It was a moment of the kind Parliament is not supposed to provide anymore—not, at least, in the eyes of the endless drama critics who bemoan its fallen state. Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth had introduced a motion demanding that the House of Commons appoint a special committee to investigate the definition of a “human being” in the Criminal Code section concerning homicide:
“A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not it has breathed, it has an independent circulation, or the navel string is severed.”
This language has come down to us basically verbatim from the original Criminal Code of 1892. Woodworth finds the definition puzzling, given the scientific evidence gathered since. Perhaps he thinks that the Victorians, with their passion for anatomy and experimentation, did not know that a fetus, midway through its gestation, already possesses many of the incipient traits and physical characteristics of a human being. In any event, Woodworth’s private member’s motion called for a hearing of medical evidence concerning whether “a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth.”
Woodworth’s motion was widely discussed before coming to the floor, though most of the curiosity concerned whether the opposition leaders would break from the normal procedure on private members’ business and insist on caucus unity in defence of abortion. (The Liberals’ Bob Rae refused to apply the whip. The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair boasted that he wouldn’t need to.)
Woodworth defended his plan with great passion and dramatic gestures, receiving a smattering of applause as he quoted from Émile Zola’s intervention in France’s Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s: “I denounce to the conscience of honest people this pressure brought to bear upon the justice of our country.” Opposition members seized on this as a signal of the Conservatives’ “hidden agenda” surrounding abortion. “What I find dishonest about this speech is that, in reality, what the member wants to do is recriminalize abortion,” complained Liberal Denis Coderre. “We will end up criminalizing abortion again,” agreed the NDP’s Françoise Boivin. Hedy Fry rambled on, Fry-like, about everything from multiple sclerosis to The Handmaid’s Tale.
And then Gordon O’Connor rose from his seat on the government side, immediately behind the Prime Minister. O’Connor, a retired brigadier-general, is the chief Conservative whip—the living symbol, in other words, of the ministry’s discipline and unity. His words bit with surprising sharpness. “The House of Commons . . . is not a laboratory,” he admonished Woodworth. “It is not a house of faith, an academic setting or a hospital. It is a legislature, and a legislature deals with law.” The Criminal Code definition of a human being, he said, is not a medical one; it is a purely legal test defining the moment when personal rights receive protection independent from those of the mother. It is quite reasonable, he added, that this should happen at the moment of their physical separation.
O’Connor went further. He denounced the oft-repeated right-wing heckle that abortion is “unregulated” in Canada. It happens to be absent from the criminal law, O’Connor observed, but the provinces regulate their medical professions, and the doctors in turn regulate their own conduct. The provincial governments and the medical colleges have agreed that since abortion cannot be abolished, it ought to be provided safely by, and to those whose private judgment allows for it. “The decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision,” said the whip, “and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount and take precedence over that of the state.”
O’Connor concluded by reaffirming that the Conservative determination not to reopen Canada’s abortion debate is unwavering. “Society has moved on and I do not believe this proposal should proceed,” he said. “As well, it is in opposition to our government’s position. Accordingly I will not support [this] motion. I will vote against it and I recommend that others oppose it.” Bizarrely, this firm declaration of principles did not derail the opposition clamour: the NDP’s Niki Ashton complained that the Conservatives had a “Trojan Horse agenda” and would “turn the clock back” on reproductive rights the minute they were able. (Isn’t a Trojan Horse something you park outside the walls of a place you haven’t conquered yet? Why would the Conservatives need one?)
What is interesting about O’Connor’s brief speech is that it frames reproductive choice as a matter of small-C conservative principles. He appealed not only to libertarian considerations of individual conscience, but to the idea that regulations should be made at the political level closest to the citizen. Viewed in this light, the Harper rule against legislating on abortion is not just a convenient, cynical means to social peace and election success. It suggests the influence within the government caucus of a Charter-friendly breed of conservative, one whose first instinct is not always to “stand athwart history yelling, stop.”