Why is Canada's parliament tip-toeing around sex-selective abortion?

Recently, Stephen Woodworth tried to speak to students at the University of Waterloo, but the Conservative MP was shouted down by pro-choice supporters who oppose even discussing abortion, let alone having any law on it.
His sin against the pro-choice commandments was introducing private member’s Motion 312 in Parliament that proposed considering when a child becomes a human being within the Criminal Code. So, once again, free speech on a Canadian university campus was subject to the limitations imposed by pro-choice ideology.
After Woodworth’s motion was defeated, British Columbia MP Mark Warawa introduced Motion 408 condemning “discrimination against females, occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” The first debate on this motion, which, if passed, would be simply a declaration that discrimination on the basis of sex — namely, being female — is wrong and would not change the law in any way, was scheduled for April 15. Now, however, the Subcommittee on Private Members’ Business of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has deemed it non-votable. Warawa has appealed this decision, but it could mean there will be no discussion in Parliament, not just a likely negative vote.
Such a vote would be probable, because like the protesters at the University of Waterloo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not want any discussion of abortion, in his case, in Parliament. He had stated that the government would not support Motion 408. But was he speaking of “his,” “our,” or “the” government? The differences among these qualifying words can convey different messages.
“His” government strongly indicates Harper will tell members of cabinet and, sometimes, perhaps, all Conservative MPs, how to vote. “Our” government could mean the cabinet or the Conservative caucus decides the stance to be taken, or it could refer to Canadians and mean that MPs should pay at least some attention to how their constituents would want them to vote.
“The” government is less ambiguous — it’s the Canadian government, and, in a representative democracy, MPs should pay at least some attention to how their constituents would want them to vote.
We know that most Canadians abhor discrimination against girls and women and that 92 per cent of Canadians believe that sex-selective abortion is wrong and should not occur in Canada. So why wouldn’t the government support this motion, and would even, keeping in mind that Harper said it was “unfortunate” that Motion 312 had not been found non-votable, possibly go so far as to prevent discussion of it?
The short answer is that, yet again, they don’t want to touch the third rail of politics — touch it and you’re dead: abortion.
Cabinet minister Rona Ambrose makes this clear: “The concern about Mr Warawa’s motion is that the opposition has positioned it as an issue about abortion, so it becomes a very divisive issue. I haven’t decided, but I will probably vote with the cabinet, which is going to be voting against it, only because it has been set up that way.”
As pro-life blogger Patricia Maloney points out, what Ambrose means by “set up this way” is that “the opposition has positioned the motion as an issue about abortion.”
Maloney continues, but “this is what the opposition does. Whenever they can make anything an issue about abortion, they do it... When the opposition goes into attack mode on any other issue (than abortion) in this country, do… (MPs) then say: ‘Oh dear, I better not vote for something that makes perfect sense because the opposition won’t like it’?” Of course they don’t — they expect that, on the whole, the opposition won’t like it. That’s the job of the opposition.
Maloney also points out that cabinet ministers do not become afraid of voting a particular way because the opposition will make it “divisive,” on any other topic than one that can be labelled as having some connection with abortion.
And Ambrose’s excuse that she will vote against Motion 408 “only because it has been set up that way” — that is, is connected with abortion — doesn’t make sense. It’s not possible to discuss a motion on sex-selective abortion or vote on it, whether for or against, without mentioning abortion.
Just earlier this month, Harper strongly condemned violence and discrimination against women in his press release statement for International Women’s Day. Yet he is not prepared to vote against sex-selective abortion, and is prepared to force other cabinet ministers not to do so, regardless of their conscientious beliefs in this regard.
It’s true that recognizing sex-selective abortion as an instance of discrimination against women might sensitize more of us to the violence that all abortion involves. But not being able to face the reality of what is involved in abortion can be a warning from our moral intuitions that what we are doing is unethical, and it can result in our suppressing an emotional response to abortion that we would ignore at our ethical peril.
And a final question: To what extent is a failure to condemn sex-selective abortion, when confronted with the question as a lawmaker, or taking steps to prevent it being discussed, a passive endorsement of it? Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law and director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law and is a leader in the discussion of ethical questions in medicine.


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