Separating mother and child

Bill C-484 is a “sneaky” attempt to criminalize abortion says Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

Before his election as prime minister in 2006 Stephen Harper promised that a Conservative government wouldn’t reopen the abortion debate.

And Conservative MP Ken Epp whose Sherwood Park riding sits just east of Edmonton says that his controversial private member’s bill doesn’t backtrack on that promise.

Women’s groups across Canada aren’t taking either man at his word.

The Unborn Victims of Crime Bill (C-484) would make the killing of a fetus a separate offence from an attack on a pregnant woman. In other words someone who murders a pregnant woman would be held responsible for two deaths instead of one. Currently there is no separate offence for the loss of the pregnancy. “It’s very sneaky” says Joyce Arthur national co-ordinator for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. “He is trying to rewrite the Criminal Code definition and allow a fetus to be treated as a person.”

Arthur argues that giving a fetus legal status acts as a backdoor route to the criminalization of abortion and potentially many other infringements on women’s human rights. As for Epp’s claim that the bill is designed to protect women from harm she calls this justification “pathetic.” The bill does nothing for instance to address domestic violence — the root of the problem as she sees it.

Nor she continues does the Conservative track record on feminist issues give women reason to trust them. It was Harper’s Conservatives after all who excised references to advocacy and the advancement of women’s equality from the mandate of Status of Women Canada.

“Ensuring women’s equality will go a long way to making them more safe” Arthur says. “If the woman is safe however we do that — through social supports or whatever — then the fetus is going to be safe too.”

Protecting The Unborn

That’s not the way Epp sees it. He thinks a separate charge can help protect pregnant women.

The death of 19-year-old Edmontonian Olivia Talbot is a close-to-home example and the motivating incident for Epp. She was six months pregnant in November 2005 when a friend Jared Baker killed her. Indeed Baker (who claimed to be acting under the influence of voices) specifically targeted Talbot’s child for harm. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Cases like Talbot’s receive a lot of media attention but in fact very few pregnant women are killed in Canada. According to Statistics Canada only 10 pregnant woman in total were murdered in Canada in the years 2005 and 2006.

Judges may take the victim’s pregnancy into consideration during sentencing but Epp doesn’t think this policy goes far enough. He maintains that only a separate charge will properly protect both women and their unborn children.

In defending his bill over the past year he has repeatedly said laying a separate charge for the death of an unborn child will not impinge upon the right of a woman to choose an abortion — and indeed the bill does include clarifying language stating that abortion (or any other behaviour a woman chooses to engage in during her pregnancy) would not be considered an attack. “I chose the wording in my bill very carefully” Epp says “to reflect what I’m actually seeking to do.”

That’s a little naive counters Arthur who argues that the Supreme Court decision that brought down the old abortion law regarded the fetus as part of a woman’s body and not a separate entity. By separating the two in his new bill Epp is advancing a position that runs counter to that of the Supreme Court and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The bill basically gives fetuses a form of personhood” says Arthur. “It’s giving them a separate status apart from the mother and the moment you do that whatever else you say about that you are setting a very dangerous precedent.”

Even Epp’s reassurances about C-484 are couched in terms of his pro-life stance. “A child is a child” says the former Canadian Alliance member. “To the mother who is pregnant by choice and wants to have a baby that is in fact a baby. In fact it is a human. It’s nothing else but a human but it’s not recognized in our Criminal Code as such. So as not to upset the applecart I haven’t changed the definition of human. I haven’t called it murder. I’ve been very careful.”

Separate And Not Equal

Whatever Epp’s intentions Arthur says the result is the same: a potential loophole for attacks on women’s rights. In the United States she argues similar laws have been used to arrest alcoholic mothers. “Suddenly” she says “pregnant women become a separate class and are targeted for behaviours that are not criminalized for other people.”

And if Epp and the Conservatives are so concerned about women she asks then why have the Conservatives pulled funding and the “equality” mandate from Status of Women Canada?

Bill C-484 is not a Conservative bill argues Epp. The bill is his alone and is not endorsed by the party. He further argues that the Conservatives aimed to focus the funding. In the case of Status of Women Canada for instance funding was revoked from groups that did any kind of advocacy and research. The move ensured the money got to the shelters where it was most needed Epp says “rather than having women writing letters to each other and having seminars and meetings.”

However this meant funding dried up for many groups that were indeed offering services besides performing advocacy research and outreach says Arthur. In fact most groups did all of that.

And if you follow Epp’s interpretation of the bill it would not help women whose children are born with birth defects as a result of drugs or other products. “There are other remedies” for those situations says Epp. He did not consider this kind of offence when he wrote C-484.

Nor was there a grassroots call for the bill from women’s organizations. As Alexa McDonough an NDP Halifax MP and former party leader pointed out when Bill C-484 was introduced women themselves have not identified a fetal homicide law as a priority. “In my almost 40 years in the women’s movement” she said at the time “I have never had a single woman a single advocate a single representative of a single organization or an individual family member come to me and say this is a law they would like to see implemented.”

It’s unlikely that Bill C-484 will pass. Private member’s bills are rarely enacted and the ones that are tend to be uncontroversial. Epp’s bill has passed second reading and is currently being reviewed by Parliament’s justice committee. As a private member’s bill no party has an official stance on it and MPs are free to vote on it as they please. Although the Conservatives overwhelmingly voted for the bill at second reading the Liberals are divided. Of those who did vote 54 voted against the bill and 20 voted for it. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion did not vote on the bill when it passed second reading in March but he will vote against the bill if it comes back to Parliament for a third reading says national Liberal spokesperon Daniel Lauzon. This could sway the 21 Liberals who didn’t vote during second reading.

The Bloc Québécois and NDP are vehemently opposed to the bill and almost all their MPs voted against it. Epp is not seeking re-election and if an election is called before the fall Bill C-484 will almost certainly leave Parliament with him.