Motion 312, or M-312 is a private member’s bill proposed by Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth asking for the appointment of a twelve member special committee to review Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code for the purpose of examining existing medical evidence to demonstrate whether or not a child is a human being before ‘complete birth,’ the legal impact and consequences on the human rights of a ‘child’ before the moment of ‘complete birth’ and what options are available to amend or replace Subsection 223(1), which has thus far serviced our Criminal Law more than adequately for several hundred years.
Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code was written as part of British Common Law and states that:
223. (1) A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it 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; or
(c) the navel string is severed.
Marginal note: Killing child
(2) A person commits homicide when he causes injury to a child before or during its birth as a result of which the child dies after becoming a human being.
Woodworth’s justification for wasting time and resources on his private member’s bill can be found in this article at Huffington Post:
“While it is true that Canada has no law that limits abortion, Canada does have a law that permits abortion by denying any human rights whatsoever to a child before the moment of complete birth. It is Section 223 of our Criminal Code: “A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother whether or not it has breathed, etc.”
Woodworth concludes his article with: “Parliament has a responsibility and duty to ensure that laws with important human rights implications, such as our definition of who is a human being, are informed by modern, medically-accurate evidence, not out-dated 17th century medical and legal principles.
I’m simply asking the question “Does it make medical sense in the 21st century to say that a child is not a human being until the moment of complete birth?” Let’s at least examine the evidence. If you agree that respectful dialogue about this is a good thing, please add your voice to mine.”
M-312 was quickly dubbed The Handmaid’s Tale by pro-choice activists. Joyce Arthur, Executive Director, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada in a counter-argument wrote:
“Woodworth pretends that having personhood start at birth is an “arbitrary line” without “objective criteria”, as if the biological fact that a fetus depends totally on a woman’s body while a newborn does not, is somehow insignificant or even imaginary. This is deeply insulting and disrespectful to women and their childbearing capacity. Ironically, it is Woodworth in his role as an elected Member of Parliament who is the “powerful person” trying to arbitrarily and subjectively define a fetus in a way that would undermine or negate the legal personhood of an already-vulnerable class of people – pregnant women. That is why we have nicknamed his motion “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Arthur was also quoted as saying: “We have also been taking a lesson from what’s been going on in the United States for the last number of years, and especially in the last year or two. The attack on women’s rights has been really intense down there. It’s crazy. It’s a war on women. And it’s a lesson to us in terms of fighting back and not giving an inch when it comes to women’s rights.”
Published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is number 37 on the American Library Association’s list of “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” Seen through the eyes of one woman after a totalitarian theocracy, has overthrown America re-naming it the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is, as Atwood explained in a 1998 interview: “a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions.”
In Atwood’s book, the protagonist, Offred, whose name literally means, “Of Fred” is a member of a group of women called handmaids who are kept by powerful families for reproductive purposes. Referencing the Biblical story of Rachel, who gave her handmaiden Bilhah to her husband Jacob so that she might bear him children, Offred’s duty is to produce a child for the couple to whom she belongs. Failure to do so will result in Offred being declared an ‘unwoman’ and sent to the Colonies to clean up corpses and radiation spills. In The Handmaid’s Tale infertility rates are high, procuring or performing an abortion is a sin punished by torture and death, and a woman is only as useful as her womb.
Aalya Ahmed, a long-standing pro-choice supporter and literature major, is a Radical Handmaid, one of a group of pro-choice “cause-play” activists who recently formed in response to M-312. “As Canadians, we tend to get complacent and say “oh, the types of things we’re seeing in the States can’t happen here.” Ahmad explained. “But referencing The Handmaid’s Tale is a good way to shake us out of that complacency and wonder just how far away the Republic of Gilead really is.”
Modeled after Offred and her peers in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Radical Handmaids, who wear handmaid`s costumes and hats as described in Atwood’s book, quickly mobilized to protest M-312, organizing rallies in Toronto, Ottawa and Victoria, British Columbia.
During a radio interview on AM 530 during the Prolife Hour, an anti-choice show presented by the Catholic organization Priests for Life, Woodworth discussed M-312 with Father Tom Lynch and Father John Lemire.
Woodworth asserted that he had been “been very careful not to insert my own views” into M-312. He claimed: “What I really want is an open ended and honest dialogue with all points of view and an examination of the evidence so that the results can be reported back to Parliament.” Evidence, he explained, “based on 21st century scientific techniques regarding the development of a child prior to the moment of complete birth. Most Canadians know intuitively that there is no magical moment that happens when the child’s little toe pops out of the birth canal which transforms a child from non-human to human. We have ways in the 21st century of describing the child’s development somewhat minutely. Evidence could include looking at a variety of factors such as operation of the brain, functioning of organs, when a child develops its own blood type independent of the mother and other descriptive features which would help inform Parliament.
