Anyone who is at least passingly familiar with the political landscape of the United States right now knows that the Republican Party has declared open season on women’s reproductive rights. From the much-derided all-male hearing on women’s contraception (and the resulting Limbaugh clusterfuck) to the very serious breaches of both personal autonomy and medical ethics happening in various states, there seems to be a concerted effort to roll back women’s access to health care. Add to that the fact that the government was nearly shut down because Republicans refused to allow any federal funding to go to Planned Parenthood, their reluctance to recertify the Violence Against Women Act, and the picture becomes pretty clear: Republicans have decided that American women are on their own.
Of course we have our own version of the Republicans forming the government here in Canada. As I noted shortly after the election, the Republican North Party is actually a stiched-together and very uneasy coalition of actual legitimate fiscal conservatives and the backwoods knee-jerk reactionaries that exist in every country to some degree, and said this:
The only way (as far as I can see) that the RNP was able to stitch these two groups together was to simultaneously forge a false equivalence between these two perpendicular political perspectives, and to publicly proclaim disinterest in social policy while quietly whispering assurances to their social base that those issues would come to the fore once a majority was achieved. Now that this is a political reality, Prime Minister Harper will have to ‘pay the piper’, so to speak, by advocating positions that are wildly unpopular among the Canadian majority. If he fails to do this, social conservatives who have long felt ignored by the federal government will abandon the RPN and revive the Reform party. Should he capitulate to their whims, he will alienate the Libertarian/Classical Liberal wing of his party.
This must be a deft balancing act that will take an extraordinary statesman and leader to accomplish. Stephen Harper is neither of these.
Up until now, Prime Minister Harper has kept an at-times-ludicrous level of discipline enforced among the rank and file. They speak only in talking points, and even then only when instructed to do so by the Prime Minister’s Office. Then again, considering the kinds of insane shit they say when their discipline slips, it’s little wonder. At any rate, enforcing this incredibly restrictive and authoritarian “communications” strategy has allowed the RPN to push through some pretty awful legislation with little fuss from the Canadian people who were presented with carefully rehearsed spin on one side, and frothing-mad opposition on the other.
And so it left a lot of heads scratching when Kitchener MP Stephen Woodworth introduced a private member’s bill asking for a Parliamentary committee to be formed to debate when a human life begins. Of course his protestations that Canada’s legal definition of personhood starting at birth was “scientifically inaccurate”* were a fairly transparent attempt to hide the fact that he was attempting to re-open a national debate on access to abortion in Canada – a question that has been happily closed since 1976. But, for reasons that are not at all clear to me, this back-bench nobody MP tabled a bill to start the fight up again.
Many Canadians were, predictably, outraged at the idea of the clearly destructive Republican-style policies leaking across the crazy barrier and into our civic life. When the author of the bill rose in the House of Commons to defend it, members of all three opposition parties had knives sharpened, ready to slam the RPN for playing political games with women’s health. This was the moment they had been waiting for – after a long litany of government scandals that were met by a collective shrugging of shoulders, they had finally found an issue that people were fired up about.
And then something weird happened:
Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s motion proposing that a parliamentary committee study the legal definition of when life begins got zero support from MPs who debated it Thursday. Even a senior member of his own party, the Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor, said that, despite Woodworth’s claims, the motion is intended to lead to a change in Canada’s abortion laws and that it should be rejected.
But O’Connor disagreed, saying “the ultimate intention of this motion is to restrict abortions at some development stage in Canada.” If the legal definition of when a person is considered a human being is changed, and a fetus is then considered a human being then homicide laws would apply, and abortion, as a consequence, would be considered homicide, O’Connor said. He was the only other Conservative MP to speak during the debate, and he urged everyone to reject his colleague’s motion whenever it comes to a vote.
O’Connor said abortion is a serious decision for women to make and he wants all women to continue to live in a society where they can make that decison “without the threat of legal consequences.” Whether one accepts abortion or not, it will always be part of society, O’Connor said, adding that he can’t understand why those who are opposed to it want to impose their belief on others through the Criminal Code.
Putting aside for a moment the dizzying irony of a member of the “tough on crime at any cost no matter how stupid or backwards our policies are” party decrying the use of the Criminal Code for the pushing of personal beliefs, Mr. O’Connor made a speech that was pretty much taken from a pragmatic (and almost almost progressive) frame of reference. His point was that women should be allowed to choose for themselves, and that (shockingly) restrictions on abortion access do not eliminate abortion – they simply reduce the rate of safe abortions. For a party that has had at best a long-distance summer fling with reality, this kind of pragmatic defense of a position not at all held by their base is downright dumbfounding.
Now I am no political pundit, and I cannot claim any particular expertise in Canadian matters of state. That being said, I cannot help but be deeply cynical about the motivation of this government in opposing this bill. Yes, they probably knew it was political suicide, but if they truly wished to avoid controversy they would have sat Stephen Woodworth down in a back room and laid down the law on him. As it stands, the debate on abortion has been re-opened without anyone having to actually establish a voting record, so some of the damage is already done. Whatever solace there is to take in this comes from the fact that the motion went down in flames and seems very unlikely to pass, which suggests that Canadian women’s reproductive rights are safe for at least the time being.
I’ll spin some elaborate conspiracy theories in this afternoon’s post.
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*For a group of people who are so deeply anti-science, the right’s invocation of 101-level embryology would be hypocritical if they didn’t consistently get everything wrong.