The Commons: A debate about a debate about abortion

"Why would we be afraid to let the evidence come out?" asked MP Stephen Woodworth

Adrian Wyld/CP Images

Shortly before 5:30pm, Stephen Woodworth was on his feet from the back row. Close around him sat eight other Conservative MPs.

Motion 312,” he said, “simply calls for a study of the evidence of when a child becomes a human being.”

He wondered aloud what opponents of his proposal had to fear. Staring directly at the dozen NDP MPs seated across the way he called on them to hear the evidence.

Fourteen spectators watched and listened from the south gallery. Four Liberals joined the New Democrats on the opposition side of the House. The Conservatives numbered somewhere in the neighbourhood of 24.

Mr. Woodworth spoke loudly and gesticulated dramatically, as if addressing the nation at a moment of great significance. He invoked rights and humanity and science and parliamentary duty and he damned a “dishonest law.” When he was done, a dozen Conservatives applauded.

In some ways, the matter of abortion in this country is a debate about a debate. On one side, those who feel there is no debate to be had. On the other side, those who feel there is a debate that is still to be settled. This hour allowed each to have their say.

When Mr. Woodworth had finished, the NDP’s Francoise Boivin rose with a question. Is he waiting for answers to questions, she wondered of the committee study the Conservative sought, or has he already answered them? Mr. Woodworth allowed that he did not believe complete birth was the point at which a child became a human being, but that the committee would be able to hear all evidence and report back to the House. “Why would we be afraid to let the evidence come out?” he asked.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre said what Mr. Woodworth really wanted was to criminalize abortion. Mr. Woodworth said he honestly wanted what the motion sought.

With the next speech, Ms. Boivin attacked the foundation and ramifications of the motion. She lamented that across the way she saw only male MPs. From further down the House, Stella Ambler, a female Conservative, put her hand up and waved at Ms. Boivin. When Ms. Boivin finished—receiving a standing ovation from her fellow New Democrats—the Conservative MP Harold Albrecht jumped up on a point of order. Not only was Ms. Boivin incorrect about the presence of women on the government side (there were in fact two female Conservatives present), but it was improper to comment on the attendance of other MPs. Ms. Boivin came back to explain her comments and some degree of grumbling ensued. The Speaker, Denise Savoie sitting in, called for order. This was a difficult debate, she said, that called for respect. She would tolerate nothing less.

Liberal Hedy Fry went next, explaining her party’s opposition to the motion and questioning the Prime Minister’s commitment to not reopening the debate. She outlined the precedents and worried about the ramifications. She deemed Mr. Woodworth’s motion disingenuous. If he disagreed with the section of the Criminal Code in question—Section 223(1)—he should have proposed an amendment. He could have brought forward a bill that redefined personhood.

Here then it was Gordon O’Connor’s turn. The chief government whip stood with his speech laid out on a lectern perched on a desktop infront of him. In short order and in his grumbly way, he not only expressed his opposition to the motion, but questioned its fundamentals. Section 223(1) applied to laws on homicide and was not a medical test, he said. He appealed to individual freedom in a democratic society and ventured that abortion would always be part of society, that it was part of the human condition. He lamented those who would turn back the clock. “Society has moved on,” he said nearer the end of his remarks.

When he was done, the New Democrats in attendance applauded, perhaps the first and last time a government whip will be so honoured by members of the official opposition.

Mr. O’Connor returned to his seat as the NDP’s Niki Ashton began her remarks. He sat for a few moments, then checked his watch and got up to leave. Walking up the aisle, he came across Mr. Woodworth. The two exchanged greetings and a couple minutes of seemingly civil discussion ensued. Eventually, Mr. O’Connor departed. Shortly thereafter, with Ms. Ashton concluding that “a woman’s right to choose is not up for negotiation,” the Speaker called time and the House moved on to adjournment proceedings.

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