Bill C-510 creates controversy within pro-life community

Rod Bruinooge introduced a bill that would make coercing an abortion a criminal offense.

Amidst the national debate over maternal health and whether it would include abortion this past Spring, Rod Bruinooge, the Conservative MP for Winnipeg South and chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Committee had his name picked to be among 30 MPs who would get their private member’s bills considered by the House of Commons. On April 14, he introduced for first reading, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (coercion) (An Act to Prevent Coercion of Pregnant Women to Abortion), also known as Roxanne’s Law. It received the designation C-510 and on April 28 received first reading.

When it became public, the phones rang and blackberries buzzed at Campaign Life Coalition, with the question “what did you know about this bill?” and “is it worth supporting?”

For over 25 years, CLC has been encouraging pro-lifers to run for public office: helping them to win nominations and elections and, once in office, to act in a pro-life fashion. In the federal sphere, CLC has encouraged MPs to propose private members bills and motions, written speeches and briefing books and reported to their grassroots supporters the many positive things on the bill. When drafting proposals, CLC’s wording is without compromise. On the other hand, MPs proposed legislation must be vetted by parliamentary lawyers and studied by committees composed of MPs from all parties.

Jim Hughes, national president of CLC, said the intent of the bill was laudable: to punish those who would exert pressure on pregnant women to have an abortion. Bruinooge named the bill Roxanne’s Bill, after Winnipeg’s Roxanne Fernando who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2007 after refusing to have an abortion. As Bruinooge said at the time, “Anyone who attempts to force a woman to abort her wanted fetus should face consequences.”

In its May CLC National News, the organization applauded Bruinooge for bringing the issue forward. “It’s exhilarating to see an MP take a pro-active step to stop any form of coercion of women,” said CLC’s Hughes. But he also noted that CLC was concerned about the too-narrow definition of coercion, its inapplicability to chemical abortions, and the improbability that it would apply to abortionists.

CLC also took exception with the wording of the bill that conceded the permissibility of abortion (Section 4), that states it “does not apply in the case of a physician who attempts to convince a pregnant female person to have a medical intervention that results, or may result in the death of the child when, in the  physician’s best medical judgement, that medical intervention is necessary to prevent a serious threat to the female person’s physical health.” Hughes said CLC cannot support a bill that acknowledges abortion as a permissible option for Canadian women. He told The Interim that he wished that Section 4 was not in C-510.

Pro-abortion activists condemned the bill, with Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada calling it a “coerced childbirth” bill. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesman said the government would not support the bill because it did not want re-open the abortion debate. At the National March for Life, Bruinooge promoted the bill in both a press conference and in his remarks on Parliament Hill.

The issue remained dormant throughout the Summer, but in anticipation of the resumption of the House of Commons in the Fall, lawyer Geoff Cauchi published “Why, as a Catholic, I cannot support Bill C-510,” in the October issue of Catholic Insight. Cauchi, one of several lawyers who advise CLC on legislation, also admitted the “goal of the Bill is laudable” but said that according to Catholic Church teaching he could not support the bill because the “built-in qualifications and exceptions” send the wrong message that “it is lawful for a pregnant woman to freely choose to have an abortion” and thus whatever good C-510 does, the bill violates the principle that “one may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

Cauchi also disapproved of the narrow definition of coercion because it would exclude abortion counselling or persuading a woman to have an abortion as long as physical harm or withdrawal of support was not threatened.

Furthermore, Cauchi said the implication within the wording that women cannot be coerced to have an abortion if she “has not chosen” it, is that “it would be licit for the woman to freely choose abortion.” He complained that C-510’s “focus is on protecting the autonomy of pregnant women to freely decide whether or not to abort her child.”

He called for a “clean bill” that criminalized all “behaviour” that counsels for abortion and did not concede the legitimacy of abortion as a pregnancy option.

Richard Marchak, another lawyer that advises CLC, stressed that the bill’s purpose is to “prevent coercion.” He said that “the limitations and restrictions as to when it applies are simply to define when coercion occurs, nothing more, nothing less.” CLC legal counsel Tom Wappel also vetted a version of the bill.

Sean Murphy wrote a reply to Cauchi for Catholic Insight that originally appeared on its website. In “Why, as a Catholic, one may – but need not – support Bill C-510,” Murphy, administrator for the Protection of Conscience Project, said the qualifications accurately reflect, in his view, the reality of abortion in Canada. Murphy says that “only when abortion is lawful can it be argued that there is a need for a law” such as C-510 “to prevent women from being pressured to have them.”

Murphy also states that the qualifications included “are secondary and undesired side-effects” of a kind that are “inseparable from the act of legislative draftmanship.”

CLC also solicited the advice Dr. John Shea and Monsignor Vincent Foy, both of whom endorsed Cauchi’s views. The CLC public affairs office in Ottawa also sought the advice of moral experts including William May of the Catholic University of America. All three experts said the bill was supportable.

On Oct. 1, C-510 was placed on the order of precedence and is awaiting second reading. If it passes second reading, it will go to committee.

Meanwhile, Campaign Life Coalition then conducted several conference calls and staff meetings to weigh whether it can support the bill. In those meetings, all participants agreed that people of goodwill can disagree about tactics.

Hughes told The Interim that CLC has encouraged MPs to vote for C-510 so that it can go to committee where he hopes amendments to the bill will address its various shortcomings. Considering that the unborn victims of violence bill in 2008 never saw a vote, he is not optimistic about the chances of C-510 becoming law. Indeed, as Bruinooge told The Interim in the Spring, bringing forward the anti-coercion bill was a lesson to him about precisely how difficult it is to raise the issue of abortion in Canada. Which may explain the qualifications within the bill that has some pro-lifers less than enthusiastic about it.

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