Why are we so afraid of the abortion debate in Canada?

Everyone in Canada is shitting on Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth for a private member’s motion he brought forward asking to study when a human life begins.

Woodworth’s motion, M-312, is about Section 223 of the Canada Criminal Code, which says a child becomes a human being “when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother.” He calls for a committee to study the latest medical and scientific evidence to decide whether this is still a reasonable point at which someone gains standing as a “human being.”

His motion has been denounced by abortion rights groups, the Liberals, the NDP and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called it “unfortunate.” (Some even suggested the hashtag #coathangerMP but it appears not to have trended on Twitter.)

Many people, understandably, see this as a sneaky way to talk about abortion without actually talking about abortion. It is, and not even pro-life groups are pretending otherwise. Woodworth is part of a dedicated group of Conservative MPs for whom abortion is a huge deal.

But Woodworth’s tactics notwithstanding, why is everyone so terrified of discussing abortion? For one, it’s not really a closed issue, as so many insist, since there is no federal abortion law. So even as a legal matter, this has not been settled. Abortions are not limited at any point in a pregnancy, not because we all decided that this was to be the case, but because they are simply unregulated. (Access varies province-by-province.)

Second, while 37 per cent of Canadians say there should be no laws restricting a woman’s access to an abortion a majority, 51 per cent say there should be some kind of law. Now, that group isn’t necessarily anti-abortion; a huge majority of Canadians support the right to an abortion in most cases and only six per cent say abortion should be illegal under all circumstances including rape and fetal complications. That’s compared to 15 per cent of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, which is definitely messed up.

The point is that Canadians are by and large pro-choice, with many people even agreeing with the current lack of legal restrictions. But a lot of others think there should be something on the books, even if it’s to say “there shall be no restrictions on abortion in Canada.” That even the whiff of a debate on this issue produces howls of protest and coathanger imagery from so many quarters is frankly a little confusing.

Ultimately, Woodworth’s “I’m not really talking about abortion” way of talking about abortion is frustrating precisely because it doesn’t address the issue directly. If a serious and honest national dialogue took place over abortion, the country would likely survive. And the vast majority of us who support abortion would probably prevail.

photo of Stephen Woodworth: House of Commons

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