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Bill C-484 isn't about protecting pregnant women, it's about recriminalizing abortion

The following article is an updated and more complete version of an op-ed published in the National Post on March 31 (online) and April 1 (print).

by Joyce Arthur

Suzanne Fortin engages in a distortion of facts in her article “Canadian women need a fetal homicide law” (March 10). Bill C-484, which passed second reading in Parliament before the Easter break, would create a separate offence for the death of a fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked.

When pregnant women miscarry due to a violent attack, they’ve suffered a loss and had their rights violated. That hardly needs stating, but Ms. Fortin bizarrely thinks the pro-choice movement denies it. Everyone, including pro-choice advocates, wants to protect pregnant women from violence. We simply disagree on the best way to do it.

Our justice system already allows for harsher penalties for aggravated crimes. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada supports such remedies, and we’ve also called for better measures to reduce violence against pregnant women, who are at increased risk of domestic violence. Further, we’ve advocated the use of Canada’s hate crime legislation (which has a gender clause) and we’ve even suggested passing a specific law to mandate increased penalties for attackers of pregnant women.

Giving separate legal status to a fetus is an unnecessary approach that could endanger not only abortion rights, but the rights of all pregnant women. Fetal homicide laws are prevalent in the U.S., but have done nothing to reduce violence against pregnant women. Instead, they have been used to arrest and prosecute pregnant women for their behaviour, and to justify restrictions on abortion — even when such laws exclude abortion and pregnant women from criminal liability. Our fear that this bill will be used in a similar way in Canada is not unjustified.

A bill that gives personhood to fetuses is unnecessarily divisive, as proven by the battle in which we’re currently immersed. That's because Bill C-484 has everything to do with abortion, contrary to disingenuous claims otherwise. Fortin is a vocal abortion opponent in Canada, as are virtually all active supporters of Bill C-484 (other than some victims’ families). It would be extremely naïve to expect the anti-abortion movement not to use this bill as the foundation for making abortion illegal again. Some anti-abortionists are already salivating at the prospect. For example, Luc Gagnon, President of Campagne Québec-vie, told Le Devoir (translated): "This bill is the beginning of recognizing the rights of fetuses…. This legal recognition can have legal consequences and lead to the right to life. … When a human being has rights as a victim of violence, it has other rights." A Facebook group supporting Bill C-484 called it a “key step towards recriminalizing abortion," before realizing its political gaffe and quietly deleting the line.

Ms. Fortin repeats the word “fetus” numerous times and claims that Bill C-484 “does not in any way confer personhood or rights upon the fetus.” That is false. The bill never even uses the word fetus. Instead, “child” and “unborn child” are used to refer to even very early pregnancies, as soon as the woman suspects she might be pregnant. This is an unprecedented extension of such language in the Criminal Code and clearly, it confers personhood on the fetus. The bill makes the penalty for killing a fetus the same as for homicide, and includes it as an offence “Against the Person and Reputation, even though the Code defines a person ("human being") as someone born alive. The bill explicitly negates that definition by saying it can't be used as a defence for a crime against the "child." Finally, just by making it a separate crime to kill or injure an "unborn child," the bill creates at least some degree of personhood.

The bill’s proponents, including Ms. Fortin, are fond of citing a survey done last October that found 72% of Canadians support a bill like C-484. What they never say is that the poll was commissioned by anti-abortion group LifeCanada to measure “Canadians’ Attitudes Towards Abortion Issues.” The poll’s question on a fetal homicide law was grouped with other questions on abortion restrictions, with biased wording to elicit a positive answer. Similar, more recent polling results on this issue (Angus Reid, March 13) are also misleading because the public is not generally aware of the risks the bill poses to women's rights.

Ms. Fortin pulled a couple of phrases from an unrelated essay I once wrote about women and fetuses, but she ignored the context. Other quotes from the same essay contradict Ms. Fortin’s thesis that I discount the importance of a fetus to a pregnant woman:  “She has full authority and rights to consider her own personal fetus to be the most important and valuable thing in the world.” “A pregnant woman wants a good outcome for her baby far more than anybody else, so all we have to do is give her the means to make it happen.” That essay argued that it’s up to the pregnant woman to decide how she views her fetus, and that it’s society’s job to support her decision — whether that means providing access to legal safe abortion, or helping ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby.

It’s not the place of the law to decide the legal status or worth of the fetus, because that interferes with women’s privacy and freedom of conscience — and ultimately their right to life and bodily security. We need to protect pregnant women first — because when a pregnant woman is safe, so is her fetus.

Joyce Arthur is the Coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (www.arcc-cdac.ca)