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Harper's Conservative Government Is Systematically Undermining Women's Rights





“STOP the Cons!”


Speech delivered at the noon FREEZE event “Stop the Cons!” Outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, Robson Street, September 28, 2008.

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada


Thank you!  What you’ve just witnessed here is a FREEZE.

We’re here today to ask you to help us FREEZE the steady loss of women’s rights under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government! We want to FREEZE out the Conservatives from winning the election – especially a majority win!  Help us STOP the Cons!

Over the last few years, the voices of women and women’s groups have been silenced in Canada, because of millions of dollars in budget cuts, the elimination of programs that helped women achieve equality, and the banning of advocacy by women’s groups that get any funding from the government, forcing some to close.

The Conservatives cancelled the universal daycare program, and they cut the Court Challenges Program – a vital program that allowed disadvantaged minorities to take their equality cases to court. Without that program, our Constitutional rights are on paper only.

The Conservatives closed most Status of Women offices across Canada and removed the ability of women’s groups to advocate for equality. The Conservatives scrapped pay equity, even though women working full-time still make only 74 cents for every dollar a man makes. The Conservatives have failed to meet our international obligations to improve women’s rights. They’ve also been backtracking on their commitments to human rights at United Nations meetings.

I’m with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and we’re also very concerned about women’s reproductive rights. Harper has changed the selection process for appointing judges to high courts, and at least two radical, right-wing, anti-choice judges have been appointed over the last few years in Ontario and Nova Scotia. The Conservative Health Minister abandoned his responsibility to enforce the Canada Health Act in New Brunswick, where the Province illegally refuses to fund the Morgentaler Clinic.

In July, only two months before promising not to re-open the abortion debate, Harper himself expressed public opposition to the awarding of the Order of Canada to Dr. Henry Morgentaler. And 67% of his caucus answered an anti-abortion survey to say they opposed the award.

Three private member bills have been introduced over the last year that would endanger or restrict abortion rights. All three died when the election was called, but it’s highly likely they will be reintroduced in the next session of Parliament. If Stephen Harper wins a majority government, the Conservatives will have the power to pass anti-abortion bills, and they can be counted upon to use it. In previous elections, we talked about the “hidden agenda” of the Conservative government. Well, this time around, it’s no longer hidden.

Stephen Harper said in a recent interview with the National Post, that his goal was to make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of the country. He recently told reporters on the campaign trail that he’s fully convinced Canada has become more conservative over the last 20 years, and he argued that Canadians are more accepting of his positions on crime, taxes, national unity, and social policies relating to families.

Well, Harper is deluded. We still live in a socially progressive, pro-choice country. A majority of Canadians consistently support abortion rights and women’s equality. But a large number of Harper’s MPs are anti-choice. 74% of Conservative MPs would like to restrict abortion and have spoken out about it.

I mentioned those three private member bills that would endanger or restrict abortion rights. One would protect healthcare workers who refuse to provide any medical service they personally don’t like, including refusing to provide any information or referrals. This would mostly affect women who need abortion and contraception services. Another bill would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of severe fetal defects.

The pro-choice movement and the women’s movement has spent the last 10 months fighting against the third private member’s bill called Bill C-484, The Unborn Victims of Crime Act. This bill creates a separate offence for injuring or killing a fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked. The bill had already passed 2nd reading by the time the election was called. Almost the entire Conservative caucus voted in favour of Bill C-484, including Harper himself. That’s 94% of Conservative MPs (and 28% of Liberal MPs).

Bill C-484 was not necessary, because the law already allows judges to apply harsher penalties when a pregnant woman is attacked, and judges do so. The only purpose of Bill C-484 was to establish the fetus as a legal person and a victim of a crime, separate from the woman. This has serious implications for the rights of pregnant women, and for abortion rights. Because if a fetus has legal rights in one context, that can be used as authority to expand fetal rights in other areas of law and public policy. In the United States, 37 states have similar laws, and they’ve been used to include fetuses in the definition of human being in other laws, such as child endangerment laws or drug abuse laws. This has led to the prosecution of pregnant women for allegedly harming their fetuses. For example, women in the U.S. have been arrested for murder for suffering a stillbirth. In the same way, Bill C-484 would set a dangerous precedent for limiting the rights of pregnant women. The bill would also have been the beginning of an incremental approach to criminalizing abortion, a leg-up to make it easier for the anti-abortion movement to pass restrictions on abortion. And that’s what they said they intended to do. So it’s critical that we not allow them to get a foot-in-the door.

Bill C-484 was supported almost exclusively by right-wing, religious, anti-abortion organizations. But when Bill C-484 passed 2nd reading in March, there was a huge groundswell of opposition to the bill by medical associations, unions, student groups, Quebec’s entire legislative assembly, and a broad range of women’s groups across Canada, all of whom expressed fears that it could negatively impact abortion rights, as well as women’s rights in general. When it became clear to the Conservatives that Bill C-484 had become permanently “tainted” by the abortion issue, they decided to back off from it. (But not before almost the entire Conservative caucus had voted in favour of it.) Their attempt to distance themselves from the bill now is a cynical election ploy to avoid the abortion debate during a campaign.

But their agenda is now clear. The Conservative government has already undermined women’s rights, and continues to pose a major threat to those rights, and to reproductive rights. If they form a majority government, there will be nothing to stop them from imposing a socially conservative agenda on Canada, including laws that restrict abortion, despite their promises to the contrary. So please send Harper a message that Canadians will not stand for that. STOP the Cons!  FREEZE them out!  Please, vote anything but Conservative! Thank you.

