Kitchener Centre Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s private member’s Motion 312, which was defeated last Wednesday in the House of Commons, enraged many.
It proposed striking a special ad hoc Commons committee to review Criminal Code section 223 (1), which states: “A child becomes a human being … when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother.” The motion proposed to review this, taking into account new medical and legal evidence.
According to the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, private members’ motions mean “the government is not bound to adopt a specific policy or course of action as a result of the adoption of such a resolution since the House is only stating an opinion or making a declaration of purpose.”
Party discipline, for better or worse, constrains MPs from voting their conscience on important government bills and matters of confidence. This motion was not a government bill. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the party whip, and most of the Conservative cabinet opposed the motion.
This being said, apart from merely speaking against the motion, the prime minister should have gone a step further. Ten of Harper’s cabinet voted in favour of the motion. Harper had called the motion “unfortunate” and voted against it, since one of the Conservatives’ election commitments was not to reopen the debate on abortion. However, Harper would have been wise to implement a two-line free vote.
Former prime minister Paul Martin implemented a three-line voting system during his tenure. One-line free votes allow all members to vote their conscience, two-line free votes whip the cabinet, and three-line votes whip all government members.
Interestingly, in 1989, the government whipped the cabinet on An Act respecting abortion.
Harper’s pledge on behalf of his party and his promise that “any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister” should have prompted him to enforce collective cabinet solidarity while still allowing backbenchers to vote freely.
The Liberals also behaved in a contradictory manner. A Liberal blogger aptly summarized the issue. The Liberals sent out a petition to their members calling them to “Tell Harper: hands off our reproductive rights.” Yet at the same time, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae allowed a free vote on the issue. This respects the parliamentary convention of letting MPs vote their conscience on private members’ bills, but it does not put the Liberals’ money where their mouths are.
Worse yet, the Liberals cited a fragment of the famous and complex case Regina versus Morgentaler, stating that “In 1988, the Supreme Court (of Canada) ruled: ‘The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.’” This is not correct. This quotation is taken from Justice Bertha Wilson in a concurring decision to strike down Canada’s abortion ban; however, she was the only justice to find that a substantive right to abortion existed.
Leadnow, another civil society organization petitioning against Woodworth’s motion, also cited this same part of Wilson’s decision. None of the other justices in the Morgentaler case found a substantive right to abortion. Two, Justices William McIntyre and Gerard LaForest, dissented completely, arguing that the Charter of Rights and Freedomsdid not apply to abortion. The remaining four justices struck down the abortion law on procedural grounds.
The Morgentaler decisionis cited frequently by pro-choice activists, but the fragmentation exhibited by the Supreme Court shows a clear lack of societal consensus. Examining only one part of such a complex decision does little to prove the cause.
At times like these, partisans on all sides grandstand and attempt to score political points. Many attacked Rona Ambrose, the minister responsible for the Status of Women, for voting in favour of Woodworth’s Motion 312. Some even called for her resignation.
While it may seem ironic that she voted in favour of this motion, it is important to keep in mind that the vote was a free one. Members of Parliament vote their conscience on private members’ motions when not whipped; they also serve a representative function for their constituents. Indeed, this is one of the only times voters can truly hold their MPs to account. They can see how their representatives vote when not constrained and determine whether or not they are acting in the best interests of the constituency.
This is a non-issue. The massive electoral Conservative machine would begin to bleed if it revisited the issue of abortion.
The National Post’s Chris Selley argued aptly: “There is no realistic prospect of draconian abortion regulations, or even non-draconian ones, being imposed in Canada. As such, MPs would do well to save their purple-faced outrage for use against more realistic threats.”
Gordon O’Connor, the chief government whip, also noted in the House of Commons that Criminal Code section 223 (1) reflects a well-established legal principle and that “whether one accepts it or not, abortion is and always will be a part of society.”
While the Harper Conservatives should have at least whipped the cabinet to show that the government as a whole was not interested in revisiting the abortion issue, it was obvious from the start that Motion 312 would not pass through the Commons.