The latest parliamentary effort to address Canada’s total lack of restrictions of abortion came to an end last week when a motion which proposed setting up an all-party Parliamentary committee to discuss when an unborn child becomes a human being was voted down, 203 votes against, 91 for.

But the fact that slightly over 30 percent of the MPs who voted supported Motion 312 is a victory in defeat for the mover, MP Stephen Woodworth, on two fronts.

First, most people had expected a far greater rate of rejection. They never anticipated that, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s opposition to it, ten cabinet members, including the Hon Rona Ambrose, the Minister for the Status of Women, would support the motion.

Second, the pro-choice mantra that “there is nothing to discuss” about abortion and that there is a consensus in Canada with respect to the current status quo of no legal restrictions on abortion at any point in gestation, were both clearly shown to be false by the voluminous and heated discussion, both inside and outside Parliament, that the motion generated.

So where do we go from here? The answer came on the same day as Motion 312 was defeated. Conservative MP Mark Warawa of Langley, B.C., filed Motion 408. It reads: “That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.”

Mr Warawa is picking up on evidence concerning sex-selection abortion in Canada, documented, recently, in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and empirically confirmed in a CBC sting investigation of “recreational ultrasound” businesses. The CBC’s report states: “Of the 22 centres visited, 15 agreed to book an appointment for an ultrasound that would give a couple the gender of the fetus before 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s within the range of time when it’s still possible for a woman to get an elective abortion”. Indeed, in Canada, unlike any other Western democracy, an abortion-on-demand is legally possible throughout pregnancy.

In his press release, Mr Warawa thanks “the CBC for bringing this matter to the attention of Canadians” and explains that, “Recent studies have shown that the practice of aborting females in favour of males is happening in Canada, …[and polls show that] 92% of Canadians believe sex-selective pregnancy termination should be illegal. … Gender selection has been strongly condemned by all national political parties. … As well, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada have vehemently opposed sex-selection pregnancy termination.”

So, how will pro-choice activists or politicians who do not want to touch the topic of abortion — the “third rail of politics”, touch it and you die — react to Motion 408?

That unfettered access to abortion should be the litmus test of whether a society has respect for women and their rights is a long-standing claim of pro-choice advocates and at the heart of their rationale for supporting unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy. They focus on women’s rights to autonomy and self determination and argue such access is required to protect these rights — and to protect women’s dignity.

Ironically, however, sex-selection abortion is the result of and promotes the exact opposite values. It is overwhelmingly the expression of a lack of respect for women in cultures in which sons are highly valued and daughters are massively devalued.

Sex-selection abortion differs from other abortions in that, unlike in probably most other abortions, the woman wants a baby — just not a girl. In one study reported from India in which 8,000 consecutive abortions were followed, 3 were of unborn boys and 7,997 of unborn girls.

Until recently, most pro-choice advocates rejected sex-selection abortion, calling it “gendercide” and “female feticide”. But that has changed, at least in Canada. Pro-choice activists, such as Joyce Arthur, now promote the view that no abortions should be prohibited. They are willing to selectively sacrifice unborn girl babies to keep the “purity” of their ideology – at least in terms of “choice”.

The fact that sex-selection abortion in Canada is occurring and not legally prohibited, also raises what should be unthinkable questions for our society, such as to what extent is female feticide associated with creating a culture in which other abuses of women are tolerated or even supported, for instance, the horror of so-called “honour killing”?

And how consistent are we in our approach in the Canadian criminal law, when, as we do, we prohibit female genital mutilation, but not the killing of an unborn girl, just because she is a girl?

It’s very difficult to say how pro-choice politicians, or pro-life ones whose courage and conscience fail them when it comes to dealing with abortion in Parliament, will vote on Mr Warawa’s motion. When we go to the heart of the issue, basically, they will have to choose between “choice” and “respect for female human beings”, whatever their stage of development or age. 

My prediction is that they might find they’ve jumped out of the frying pan of Mr Woodworth’s Motion 312, into the fire of Mr Warawa’s Motion 408.

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 AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...