afraid of debate
Fear is the only thing preventing a parlia-
mentary debate on abortion law.
every May thousands of Canadians gather in front of Ottawa’s Peace Tower. Every October, Life Chains form in Canadian cities. Every year polls indicate
the majority of Canadians want new laws.
But in the House of Commons, designed for our representatives to debate substantive issues and bring forward
legislation for the good of all – silence.
It’s not that the hands of Parliament are tied by some Supreme Court ruling declaring “a woman’s right to choose.”
Canada’s abortion laws were struck down in 1988 because
there was unequal access to abortion at various hospitals.
I was in the Supreme Court when a lawyer, in her arguments, referred to a woman’s right to choose. She was
interrupted by then chief justice Antonio Lamer who reminded her the Supreme Court had never said a woman
had a right to choose.
There is no barrier to legislation that would place restrictions on abortion – in fact, Canada is one of only a
few countries without laws on abortion.
It’s not that no one wanted to fill the void left by the
Supreme Court’s 1988 decision. A bill was passed by the
House of Commons, albeit by a narrow margin. However,
it was then defeated by a tie vote in the Senate. Canadians
and Parliament were deeply divided.
It’s not that Canadians are content with the status quo and
don’t want Parliament to do something – again, look at the
polls. The obstacle is that any party or Member of Parliament
who tries to open the debate is critiqued and condemned.
We have no laws because Parliament is avoiding the
issue out of fear.
This fear is bolstered by pundits, media personalities,
and lobbyists who want to stop any debate before it gets
started – often declaring the falsehood that there is a
Charter right to choose. MPs and parties fear the negative
political results of being seen as the ones who allowed the
debate to begin.
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The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is the national association of
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Some also fear having the debate because it could mean
losing the debate.
Parliament was designed precisely for such debates.
The accent colour of the House of Commons is green, the
colour of the people. It is where the people’s concerns are
to be brought by their elected representatives for debate.
Yes, the debate will be emotional and passionate on both
sides. That’s why there are rules and procedures about how
debates must take place. There is a committee structure comprised of MPs from all parties. There are clerks, researchers
and rules governing how witnesses come to appear before
the committee, how long they have to present their views
and how much time MPs have to question them. The committee can hold hearings in Ottawa or across the country.
There are even ways a committee can hold hearings
without legislation being introduced. This dramatically lessens the otherwise partisan nature of committee hearings.
Consider the debate over laws regulating assisted human reproduction. It began with a committee considering draft legislation. This allowed MPs from the party
in power freedom to agree or disagree with the legislation.
Or consider the debate on the definition of marriage. It
was initiated by a committee conducting hearings based
on a Justice Department paper that posed three options.
In both these debates the process ensured they were not
partisan. MPs were better able to express their views and
reflect those of Canadians – in particular those from their
On a matter which goes to the core of understanding
the nature of our humanity, and upon what our dignity
is affirmed and rights recognized; on who is afforded the
protection of law and who is on the outside; of who is afforded personhood or deserving of even some protection
in law; of any matter that Parliament should debate – these
are precisely why Parliament was devised.
It’s only fear that keeps the issue from being debated. Fear
should not debilitate Parliament and silence MPs willing to
see if they can persuade their peers and all Canadians on a
path forward. Some have shown recently they are willing to
confront fear, and take risks – even the risk of losing the debate and thus having the issue sidelined for another 20 years.
If convinced of the legitimacy of your position, you should
not shun debate but welcome the opportunity to share the
compelling reasons for your beliefs and convictions.
Some are willing to take the risk and welcome the challenge
of an open and civil debate. May their numbers increase. FT
Bruce J. cLeMen Ger is president of The Evangelical
Fellowship of Canada. Read more of his columns