canada currently has no laws on abortion and thus there are no legal restrictions governing the procedure. Mr. Harper said during the spring election campaign that a Conservative government would not bring forward any legislation to restrict access to abortion and that any such legislation would be defeated.

But that gives little comfort to Ms. Arthur. There are many Conservative MPs who are likely to support the motion, she said, "so there is a danger there and I don't think we should just dismiss it."

And despite the benign wording of the motion, Mr. Woodworth is clearly making an end-run at criminalizing abortion, she said.

"We have also been taking a lesson from what's been going on in the United States for the last number of years, and especially in the last year or two. The attack on women's rights has been really intense down there. It's crazy. It's a war on women," Ms. Arthur said. "And it's a lesson to us in terms of fighting back and not giving an inch when it comes to women's rights."