May. 14, 2008 - Issue #656: Where are your carrots coming from?
Bill C-484 poses major threat to abortion rights, women’s rights
In March, a new law that gives fetuses legal personhood passed second
reading in the House of Commons. This bill threatens both abortion rights
and the rights of women in general.
Bill C-484, the “Unborn Victims of Crime Act,” creates a
separate offence for injuring or killing a fetus when a pregnant woman is
attacked. The language of the bill is unprecedented, basically transforming
fetuses and embryos into persons with rights. The bill has a clause that
specifically negates the Criminal Code definition of “human
being.” Currently, a child becomes a human being when it has exited
the birth canal alive, but Bill C-484 says this definition is not a defence
for injuring or killing a fetus. In other words, the fetus is a human being
under Bill C-484.
The bill does contain an exemption for “lawful” abortion, and
exempts pregnant women themselves from prosecution for harming their
However, the bill sets a very dangerous precedent because it can be used as authority to give more rights to fetuses in new contexts. For example, legislators can cite the act to justify re-criminalizing abortion. Judges could interpret other laws meant for protecting children to compel pregnant women to meet a standard of care for their fetuses.
So-called “fetal homicide” laws in the United States have been
used primarily to target pregnant women—not third parties as the laws
intended. Hundreds of American women have been arrested under fetal
homicide laws, or under child endangerment laws that cite a fetal homicide
law as authority. Most of these women are poor minority women, and have
drug or alcohol abuse problems. But some women have also been charged with
murder after suffering a stillbirth, in one case after not following a
doctor’s recommendation to have a Caesarean section. Is this the road
we want to go down in Canada?
Bill C-484 conflicts not only with the Criminal Code definition of human being, but with important legal precedents. The Supreme Court of Canada has decisively ruled in several cases that fetuses are not legal persons, and a woman and her fetus are “physically one.” We cannot compromise women’s established constitutional rights in order to give rights to fetuses. Creating a legal separation between a pregnant woman and her fetus has tragic and punitive results. For example, pregnant women in the US will forego pre-natal care completely if they fear arrest for drug abuse.
We all want to protect pregnant women from violence, but this bill is the
wrong tool, and unnecessary. Judges already have the discretion to apply
harsher penalties in these cases, and they have done so. But what’s
really needed are substantive measures to prevent domestic violence,
including more supports for abused women, more public education and better
enforcement of existing criminal laws against violence.
We need a range of equality-advancing programs and policies that would help women leave abusive relationships, such as measures to reduce poverty, racism and economic inequality, as well as a childcare program. But these are all the things that the Harper government is not doing, or has reduced or taken away outright.
Prime Minister Harper promised that a Conservative government would not
legislate on abortion, but this is exactly what is happening, not just with
Bill C-484, but with two other Conservative private member bills introduced
last fall. Bill C-338 would re-criminalize abortion by prohibiting
abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Bill C-537 would guarantee the
“right” of medical personnel to refuse to provide medical care
for religious reasons, which would mostly restrict women’s ability to
access contraception and abortion care.
Bill C-484 is a radical bill because it positions the fetus as a
woman’s co-equal. By focussing on fetuses, not injured pregnant
women, the bill is offensive to the full humanity of all women, not just
pregnant women. The not-so-hidden agenda of the bill is to recognize the
“rights of the unborn” so that abortion can be restricted in
the future. Indeed, fetal personhood is a long-standing objective of the
Only about 20 organizations across Canada officially support Bill C-484,
and every last one of them is right-wing, religious and/or
Not a single mainstream women’s group supports the bill. But the 100 groups opposing the bill so far are diverse: they include anti-violence groups, women’s shelters, medical organizations, legal associations, drug policy groups, labour unions, anti-racist groups and a broad range of women’s groups. None of these groups were even consulted on the bill before it was introduced by a Conservative, anti-abortion MP. They oppose the bill now because they know it won’t work to reduce violence against women. They already know that the best way to protect fetuses is to guarantee the rights and safety of pregnant women, because when a pregnant woman is safe, so is her fetus. V
Joyce Arthur is coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
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