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Abortion access in Canada

1988 to 2012: Bills in Parliament to restrict abortion.
2012: Motion to redefine human "personhood"

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Abortion access is a federal matter in Canada; a single abortion law would govern abortion access across the entire country. This contrasts with the U.S. where each of the 50 states has jurisdiction over abortion access within their own territory.

During 1988-JAN-28, the Canadian Supreme Court determined that the 1969 Federal law regulating abortion conflicted with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- the Canadian constitution. Parliament attempted to craft a new law that would survive a constitutional challenge, but failed. All of the bills that had a chance of obtaining sufficient votes to pass were even more restrictive than the bill rejected by the Court.

As of 2012-APR, Canada remains unique among developed nations: It has no laws specifically regulating abortions. The decision whether or not to have the procedure is simply left up to :

  • the woman,
  • her physician, and perhaps
  • her spiritual advisor.

Since 1988, the only real limit to abortion access have been the regulations of the various provincial and territorial medical association. Typically, they very severely restrict abortions after 20 or 21 weeks gestation to instances where the woman's life is in danger or she needs an abortion to avoid serious, long-term physical disability.

Years ago, the multi-faith group that sponsors this web site predicted that:

"There is little likelihood that any future federal government will attempt to create a new law, unless the Conservative Party achieves a majority. If that happens, all bets are off."

In 2011-MAY, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada did win a majority of seats in Parliament for the first time. We expected that he would move to terminate same-sex marriages in the country, bring back the death penalty, restrict abortion, and privatize the universal health care system. We were surprised when he left all of them alone. However, individual members of Parliament have the authority to create and sumbit to Parliament private member's bills.

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2006-JUN-21: Bill C-388 introduced to limit abortion access:

Member of Parliament (MP) Paul Steckle (Huron-Bruce, ON), of the minority Liberal party, introduced private member bill C-388. 1,2,3 He was co-chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus at the time. Its title was: "An Act to amend the Criminal Code (procuring a miscarriage after twenty weeks of gestation)." C-388 was a private members' bill, the 148th such bill before the 39th Parliament at the time. Most private member's bills never proceed. This one was no exception.

The bill would have made any induced pregnancy termination performed after the 20th week of gestation a criminal offense punishable by up to five years imprisonment, or a jail sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to $100,000. An exception would be made if the medical procedure was required:

"to save the life of a woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself... [or to] prevent severe, pathological, physical morbidity of the woman." 4

Unfortunately, the bill did not define what a "life-endangering condition" is. It also does not define what the term "severe" means. Thus, the exception clauses would have required a personal judgment call on the part of the woman's physician, perhaps during a crisis situation. Many physicians would be very reluctant to make what might be a career-ending move while knowing that other physicians might have come to a different assessment of the need for pregnancy termination. If there were a trial, the local crown attorney could probably dig up a bunch of other physicians to testify against the attending physician. Forcing a physician to make a decision under these conditions is not the best way to guarantee the best health care for the public.

The proposed law would have applied to only about 0.4% of all pregnancy terminations performed in Canada. The vast majority of such late-term pregnancies are terminated by inducing labor.

Parliament's consideration of the bill was interrupted when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in the fall of 2006.

As expected, he bill did not proceed when Parliament resumed it session.

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2012-APR-26: Request for Parliamentary committee to debate the definition of the term "human person:"

Navigating the terminology associated with abortion is like walking through a mind field. For one example, many commentators -- both pro-life and pro-choice -- use the term "life" when they mean "human person." They often debate when life begins. It can be argued that it does not begin during the conception process as many pro-lifers believe, but actually about a month earlier when a spermatozoon is released and starts its month-long journey down the vas deferens in the man's body.

There is a near consensus that a scraping containing skin cells, a swab taken from the inside of a person's mouth, cells from a human cancer, a pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, newborn, infant, etc. are all forms of human life. That is, they are living entities containing human DNA. There is also a near consensus that a newborn is a form of human life that is also a human person or human being. However, there is a lack of agreement on when personhood is attained by the developing embryo or fetus.

People have suggested that this happens during the process of conception, when the zygote implants in the wall of the uterus; when blood first appears in the embryo; when the embryo's heart starts to beat; when the heart can be heard beating; when the embryo loses its gill slits and tail; when the embryo first looks like a human; at quickening when the woman feels the fetus move; when the fetus becomes sentient and develops consciousness for the first time and is aware -- to some degree -- of its environment; at viability when it could survive on its own; when it is half emerged from the mother's body; when it is fully emerged from the birth canal; when the umbilical cord is cut, etc. All of these development steps, and more, have been suggested by sincere, intelligent, thoughtful people as the event when human personhood is attained.

Section 223 of the Criminal Code of Canada currently defines this transition as occurring when the fetus:

" ... has completely proceeded, in a living state from the body of its mother whether or not

(a) it has breathed
(b) it has an independent circulation
(c) the navel string is severed." 5

This definition is often criticized by pro-life supporters because there no mental or physical development ocurrs to the fetus during the few hours when it travels down the birth canal. The only significant difference between a fetus one hour before birth and one minute after birth is in its location. It has moved as little as a foot or so. They reason that if a baby immediately after birth is a human person, then so must a fetus be a person just before birth.

In recent years, pro-life groups in Colorado, Mississippi, and other states have failed while attempting to amend their state's constitutions to define human personhood as starting during the process of conception. Their efforts may have inspired MP Stephen Woodworth (Conservative, Kitchener, ON) to ask that a special parliamentary committee be formed to discuss when human life becomes a human person, and perhaps redefine Section 223. During an interview, he asked whether this section of teh Criminal Code is "... an accurate statement, an honest statement, or a misrepresentation." He hopes that Parliament can have "respectful dialogue" about the "legal principles and evidence involved." 6

Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, suggested that Woodworth's initiative may have been orchestrated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, as a "... backdoor way of signaling to their base that this is what they’d actually like to do and they just can’t do it."

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This topic continues in the next essay

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Related essays:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. "Parliament prorogued - Abortion bill spared," Association for Reformed Political Action, 2007-APR-09, at:
  2. "Abortion ban bill - Politicians as doctors," The Galloping Beaver, 2006-JUN-27, at:
  3. "C-388 An Act to amend the Criminal Code (procuring a miscarriage after twenty weeks of gestation)" LEGISinfo, at:
  4. Text of C-388 is at:
  5. The text of Section 223 of the Criminal Code of Canada is at:
  6. Laura Beaulne-Stuebing, "Abortion debate rears its head in Ottawa over MP’s motion," The Canadian Press, 2012-APR-26, at:

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Copyright © 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2012-APR-27
Latest update: 2012-SEP-20

Author: B.A. Robinson

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