Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Freedom of speech and M312

Freedom of speech and M-312

Stephen Woodworth's motion about when life begins belongs in committee on Parliament Hill

By Dave Quist and Andrea Mrozek, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

“The House of Commons, however, is not a laboratory. It is not a house of faith, an academic setting or a hospital. It is a legislature, and a legislature deals with law, specifically, in this case, subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code.” [1] These were the words of one Gordon O’Connor, Chief Government Whip, with regards to Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s motion, M-312, which proposes a bi-partisan committee to discuss when life begins, and for which there will most likely be a vote on June 13.

M-312 has been “divisive.” Nothing proves this better than Gordon O’Connor’s fundamentalist rant during the first hour of debate. However, this non-binding motion, if passed, would do nothing more (and nothing less) than engender free discussion. If this topic is off limits then so too are a host of others, something not lost on the mainstream media. Dan Gardner commented in the Ottawa Citizen that with Gordon O’Connor’s speech, “the Government repudiated a big chunk of its own agenda,” including attempts to litigate on prostitution and what Gardner refers to as the Conservative Government’s war on illicit drugs. [2]

It is possible to discuss thorny issues

A mere 40 years ago, Parliament appears to have had no problem grappling with thorny issues. “In 1966, Lester Pearson’s Liberal minority government moved discussion of divorce, contraception and abortion to a Standing Committee of the House of Commons,” writes Paul Tuns, editor of The Interim, a newspaper dedicated to life and family issues. He goes on: “The federal discussion would take place in the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, signaling that politicians thought abortion to be more of medical issue than a legal one, despite its presence in the Criminal Code.” [3]

M-312 not a slam dunk for pro-life camp

Neither is M-312 a slam dunk for the pro-life side. Many academics, doctors, theologians, activists, politicians and journalists will be fully prepared—only too happy—to testify that life does not begin at conception, which is Stephen Woodworth’s view. As such, M-312 may subject the pro-life camp to ridicule. Alternatively, many, (this includes the current President of the United States) will make the claim that knowing such concepts is “above their pay grade.”

Avoiding discussion “unworthy of a democratic country”

No matter the outcome, voting against debate and discussion is unbecoming of a democracy. This was Andrew Coyne’s view in a column dated April 27, 2012. “Woodworth’s approach, while wide of the mark,” he wrote, “is at least an attempt to break through the taboo on debating abortion. It is further indication — the furor over sex-selective abortion is another — that the issue is far from settled in the public mind. The pretense that it is, like the contradictory but often simultaneously advanced claim that it is too “divisive,” is unworthy of a democratic country.” [4]

Unlikely bedfellows

M-312 is controversial, mainly when talking to the most extreme fringe of the pro-choice camp—and the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Harper’s positioning on this motion lands him on a team with people who neither support his general direction for Canada, nor trust him on the issue of abortion. Needless to say, this is not a vote-winning proposition come the next election.

Furthermore, if Gordon O’Connor is correct and Parliament is not a place to discuss abortion, it is in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the R v Morgentaler decision, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Bertha Wilson wrote:

The precise point in the development of the foetus at which the state's interest in its protection becomes "compelling" I leave to the informed judgment of the legislature, which is in a position to receive guidance on the subject from all the relevant disciplines.[5]

The Prime Minister has clearly stated on several occasions that he has no intention of opening up the abortion debate. Fair enough. But the debate has been underway both in the public square and the halls of the House of Commons for some time. Our elected officials refuse to follow the will of the people.

Parliamentarians have supported more controversial bills in the past

As such, M-312 offers an opportunity for Canada to nurture freedom of speech by engaging in meaningful dialogue on topics of importance and to do so in the non-coercive framework of a motion. By contrast, MP Rod Bruinooge’s Bill C-510, which aimed to change the criminal code to make coerced abortion a crime (Roxanne’s Law), was likely more inflammatory for the fact that it explicitly referenced abortion, and that in the context of a bill, not a motion. Still, fully 87 of our current parliamentarians voted in favour of it. (For a list of those who voted in favour, see the footnote.) [6]

A mere 40 years ago, Mr. O’Connor’s speech with regards to M-312 might have elicited laughter for the suggestion that the House of Commons cannot receive information from various jurisdictions, resulting in a debate. Today, with the continuing decline in both parliamentary decency and democracy, these false notions are the talking points of our Prime Minister. Parliament is indeed a place to discuss and debate ideas, and many Canadians still believe this, in spite of current norms. M-312 gives all Parliamentarians the opportunity to align themselves with the nurturing of free speech in Canada today, while making no comment at all about abortion.
If free speech is denied on this issue, which issue will be next?


