As a Canadian following the reproductive health coverage debate in the U.S., I was astounded at the theatrics. Replete with crusading priests and radio host Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for testifying in support of birth control, the war on women south of the border seemed more dramatic than anything going on in Canada.
But although abortion has been legal since 1969 and Canada is one of the few countries in the world with no legal restrictions on abortion, women’s reproductive rights are being insidiously attacked. In 2008, a bill that sought criminal penalties of up to life in prison for anyone who caused the death of a fetus passed through two readings in Parliament before being voted down.
And now, pro-life politicians are trying again to reopen the abortion debate—this time when a Conservative majority sits in the House. On April 26th, Motion 312 was debated in Parliament. The private member’s bill, proposed by Conservative MP Stephen Woodsworth, calls for a re-examination of whether fetuses should be included in the Criminal Code definition of a “human being.” If fetuses were granted personhood status, this could lead to the re-criminalization of abortion.
In the first round of debate, members of parliament crushed Woodsworth’s weak arguments. Gordon O’Connor, Conservative Party Whip, told Woodworth that ‘‘society has moved on and I do not believe this proposal should proceed.”
After watching the debate, I felt very optimistic that the motion will be rejected. But what remains worrying is that this debate occurred despite strong opposition from the majority of Canadians. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions opposing Motion 312. Pro-choice Canadians, which make up the majority of the country, as shown in poll after poll, report feeling surprised that they still need to speak up to defend reproductive rights. As one popular protest sign read, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.”
Yet pro-choice advocates won’t slow down anytime soon. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), under the leadership of Joyce Arthur, has helped lead the campaign to raise awareness and organize opposition to Motion 312.
“We won’t sit back and relax,” vows Arthur. “We will maintain the pressure to keep these issues front and center.”
As demonstrated in the erosion to abortion access in America since Roe vs. Wade, having abortion rights in the books doesn’t mean that Canadian laws will not backtrack in a similar direction. The reopening of debate in Parliament on whether fetuses should have personhood status means that anti-choice activists have already gained an inch.
Luckily, since the vast majority of Canadians support abortion access, the key for pro-choice advocates is just to make sure that the public becomes aware of any threats to reproductive rights. Feminist bloggers, such as Bernadette Wagner of The Regina Mom blog and contributors at the Dammit Janet! blog have been instrumental in educating the public about Motion 312. They are promoting easy ways for people to get involved, such as by signing petitions or sending postcards to MPs.
And Canadian advocates are putting on some theatrics of our own. The day before the first debate on Motion 312, the Radical Handmaids, a pro-choice group dressed in red robes and white caps, rallied on Parliament Hill. Playing off of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, in which fertile women were used as reproductive slaves, the Radical Handmaids are capturing the attention of Canadians in a fun and fresh way.
A drinking game from the Radical Handmaids. Source: RadicalHandmaids.com.
“Yes, what we’re doing is absurd, but it points out the absurdity of pushing reproductive rights back to the 1960s,” said Radical Handmaid co-founder Julie Lalonde.
It’s been a rough couple of years for social justice activists, and the Radical Handmaids have found a way to energize people. Radical Handmaid demonstrations have already happened across the country.
A solid victory for pro-choice Canadians this year can help turn the tide against the assaults to women’s rights that have been taking place under the Harper government. With a vote on Motion 312 coming as soon as mid-June, be sure to tell your MP today that you support legal abortion and expect them to vote against Motion 312.
Motion 312 was first debated in Parliament in April and is coming up for a second round of debate on Sept 21 and a vote on Sept 26. See updates at Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.