The difficulty is to make people understand that abortion doesn’t necessarily need to be justified only on the basis of by misrepresenting whether or not a child is a human being. It becomes possible to argue or debate how to weigh the rights of a child against the rights of a mother. You don’t have to pretend that a child is not a human being in order to justify abortion.”
When asked about the legal difference between the terms ‘human being’ and person’ Woodworth responded: “I’m the wrong person to ask because I don’t accept that idea myself but as nearly as I can tell the distinction is that the law should not consider these inalienable rights so much as interests or gifts. Now the law says just because you’re human doesn’t mean that you have these rights. I do believe that there are inalienable rights that any person is entitled to,” he continued. “It goes against the growing body of our legal history to say otherwise. If you and I had been alive in the 1850’s in the United States and the Supreme Court declared that Blacks were not persons I hope we would have stuck our hands up and said ‘That’s wrong’.”
He went on to say that: “We should never accept a law that says any human being is not human. 79 percent of Canadians think that we do recognize and protect children in the third trimester before birth. No, we don’t. We have a 400 year old law that says children are not human beings until complete birth. That is not accurate or just. The simple question,” he continued, “is whether a child is a human being before birth. Truly, my desire is to let people examine the evidence and reach some conclusions.”
MP Woodworth then single-handedly, without prompting, drives himself to Irrational Land and declares himself Queen.
“This issue of how we decide who is a human being is much more fundamental than the abortion question. It extends to treatment after birth,” he says in the voice of a person who appears perfectly rational but then follows it with this surreal piece of nonsense: “If we can say without any cogent evidence or sound principle that a child is not a human being two minutes before birth than we can also say that someone who has fallen into a coma for 24 hours is not a human being either, or that a child is not a human being until they reach the age of reason, or that someone who is born with Down Syndrome is not a human being or someone who is hydrocephalic is not a human being.”
Woodworth then gives an encore by implying that Canada is a totalitarian regime with a secret agenda of eugenics and human experimentation.
“Do we really want a Canada where any group or person with enough power can rig the law to say that anyone who is a human being isn’t? I don’t think that’s the kind of Canada I want. I think we want a Canada where laws honestly represent that. I’m quite convinced that if the 72% of Canadians that surveys tell us would like to have a law providing protection for children before birth made their voices heard we’d have a law pretty quickly.”
Woodworth then exhorted the listening audience to rally to his cause by signing his online petition, emailing and writing their local MP’s and by having honest discussions about their views with their neighbors.
The ProLife hour listening audience might not have banded together around M-312 but the Radical Handmaids did.
“The attack on feminists here has been non-stop since the election of the federal Conservatives in 2006,” Ahmad says. “There are a lot of very exhausted women out there just struggling to stay afloat, and I for one definitely felt that our efforts were welcomed with a lot of love and hopefulness from those women.
I have always believed that women need to have control over their bodies and whether or not they bear children as a cornerstone of our freedom.”
Ahmad discussed the new direction the Radical Handmaids bring to pro-choice activism. “I loved our energy and spirit, the sense of fun and freedom as opposed to the dire, authoritarian pronouncements of our opponents. For me, the best feminist protests have always had this sense of creativity and cheekiness. Even the suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, the “Freedom Trash Can” and WITCH hexing the Pentagon during the Second Wave, our Third Wave “Miss G” group playing croquet on the lawn to get a women’s studies curriculum in high schools… people who paint feminists as drab and humourless have no sense of history.”
Over a year ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper adamantly stated: “As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate. The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister.” Prior to Woodworth presenting his remarks in Parliament Harper averred that we would vote against the motion.
Woodworth’s motion was debated in Parliament on April 26th. Not only did the motion not receive support but Woodworth’s own party tore him a new one. Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor countered Woodworth’s arguments with: “I do not want women to go back to the previous era where some were forced to obtain abortions from illegal and medically dangerous sources. This should never happen in a civilized society.” O’Connor is also quoted as saying: “The ultimate intention of this motion is to restrict abortions at some development stage in Canada. If the legal definition of when a person is considered a human being is changed, and a fetus is then considered a human being then homicide laws would apply, and abortion, as a consequence, would be considered homicide. I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their belief on others by way of the Criminal Code.”
M-312 will be debated upon in Parliament late June or early September and the Radical Handmaids will continue to fight the good fight.
Ahmad outlines the Radical Handmaids plans for thwarting anti-choice legislation in Canada. “We intend to keep bringing our fabulous hats, love of literature and knitted bits to wherever misogynists are congregating to strip us of our hard-won rights. M-312 is up for debate sometime in early June and we will definitely be just as present for the next round as we were for this one. We also are continuing to circulate our petition and postcards, as well as calling for those intrepid knitters to continue sending us their handiwork so that we can eventually give every MP who can’t overcome his urge to control our bodies a womb of his very own.”
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.