[1] House of Commons of Canada. (2012, April 26). Private Members’ Business. Hon. Gordon O'Connor (Minister of State and Chief Government Whip, CPC), 41st Parliament, 1st Session. Retrieved from http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications
[2] Gardner, D. (2012, April 30). The government's selective defence of freedom. The Ottawa Citizen, p. A11. Retrieved from http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists
[3] Tuns, P. (2009, April 1). Why the abortion law was changed. The Interim. Retrieved from http://www.theinterim.com/issues/abortion/why-the-abortion-law-was-changed
[4] Coyne, A. (2012, April 27). The idea we can’t debate abortion is unworthy of a democratic country. The National Post. Retrieved from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/04/27/andrew-coyne-the-idea-we-cant-
[5] R. v. morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30.
[6] Current Members of Parliament who voted in favour of Bill C-510 in 2010, also known as Roxanne’s Law:
Karygiannis, Jim (Hon.) Scarborough—Agincourt Liberal
Lamoureux, Kevin Winnipeg-North Liberal
MacAulay, Lawrence (Hon.) Cardigan Liberal
McKay, John (Hon.) Scarborough—Guildwood Liberal
Goldring, Peter Edmonton East Independent
Albrecht, Harold Kitchener—Conestoga Conservative
Allen, Mike Tobique—Mactaquac Conservative
Allison, Dean Niagara West—Glanbrook Conservative
Anders, Rob Calgary West Conservative
Anderson, David Cypress Hills—Grasslands Conservative
Ashfield, Keith (Hon.) Fredericton Conservative
Benoit, Leon Vegreville—Wainwright Conservative
Bezan, James Selkirk—Interlake Conservative
Block, Kelly Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar Conservative
Boughen, Ray Palliser Conservative
Breitkreuz, Garry Yorkton—Melville Conservative
Brown, Gordon Leeds—Grenville Conservative
Brown, Lois Newmarket—Aurora Conservative
Brown, Patrick Barrie Conservative
Bruinooge, Rod Winnipeg-South Conservative
Calandra, Paul Oak Ridges—Markham Conservative
Calkins, Blaine Wetaskiwin Conservative
Cannan, Ron Kelowna—Lake Country Conservative
Carrie, Colin Oshawa Conservative
Clarke, Rob DesnethĂ©—Missinippi—Churchill River Conservative
Davidson, Patricia Sarnia—Lambton Conservative
Del Mastro, Dean Peterborough Conservative
Devolin, Barry Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock Conservative
Fast, Ed (Hon.) Abbotsford Conservative
Galipeau, Royal Ottawa—OrlĂ©ans Conservative
Gallant, Cheryl Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke Conservative
Glover, Shelly Saint Boniface Conservative
Grewal, Nina Fleetwood—Port Kells Conservative
Harris, Richard M. Cariboo—Prince George Conservative
Hiebert, Russ South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale Conservative
Hoback, Randy Prince Albert Conservative
Hoeppner, Candice Portage—Lisgar Conservative
Jean, Brian Fort McMurray—Athabasca Conservative
Kamp, Randy Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission Conservative
Kenney, Jason (Hon.) Calgary Southeast Conservative
Komarnicki, Ed Souris—Moose Mountain Conservative
Kramp, Daryl Prince Edward—Hastings Conservative
Lake, Mike Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont Conservative
Lauzon, Guy Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry Conservative
Lemieux, Pierre Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Conservative
Lobb, Ben Huron—Bruce Conservative
Lukiwski, Tom Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre Conservative
Lunney, James Nanaimo—Alberni Conservative
Mayes, Colin Okanagan—Shuswap Conservative
McColeman, Phil Brant Conservative
Merrifield, Rob (Hon.) Yellowhead Conservative
Miller, Larry Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound Conservative
Moore, Rob (Hon) Fundy Royal Conservative
Norlock, Rick Northumberland—Quinte West Conservative
O'Neill Gordon, Tilly Miramichi Conservative
Payne, LaVar Medicine Hat Conservative
Poilievre, Pierre Nepean—Carleton Conservative
Preston, Joe Elgin—Middlesex—London Conservative
Rajotte, James Edmonton—Leduc Conservative
Reid, Scott Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington Conservative
Richards, Blake Wild Rose Conservative
Ritz, Gerry (Hon.) Battlefords—Lloydminster Conservative
Scheer, Andrew (Hon.) Regina—Qu'Appelle Conservative
Shea, Gail (Hon.) Egmont Conservative
Shipley, Bev Lambton—Kent—Middlesex Conservative
Shory, Devinder Calgary Northeast Conservative
Smith, Joy Kildonan—St. Paul Conservative
Sorenson, Kevin Crowfoot Conservative
Storseth, Brian Westlock—St. Paul Conservative
Strahl, Mark Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon Conservative
Sweet, David Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale Conservative
Toews, Vic (Hon.) Provencher Conservative
Trost, Brad Saskatoon—Humboldt Conservative
Tweed, Merv Brandon—Souris Conservative
Uppal, Tim (Hon.) Edmonton—Sherwood Park Conservative
Van Kesteren, Dave Chatham-Kent—Essex Conservative
Van Loan, Peter (Hon.) York—Simcoe Conservative
Vellacott, Maurice Saskatoon—Wanuskewin Conservative
Warawa, Mark Langley Conservative
Warkentin, Chris Peace River Conservative
Watson, Jeff Essex Conservative
Weston, John West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country Conservative
Weston, Rodney Saint John Conservative
Wong, Alice (Hon.) Richmond Conservative
Woodworth, Stephen Kitchener Centre Conservative
Yelich, Lynne (Hon.) Blackstrap Conservative
Young, Terence Oakville Conservative

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