Last night while on my ride home from work, I turned on my phone and began to devour the #M312 hashtag.
If you haven’t been keeping up with Canadian politics (come on! Why not?), Motion 312 is a motion introduced by Conservative MP (Member of Parliament) Stephen Woodworth, calling for a Parliamentary Committee to examine whether the Criminal Code definition of “human being” should be expanded to include fetuses. I can’t even tell you with a straight face that Woodworth is pretending this isn’t about abortion. The motion was accepted for debate, and said debate happened yesterday, in the House of Commons.
When I was fifteen and far too naive to understand it, I read a book of Sartre’s that I found on my sister’s bookshelf. Several years later, in my third year of university, I took a 20th century existentialism course because I had a crush on the professor. I got very little from either of these experiences; but riding home on the streetcar yesterday I finally realized what the “nausea” was that Sartre was talking about. I felt a lurch in my stomach that was somehow both physical and existential; I turned off my phone and stared out the window. “Is this really real?” I asked myself.
Is it really happening that today, twenty-four years after the abortion law was struck down in this country, four years after the man for whom that Supreme Court decision was named won an Order of Canada, our elected (ha!) representatives are standing up in the House of fucking Commons, for goodness sake, and having a serious debate about – let’s face it – abortion? Is this really happening? Outside Parliament yesterday, a crowd of women dressed in handmaid costumes from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale stood and protested the gradual but inevitable regression of women’s rights in this country. “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual,” they said.
Margaret Atwood must be shaking her head. Our mothers and grandmothers must be shaking their heads.
Anyway, the debate. Once I had sufficiently recovered from my existential malaise, I tuned back into the debate – livestream from the House of Commons, and in another tab, Twitter, and in a third, Kady O’Malley’s liveblog.
Woodworth opened with fifteen minutes of speechifying, during which time he managed to fire off an impressive array of anti-choice cliches, paying particular loving attention to the “slippery slope” argument. If we can abort fetuses, who’s next! he cries, forgetting that one of the original arguments he brought forward for amending the Criminal Code was that the definition of “human being” therein was based on 400-year-old science; surely if something was “next”, it would have it would have happened by now?
Woodworth proceeded to mangle and take out of context quotes from various sources, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson (who was a member of the court presiding over the R v. Morgentaler decision). The outrage from Twitter – and the exasperation from the New Democrat MPs in the House – was palpable, even from behind the tiny screen of my smartphone. Who is this jackass, and why is he allowed an audience for his nonsense?
Predictably, when the floor was opened for other MPs to speak their piece(s?), Woodworth was eviscerated. First up was NDP MP Francoise Boivin, who correctly characterized M312 as a “full frontal attack” on women’s rights. Liberal MP Hedy Fry called out Woodworth on his attempt to introduce “back door” legislation on fetal rights (as opposed to abortion rights) – a strategy that is not new to this government (remember Bill C-484?).
One by one our MPs lined up to cut Woodworth down, and to put a cherry on top, Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor gave a strong and unwavering speech in support of a woman’s right to choose. Not even his own party could stand behind this gong show of a Motion – Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself will vote against it.
To be clear, nobody ever thought this would go anywhere, or that Woodworth would succeed in making any changes to the law, let alone changing the legal status of abortion. It is the fact that we are having this conversation that is such a slap in the face to Canadian women. It is terrifying that our rights are so fragile, we can “open the conversation” on a whim, even under a government whose leader promised he would not reopen the debate. Whoops, Harper, looks like that one got away from you!
The next debate on the motion will not happen before June, and most likely will actually occur in the fall. Don’t put away those handmaid costumes yet, ladies – you’re gonna need them, one way or the other.
For a full recap, watch the webcast on ParlVU (debate on Motion 312 started at 5pm), or read the Hansard, and for commentary check out the #M312 hashtagon Twitter.