For the benefit of the reporters seated in front of him and the audience beyond the television cameras, Stephen Woodworth repeated his mantra several times. “Don’t accept any law,” he said, “that says some human beings are not human beings.”
The Conservative backbencher’s particular concern was Section 223(1) of the Criminal Code, which effectively states that a child does not become a human being until it has “completely proceeded” from its mother’s body. Shortly before Christmas, Woodworth announced his desire for a national conversation on the acceptability of this standard. And here, at a news conference this month, he was announcing a motion that would establish a special committee of Parliament for the purposes of studying this statute. “I’ve concluded that modern medical science will inform us that children are in reality human beings at some point before the moment of complete birth,” he explained.
Woodworth was loath to get ahead of himself—sticking mostly to the principle and the law in question—but one implication was fairly clear. If the law defining a human being is up for discussion, a conversation about abortion is almost certain to follow.
So to everything else that might challenge Stephen Harper’s government over the next three years, add this: pressure to compel a debate on the most sensitive and fraught of issues. And that push will come from within his party’s own ranks, further challenging a Prime Minister who has made message control one of his hallmarks.
Woodworth’s plea was preceded by a more aggressive outburst from the government’s backbench. Last fall, after the Harper government decided to partner with Planned Parenthood to provide contraception and sex education services abroad, Conservative MP Brad Trost, who has campaigned to defund Planned Parenthood, went public with his disagreement, not only rejecting the idea that the government could fund the organization without funding abortion, but vowing more reaction to come. “Pro-life politicians have been taught a lesson,” he said. “The government only responds to pro-life issues and concerns when we take an aggressive stance. We will apply this lesson.” Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott followed with his own complaint.
How large a group Trost might speak for and what else might follow remains to be seen. Trost says he could have something to table this spring and claims there are another four or five initiatives that are being talked about among MPs. “You are going to see MPs regularly addressing this,” he predicts. “It might be every six months, which compared to never is going to be a big change. You might see more active engagement at the next Conservative conference, things like that.”
Woodworth says his motion is unrelated to Trost’s “lesson” about how pro-life MPs should press their views. He says he is neither unhappy nor frustrated as a government backbencher and makes a point of asserting that Section 223(1) is important in its own right. The implications, though, are obvious. So much so that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson released a statement midway through Woodworth’s news conference. “Private member’s motions are considered in accordance with the rules of Parliament,” Nicholson explained. “The Prime Minister has been very clear, our government will not reopen this debate.” Nonetheless, the official Opposition quickly attacked. In question period that day, the NDP’s Françoise Boivin described Woodworth’s news conference as “disturbing” and called on the government to “keep its backbenchers in line and unequivocally protect women’s reproductive rights.” Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel later said the Prime Minister should demand that Woodworth withdraw his motion.
Conservative MP Jeff Watson has publicly expressed support for Woodworth’s pursuit of a parliamentary debate. Another government backbencher, Stella Ambler, attended Woodworth’s news conference and says she will support his motion when it comes up for a vote. But finding the votes necessary to get the issue before a committee will be difficult. In 2010, when the House last faced a vote on abortion—on a private member’s bill proposed by Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge that would have made it a crime to “coerce” a woman to have an abortion—the bill was defeated by a vote of 178 to 97.
It’s unlikely any change in law will pass the House, meaning the political threat to the Prime Minister is limited. If anything, the opportunity to stand up and say he is not interested in reopening the abortion issue may even help dispel fears that Harper possesses a “hidden agenda.” At the same time, allowing MPs to speak to these issues and propose initiatives could act as a release valve on pressure building within caucus or the party. Yaroslav Baran, a former Conservative strategist, recalls being asked about controlling MPs after a series of “off message” comments during the 2004 campaign. The answer, he said, was not to get better at silencing backbenchers. “It’s to get to the point,” he said, “where it doesn’t matter, in a political liability sense, what a backbencher thinks on an individual matter of social policy because the press gallery and the public understand the agenda comes from Harper. And this isn’t his agenda.” For the sake of comparison, consider that previous Liberal governments had pro-life and socially conservative MPs within their caucuses without being defined by them.
Nonetheless, various conspiracy theories might be offered to explain why pro-life MPs within the Harper government are suddenly free to express their views: that, for instance, such expressions are condoned because it serves some strategic goal of the Prime Minister. Trost dismisses such theorizing and, of all things, refers to the hubbub around the failed launch of New Coke and subsequent return to Coca-Cola Classic. “The CEO of Coca-Cola, when asked if it had been deliberately planned as a stunt to just reinvigorate sales, he said, ‘Well, we’re not that dumb, nor are we that smart,’ ” Trost recalls. “I think people should actually, sometimes, take the PM at his word and take MPs at their word.” Trost says no one should hold any illusion the Prime Minister desires to engage the issue. And while social conservatives may not be happy with the government’s position, these are the sort of “ordinary differences of opinion” that occur within a large political party.
The MP for Saskatoon-Humboldt is equally realistic about the state of play. Even if a bill could pass the House, he says, it probably wouldn’t get through the Senate. Anything too dramatic, he predicts, would be overturned by the current Supreme Court. “This is not a short-term sort of issue,” he says, referencing the civil rights movement and the Cold War. Change, in other words, takes time. “It’s a broader cultural thing,” he says. “The politics influences the culture just as the culture influences the politics.”
So while the debate might not be going anywhere soon, it is also not likely to go away.