 


“Don’t Play With Women’s Rights!”


Speech delivered at the September 27, 2008 Forum, at the YWCA Vancouver.

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada


The pro-choice movement and the women’s movement has spent the last 10 months fighting against a dangerous private member’s bill called Bill C-484, The Unborn Victims of Crime Act. This bill died when the election was called, along with two other private member bills that could endanger abortion rights. However, it’s quite likely that these bills will be re-introduced in the next session of Parliament. If Stephen Harper wins a majority government, the Conservatives will have the power to pass anti-abortion bills, and they can be counted upon to use it. In previous elections, we talked about the “hidden agenda” of the Conservative government. Well, this time around, it’s no longer hidden.


I like to remind people what today’s Conservative Party really is. It’s not the old Progressive Conservative Party from the days of Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, or even Brian Mulroney. No, this is the far-right-wing Reform Party, the Alliance Party. They merged with the old Conservative Party in 2003, but the backbone of the party is still the old Reform/Alliance. Adopting the name of the venerable Conservative Party simply allowed them to appear more moderate and credible. In a recent interview with the National Post, Harper stated, “I said for a long time, and nobody listened to me for the longest time, that my goal was to make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of the country. I think we’re moving the country in the right direction and I also think our party is becoming, I wouldn’t say centrist, maybe more pragmatic.” He told reporters on the campaign trail last week that he is fully convinced Canada has become more conservative over the last 20 years, and he argued that Canadians are more accepting of his positions on crime, taxes, national unity, and social policies relating to families.

Well, Harper is deluded. We still live in a socially progressive, pro-choice country. A majority of Canadians consistently support abortion rights, women’s equality, racial equality, and rights for aboriginals and the LGBT community. A majority of Canadians want commitments to a clean environment and water, to universal healthcare, a childcare system, and to the preservation of our entire social safety net. We don’t want a return to capital punishment, and we’re unhappy that Canada has abandoned our respected role as peacekeepers in order to wage war in Afghanistan.

Harper and the Conservative government are out of step with Canadians, and what’s scary, they don’t seem to realize it, or if they do, they don’t care. I’m going to give you some examples of what the Conservative government has done to undermine women’s rights and abortion rights, or how they’ve failed to protect those rights:


I believe the Conservatives thought that Bill C-484 would slip under the radar, because on the surface, it seemed like a feel-good bill that wouldn’t affect abortion rights. Prior to that vote last March, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada was the voice in the wilderness warning about the dangers of this bill. We knew by January that the bill had a very good chance of passing second reading, but no-one took the bill too seriously until it actually passed.

The only purpose of Bill C-484 was to establish the fetus as a legal person and a victim of a crime, separate from the woman. This has obvious implications for the rights of pregnant women, and for abortion rights. Although the bill specifically exempted abortion, and exempts the pregnant woman from any liability, the problem is the precedent the bill would establish. If a fetus has legal rights in one context, that can be used as authority to expand fetal rights in other areas of law and public policy. In the United States, so-called fetal homicide laws have been used to include fetuses in the definition of child and human being in other laws, such as child endangerment laws or drug abuse laws. This has led to the prosecution of pregnant women for allegedly harming their fetuses. But Ken Epp, the Conservative MP who introduced the bill, has consistently misrepresented his bill as being very narrow and specific, and has refused to acknowledge that it would set a dangerous precedent for limiting the rights of pregnant women. Epp’s bill would also have been the beginning of an incremental approach to criminalizing abortion, a leg-up to make it easier for the anti-abortion movement to pass restrictions on abortion. That’s why it’s critical that we not allow them to get a foot-in-the door. And by the way, Bill C-484 was supported almost exclusively by right-wing, religious, anti-abortion organizations.

After the bill passed 2nd reading in March, there was a huge groundswell of opposition to the bill by medical associations, unions, student groups, Quebec’s entire legislative assembly, and a broad range of women’s groups across Canada, all of whom expressed fears that it could negatively impact abortion rights, as well as women’s rights in general. When it became clear to the Conservatives that Bill C-484 had become permanently “tainted” by the abortion issue, they decided to back off from it. Just before the election was called, the Conservative government said they would introduce a new bill that would make pregnancy an aggravating circumstance in an attack on a pregnant woman, to allow for harsher penalties. I won’t debate the merits or not of that particular proposed bill, except to say that we haven’t seen the wording of it yet and we can’t trust the Conservatives. The bill is not necessary at any rate, because judges already have the discretion to apply harsher penalties in these circumstances and they do. So this new proposal was simply a sop to the women’s movement and to medical organizations, and a way to try and avoid the abortion issue during an election campaign. Because in spite of Harper’s confident assertion that Canadians are becoming more conservative, he knows that any whiff of anti-abortionism is political suicide in an election. Not only do the media pounce like sharks on any anti-choice misstep, a majority of Canadians are pro-choice. According to a June 2008 Angus Reid poll, 49% of Canadians think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, 42% want it legal in at least some cases, and only 5% would ban it outright.

To conclude, the Conservative government has already undermined women’s rights, and continues to pose a major threat to those rights, and to reproductive rights. If they form a majority government, there will be nothing to stop them from imposing a socially conservative agenda on Canada, including laws that restrict abortion. So please send Harper a message that Canadians will not stand for that. Vote anything but Conservative! Thank you.