Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Abortion Ban Bill - Politicians As Doctors

Private Members' Bills don't usually go too far in Parliament. Most never make it past 1st reading and never find their way onto the Order Paper. Those that do often die before the parliament dissolves. Occasionally a PMB gets to debate. The success is usually limited and if it had no real priority with government, it is bound for defeat. There are presently 148 Private Member Bills before the 39th Parliament at the moment. Most will never see the light of day.

However, they do have a purpose, particularly when a member of parliament wants to make a statement or take a stand on an issue. It provides constituents with a view of the MP's priorities and preserves on the public record the MP's position on what may, in fact, be important issues. On the other hand, some PMBs are just plain foolish.

That makes Bill C-388 all the more curious.

Introduced by Liberal MP Paul Steckle, the Bill is intended to make it a criminal offence, punishable by five years imprisonment, to procure an abortion for any woman who is beyond her 20th week of pregnancy. The exceptions are that such late-term abortions are permitted if it is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or if she will suffer severe physical injury in giving birth.

Needless to say, the anti-choice crowd is crowing like a bunch of roosters who believe the sun rose just for them.

Most are claiming that the proposed legislation meets the criteria of the Canadian Medical Association definition of abortion which suggests a fetus is viable after 20 weeks. The truth is, the CMA policy does not say that at all. The CMA describes abortion as the active termination of a pregnancy before fetal viability. When a fetus is viable is something to be determined by a competent health care professional - not a politician and certainly not some anti-choice wingnut.

The real truth is that late-term abortions are extremely rare, about 0.4% of all abortions performed, and virtually all of them are performed to preserve the life or health of the mother, or because the fetus is severely malformed and would not survive birth. Most women receiving late-term abortions actually wanted the child.

There is another issue here. Abortion in Canada is a medical procedure - and medical procedures are within the realm of the provinces - not the federal government. Provinces have already run afoul of the medical community when they tried restricting abortions only to have the provincial medical associations refuse to cooperate.

There is something else going on here, however.

Paul Steckle's record on issues is less than completely clear, although he is the co-chair with (shudder) Maurice Vellacott, (an ultra-right-wing, homophobic, racist, Conservative MP, who would see abortion made illegal under all circumstances), of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus.

Paul Steckle has brought forth a bill which flies in the face of Liberal Party policy which is essentially, hands-off. Abortion is a medical issue - not a political one. Which raises the question of why the bill wasn't introduced by Vellacott?

Simple. Vellacott has already made a complete ass of himself in this parliament. Harper and his senior staff have gone to great lengths to silence Vellacott while not angering his social conservative constituency. Vellacott is a loose cannon in the Conservative caucus and to allow him to introduce a bill with which a majority of Canadians would disagree would have a lasting negative impact on the government as a whole. Better to let the co-chair of the Pro-Life Caucus introduce it. And Steckle being a Liberal makes it even better.

In fact, this bill is little more than a stab at aping the US Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, legislation that has already been struck down by the US federal courts.

What the anti-choice/anti-medical groups fail to understand, or at least will not admit, is that after 20 weeks, if the fetus is deemed to be "not viable" by a medical doctor, or the life and health of the mother is at risk, a traditional D&C or D&X abortion is not performed. Doctors induce labour instead. That is neither a miscarriage or an abortion. It is a prematurely still-born fetus.

The wording of the bill indicates a distinct lack of research and understanding of medical practices and procedures. That's not surprizing since it looks like it came out of one of the anti-choice lobby-shops which have pitched their camps along the Rideau.

In any case, it should strike observers as a little odd that the Liberal House Leader would permit a Private Member's Bill of this nature to reach the table.

Not all that odd really. In fact, it's good parliamentary tactics.

The chances of the bill ever seeing debate are so slim as to be negligible. If it ever does actually get on the Order Paper, and if it ever does get to the point of debate, it will have the delightful effect of drawing out all the Conservative wingnuts - and there's more than just a couple of them. It would highlight the social conservative caucus.

It's not likely to happen. Harper may be petulant, arrogant and driven by his oversized ego, but I can't imagine he's dumb enough to put the worst elements of his party on open display.

On the other hand, maybe he will.

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