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Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth in Ottawa on Sept. 25, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's motion to set up an all-party parliamentary committee to discuss when an unborn child becomes a human being was voted down 203-91 this week. But the fact that 30 per cent of the MPs who voted supported the private member's motion is a victory in defeat for Mr. Woodworth on two fronts.

First, most people had expected a far greater rate of rejection and never anticipated that, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's opposition to it, 10 cabinet members, including Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose, would back the motion.

Second, the pro-choice mantra that "there is nothing to discuss" about abortion and that there's a consensus in Canada with respect to the current status quo of no legal restrictions on abortion at any point in gestation were both shown to be false by the heated discussion, both inside and outside Parliament, that Mr. Woodworth's motion generated.

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So where do we go from here? The answer came almost immediately when B.C. Conservative MP Mark Warawa filed another motion: "That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination."

Mr. Warawa is picking up on evidence concerning sex-selection abortion in Canada, documented by a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and empirically confirmed in a CBC sting investigation of "recreational ultrasound" businesses. According to the CBC report, "of the 22 centres visited, 15 agreed to book an appointment for an ultrasound that would give a couple the gender of the fetus before 20 weeks of pregnancy. That's within the range of time when it's still possible for a woman to get an elective abortion."

Indeed, in Canada, an abortion on demand is legally possible throughout pregnancy.

In a press release, Mr. Warawa says "recent studies have shown that the practice of aborting females in favour of males is happening in Canada [and polls show that] 92 per cent of Canadians believe sex-selective pregnancy termination should be illegal. … As well, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada have vehemently opposed sex-selection pregnancy termination."

So how will pro-choice activists or politicians who don't want to touch the topic of abortion (the "third rail of politics") react to Mr. Warawa's motion?

That unfettered access to abortion should be the litmus test of whether a society respects women and their rights is a long-standing claim of pro-choice advocates and at the heart of their rationale for supporting unrestricted access to abortion. They focus on women's rights to autonomy and self-determination and argue that such access is required to protect these rights and women's dignity.

But sex-selection abortion promotes the exact opposite values – it expresses a lack of respect for women in cultures in which sons are highly valued over daughters. It also differs from other abortions in that the woman wants a baby – just not a girl. In one study reported from India in which 8,000 consecutive abortions were followed, three were of unborn boys and 7,997 of unborn girls.

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Until recently, most pro-choice advocates rejected sex-selection abortion, calling it "gendercide" and "female feticide." But that has changed, at least in Canada. Pro-choice activists, such as Joyce Arthur, now promote the view that no abortions should be prohibited. They're willing to selectively sacrifice unborn female babies, it seems, to keep the "purity" of their ideology, at least in terms of "choice."

The fact that sex-selection abortion in Canada is occurring also raises what should be unthinkable questions for our society. To what extent, for example, is female feticide associated with creating a culture in which other abuses of women – such as "honour killings" – are tolerated? And how consistent are we in our approach in criminal law when we prohibit female genital mutilation but not the killing of an unborn girl just because she's a girl?

It's very difficult to say how politicians, whose courage and conscience usually fail them when it comes to dealing with abortion in Parliament, will vote on Mr. Warawa's motion. At the heart of the issue, they'll have to choose between "choice" and "respect for female human beings," whatever their stage of development or age.

My prediction is, they might find they've jumped out of the frying pan of Mr. Woodworth's Motion 312 into the fire of Mr. Warawa's Motion 408.

Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.

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