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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What to Expect While You're Expecting Motion 312

Lots of people have asked me what this “Motion 312” business is about, and I realize I tend to write this blog as though everyone already knows. So here is my Motion 312 Adviser, also known as “What to Expect While You’re Expecting Motion 312.”

Background: The Big Picture - What is Motion 312?
The motion is a question raised by MP StephenWoodworth, a real piece of anti-choice work. In his motion, he asks Parliament to strike a committee to study whether or not the fetus (or in his words, “the child”) is human. His intentions with this motion are clear to all of us; he wants the fetus declared a person so that abortions will be criminalized along with any women having them. For a full discussion of all the arguments against this motion, please look at the wonderful Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) site here. To put it in a nutshell, there is one argument that moves me the most. When fetuses are persons, women are not. Two persons cannot exist in one body and both have rights. This means that if the fetus is given personhood, the woman who carries it loses personhood. Not to put too fine a point on it, the woman will be considered only in terms of her capacity as incubator.

In Canada, we may be fortunate to have the word "persons" so strongly associated with women's rights, something that is not shared by our American sisters. The Famous Five famously ensured that women in Canada were considered persons under the law, and that changed everything for us. As persons, we are entitled to everything a man is entitled to, including security of the person. Most women understand we cannot give that away.

I did an interview for a local Calgary paper about Motion 312. You can hear the audio here, if you are interested. Stephanie Grey and Wendy Lowe, also interviewed, are both anti-choicers. Listen if you feel like getting angry. (caution: trigger warning) Bruce Foster is the final interviewee. If the writer of the piece asked Bruce Foster on to balance out the perspective, it might have been nice if Foster had been a little more clear on whether he thought women had rights. Apparently, his role was to give a political perspective. But I do appreciate his point that this will go where most private members' bills go, which is nowhere, and that it will die on the order paper.

The specifics:

To understand Motion M-312and the discussion that follows, it’s probably a good idea to read it first, so here it is in full.

"That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth;

"that the membership of the special committee consist of twelve members which shall include seven members from the government party, four members from the Official Opposition and one member from the Liberal Party, provided that the Chair shall be from the government party; that the members to serve on the said committee be appointed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the membership report of the special committee be presented to the House no later than 20 sitting days after the adoption of this motion;

"that substitutions to the membership of the special committee be allowed, if required, in the manner provided by Standing Order 114(2);

"that the special committee have all the powers of a Standing Committee as provided in the Standing Orders; and

"that the special committee present its final report to the House of Commons within 10 months after the adoption of this motion with answers to the following questions,

" (i) what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,

" (ii) is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,

" (iii) what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,

" (iv) what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?

For the record, Standing Order 114(2) is about substitution of committee members.

What is the Process?

On April 26, the House will have its first hour of debate on this motion. The first speaker will have 20 minutes with 10 minutes for questions and answers. The government gets the most time here, so there won’t be much time for opposing MPs to speak. So far, I understand that Francoise Boivin, Jean Crowder and Ruth-Ellen Brosseau plan to speak against motion. There may not be time for any others. We cannot, as citizens opposed to this motion, think that many opposition party members and pro-choice members will be given time to say their peace on this issue. Debate is severely limited. However, opposition party members can have 60 seconds to say something in the 15 minutes before question period every day. They could get up every day to present paper petitions, could read off names of individuals who signed the online petition, or just mention the online petition and say that it is growing every day. If you have an opposition member as your MP, it would be a good idea to ask them to raise this issue on your behalf in this short time they have available to them.

The second hour of debate will be scheduled for some time in June or perhaps September. The thinking is that if Stephen Harper is truly embarrassed by this motion, it will be pushed back. My own thought is that the outcome of the Alberta election makes a difference here. Now that the Wildrose Party (a party closely aligned with old Reformers and present day federal Conservatives) has been soundly defeated, Harper has to realize there is still massive opposition to a regressive social agenda, even in Alberta. He has to see that this motion will still alienate the vast majority of Canadians. I think that if Wildrose had won, Harper would have been more inclined to let the M-312 play out and try to appease his base. But as Bruce Foster notes in the audio interview mentioned above, Harper also knows abortion is the third rail of politics. Better to leave it alone.

After the second hour of debate, there will be a vote, and the House will decide if this “Women Can’t Be Trusted Motion” will pass, and a committee will be struck to investigate when “a child” as the motion puts it, becomes a “human being.”

Then What?

At this point, if it gets this far, it is important to take note of the membership of the committee as outlined in the motion. Membership of the committee must be established within twenty days of the committee being struck. Looking back at the text of the motion, we can see how membership will be weighted towards anti-choice Conservatives. The Vice-Chair must be from opposition, but there are anti-choice opposition members. This will be something to watch for. If an anti-choice opposition member is chosen, there is really not much hope. (addendum: April 25. The NDP caucus is unanimously opposed to M 312)  The Chair (a Conservative) will not vote unless there is a tie, but again we can assume the chair will be anti-choice. It is quite reasonable to challenge the validity of this committee because of the bias inherent in its membership.

How will we know what the committee is doing?

In the past, committee proceedings were often public, and sometimes even broadcast on CPAC, and committee proceedings get put on the web. However, these days, increasingly, committees meet “in-camera,” which is interesting considering the Conservatives claim to be all about transparency.

Further, it is highly likely that people who speak to the committee will only be allowed to speak on the motion itself. The motion is carefully worded to exclude any mention of the woman carrying the fetus. For example, the questions ask the legal impact on “the child” and its human rights, but not on the woman and hers. Also, it asks only about medical evidence. There is no debate about whether medically, the fetus is human. It has human DNA. Case closed. The real question in terms of abortion is if the fetus is a person in legal terms. These are two significantly different issues, and Motion 312 only deals with the first. In other words, the Committee can deny witnesses who wish to speak about the legal issues, because it’s not part of the motion. Witnesses may only be permitted to speak to what medically identifies the fetus as human.

Also, we have no way of knowing who will be called to speak at the committee and give evidence. Again, this evidence will likely be limited to the motion itself, and witnesses who wish to speak about the woman carrying the pregnancy or the legal aspects of personhood may be excluded. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely the committee will find anything they don’t want to find.

Pro-Choice advocates will definitely not speak to the motion if they don’t ask to speak, so it is important that we do ask to submit briefs anyway, even if we expect our requests to be denied. The process for doing so is outlined here. Although I would like to agree with my optimistic fellow blogger at “Fat and Not Afraid” that pro-choice voices will be heard, I am less optimistic. I think this committee, if it is struck, is not going to be transparent and won’t hear the excellent arguments put forward against the motion by allies like ARCC.

To understand what happens to Motion 312 after the committee finishes its "work" and presents its findings, it is probably most instructive to look at the anti-choice’s perspective outlined on this website. (caution: another trigger warning.) If you don't want to go there, which I totally understand, ARCC summarizes their plan in this way. The anti-choice will "bring forward the biology of fetal development as 'scientific evidence' that zygotes, embryos and fetuses are human beings from conception and deserve legal protection. However, this would subordinate women to their fetuses and eliminate many rights and legal protections for pregnant women."

I hope this brings some clarity to the process and explains the myriad reasons for concern. Again, there is plenty of action in the coming days against this motion. Get involved however you can, and don't worry that you have blown it if you don't have something ready for the 26th. All of our actions must continue throughout this process, and certainly to the second hour of debate.

The Abortion Monologues is available as an ebook on Smashwords and through Kindle, Kobo, iBooks or any of your other favourite formats. There are a very few paper copies left for sale, which can be purchased by going back to the website. This will be the last print run.

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