Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s Motion 312, in the Canadian Parliament, to set up a committee to examine the definition of when a child becomes a human being within the homicide provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code (as the law stands at present, a child only becomes a human being after it has fully exited from the body of its mother), has been debated in Parliament and will be put to a vote today.  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants his MPs to vote down this motion. He has made it abundantly clear that he does not want the abortion debate reopened and has consistently acted accordingly. The approach of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson reflects the prime minister’s stance.

The so-called Roxanne’s Law, which would have made it a criminal offence to coerce a pregnant woman to have an abortion, was voted down at second reading on the strong urging of the minister of Justice, who also spoke against a private member’s bill, the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, which would have created a separate offence for intentionally killing or injuring an unborn child when attacking the mother.

Of course, Harper is entitled to his opinion and wishes in this regard, and, because he’s the prime minister, his opinion deserves respect and carries enormous weight. However, he is “first among peers,” not a sole ruler, which means other MPs are also entitled to their opinions, especially on matters of conscience, which abortion is.

Canada is a representative democracy — that means that politicians represent the people in the riding in which they are elected. For many people, the life issues, which include abortion and physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, are of primary importance. They expressly choose to vote for someone whom they believe will be likely to uphold their values in these regards in Parliament.

Now, what if their MP feels threatened in some way, if she does so? One MP told me that “when asked to choose between self-respect and compliance with others’ demands, a good member of Parliament finds it easy to do the right thing and follow their conscience.”

But what if, for instance, for the sake of discussion, she is concerned that if she does not follow the course of action the prime minister wants implemented, she will be removed from a prestigious committee, or, even, her nomination papers to stand in the next election might not be signed? That places the MP in a conflict of interest: the MP’s obligation to her electorate is in conflict with her self-interest, and this conflict exists whether or not her fears prove to be justified.

I’m not suggesting that an MP must vote on a particular issue as the majority in her electorate wishes. Rather, the MP must make a considered, independent decision in good conscience. But when she has good reason to believe that her own survival as a politician depends on following orders, that constitutes a conflict of interest, no matter what her decision is, and is ethically unacceptable.

The strategy that Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada is proposing to defeat Motion 312 expressly advocates creating such a conflict of interest. Here’s part of what she proposes to her blog readers:

“Ask Stephen Harper to remind his Cabinet and caucus to vote against the motion, and recommend that he discipline any Cabinet member who defies his order… Ask Conservative cabinet ministers to respect their leader’s wishes.”

And what if we knew, as we do, that at least two-thirds of Canadians — a majority — believe that there should be some law regulating abortion and protecting, at the least, viable unborn children (they have a chance of living if they are born), yet even in the absence of coercion, for political reasons, including protecting themselves from losing votes, politicians are unwilling to discuss in Parliament enacting such a law?

One has to be careful not to confuse a majority vote with an ethical decision: majorities can act unethically. But in a representative democracy, a majority’s wishes need to be considered in legislatures and rejection of them justified. That requires discussion, which is all that Woodworth’s motion is calling for.

And how does the current approach of saying a debate in Parliament is not needed, because “there’s nothing to discuss” about what legal protections an unborn child should be given under Canadian law, square with the principles of representative democracy? In response to the “nothing to discuss” claim, Woodworth argues that “whatever view one takes about abortion, Subsection 223(1) (of the Criminal Code, the sole focus of Motion 312) violates the principle of universal human rights by allowing Government, through a false definition of human being, to deny the inherent worth and dignity of every human being” — surely an issue that does need discussion.

And if the case against giving some legal protection to unborn children is so clear, why are those who support this case so frightened of showing that this is true?

And how far would Harper be willing to go in “encouraging” his MPs to vote against Motion 312 or to pressure them not to bring any other pro-life initiatives forward in the future? Might he “punish” Woodworth in some way to set an example to other MPs as to what might happen to those who don’t tow the party line? Maybe remove him from his current position on the powerful Justice and Human Rights Committee and transfer him to another committee, where his pro-life views won’t be a problem for the prime minister — for example, Fisheries and Oceans?

It’s true that both unborn children and fish and seals need reasonable protection (as the current public outrage reported in the media about a proposal, now that winter is coming, to euthanize two seals captured and put on display for summer tourists to view in the Iles des Madeleine’s shows), but the former are far more important to many people. And, as a hypothetical, what if that transfer meant there was no one on the justice committee willing to speak for pro-life values, and it was implemented precisely to achieve that result? Is that representative democracy in practice?

Hard cases make bad law, but they also make bad representative democracy when politicians give priority to their own political interests and protecting themselves, instead of the valid claims of their constituents. Some of them will argue that the ends of avoiding an acrimonious and divisive debate on abortion in Canada justify means such as I’ve hypothesized.

But we need to ask whether coercively shutting down discussion of difficult and sensitive issues in Parliament is ethical, if we are to avoid the accusation that ethical politics is an oxymoron.

Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law and director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law and is an international leader in the discussion of complex ethical questions in medicine.

Margaret Somerville is based in Sydney, Australia, where she is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine. At McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, she is Samuel...