Rona: Doing It Wrong

The Vote of Conscience and the Status of Women in Canada

Graphic Graeme Adams.

The year may be 2012, but an abortion debate in this country seems far from over.

As the topic received a fresh round of press last week, you may have noticed the name Rona Ambrose flying around too.

Ambrose is the Conservative Minister for the Status of Women and in a vote of conscience (as opposed to just voting the way Prime Minister Stephen Harper tells her to), she took a decision in favour of a private members’ bill that would see a parliamentary panel examine when life begins for a fetus, and what—if anything—that may mean under the Criminal Code.

This did not go over well.

Though MP Stephen Woodsworth’s Motion 312 was handily defeated by a vote of 203 to 91, the conversation surrounding the giant vacuum in Canadian legislation on abortion—in that we have no legislation whatsoever—along with the allegedly back-door ways and reasons Conservative MPs are attempting to get it back on the parliamentary table quickly turned.

The debate on abortion became a debate about Ambrose—specifically, whether or not the minister was doing her job properly.

So-called militant feminists from the Abortion Coalition of Canada and the Quebec Federation of Women were quick to criticize her conscience, for example.

Then an online petition calling for her resignation began to circulate, garnering over 10k signatures on the weekend.

And you better believe Canadians squawked en masse on social media about a loss of confidence in Ambrose’s ability to carry out her duties, arguing the vote was proof the minister responsible for women’s issues is fundamentally at odds with their most basic reproductive rights.

Perhaps worst of all, Ambrose herself did little to explain her vote, offering no comment to reporters and a single, somewhat beside-the-point tweet on the matter.

“I have repeatedly raised concerns about discrimination of girls by sex-selection abortion,” she said on Twitter. “No law needed, but we need awareness!”

Awareness is great, but awareness on what exactly? Abortion in general? Sex-selective abortion? And, um, where did this come from, and how is it relative to M-312?

And if Ambrose believes no abortion legislation is necessary, why would she welcome a panel to determine when the life of the unborn is defined in the Criminal Code?

Perhaps most importantly to the “militant feminists,” many are left wondering how Ambrose reconciles her conscience with a duty to serve her constituent — that is, the very women’s organizations from coast to coast who recognize and advocate this very basic tenet of maternal health? 

We might never know. As of Monday, Ambrose continued hiding. But right or wrong, it’s too knee-jerk easy to vilify Ambrose for her vote, even though goodness knows she’s not helping herself by remaining silent. But the fact remains that she is currently serving as a distraction to the actual issues.

Just as quickly as M-312 died, for example, another bill—M-408—was born. All to limited press or personality fanfare.

Canadians should also remember that both of these abortion bills were similarly preceded by C-510, C-291, C-338, C-484 over the last decade alone.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the dangerous assertion made by those in opposition to Ambrose, among others, that suggested her work itself was useless. 

The only upside to the heat is perhaps, ironically, what Ambrose was calling for: awareness. Maybe now people will start paying closer attention to her dossier and track record with greater scrutiny.

Indeed, the CBC reported that the last time the Minister on the Status of Women fielded a question on her file was April.

This little gaffe could change that, as it would be refreshing to see her answer not only to abortion, but to major federal government cuts to women’s programs or the shocking number of missing and murdered aboriginal women, which remains a national shame under her watch.

Let’s hope the scrutiny Ambrose faces acts as a catalyst for policymakers and citizens to take a serious stock of the status of women in this country. But it’s kind of troubling that it suddenly feels like Ambrose is the sole focus of the debate instead of those issues.

What it means for our ambiguous abortion legislation that nearly half of the back-benching Conservatives were willing to defy the PMO’s position that there is “no political will to reopen the issue” of abortion, and vote in favour of this bill, also remains to be seen.

If nothing else, the bizarre defeat of M-312 and its backlash clearly displays the political need for Canadians to stay vigilant, keep watch over our legislation and political leadership (or lack thereof) and continue to press for dialogue about women and maternal rights in this country and abroad.

Even if it is 2012.