Re open the abortion debate? Not in a minority house

On February 15, 2007, two men beat 24-year-old Roxanne Fernando to death with a wrench. The Winnipeg woman was pregnant with the child of Nathaniel Plourde, one of the killers.

On February 15, 2007, two men beat 24-year-old Roxanne Fernando to death with a wrench. The Winnipeg woman was pregnant with the child of Nathaniel Plourde, one of the killers. The other killer, a 17-year-old youth, stated at his trial that they killed her because she refused to have an abortion.

All of the reporting from Plourde’s trial suggests that the abortion motive was bogus. Plourde’s lawyer and the crown both accepted the evidence that Fernando was killed because she refused to stop pursuing the hope of a long-term relationship with Plourde. According to defence council, “The pregnancy had nothing to do with this offence.”

In a video-taped confession Plourde told police, “She was crazy about me. She had an obsession with me. I just couldn’t take it. Like, I’m 19. I can’t handle a 24-year-old.” Whatever their motives, Plourde, the 17-year-old, and a third man who helped to dispose of (and rob) the body were all convicted and are now serving lengthy prison sentences.

And there it is, a brutal crime, a just verdict, and a strict punishment, a sad story told and ended – until the Conservative Party of Canada saw a chance to exploit it for crass political gain. Last week when Winnipeg South MP Rod Bruinooge introduced a bill in the House of Commons that would make it an offence to “coerce a woman into abortion,” he named it “Roxanne’s Law.”

Presented as a private members bill, Bruinooge’s initiative has all the earmarks of a push from the very top. In the tightly buttoned-down Harper government, as Toronto Star senior parliamentary reporter Susan Delacourt delightfully understates it, “It is rare for Conservative backbenchers to hold news conferences and introduce legislation without the PMO’s consent.”

Last month, during a two-day visit to Canada, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a meeting of G8 foreign ministers, “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.” The remark was sparked by the Harper government’s plan for a “major initiative on women’s health” that was to exclude family planning.

At the time Harper insisted that he had no intention of re-opening the abortion debate “in the next Parliament.” Note that he made no commitment not to introduce the subject at some later sitting, say for instance after the next election, should he be returned with a majority. But how to achieve that majority if he alienates his right-wing Christian base by appearing weak on abortion?

Enter Roxanne’s Law. The bill provides jail terms for “conduct that is intentionally and purposely aimed at directing the female person who has not chosen to have an abortion to have an abortion.” Bruinooge has denied the bill is aimed at women’s health centres that provide abortion counselling, but if it passes into law, be sure that the anti-choice movement will exploit it in their ongoing campaign of harassment against abortion providers.

Most of what the bill calls coercion – violence, threats, blackmail and extortion – are already illegal in Canada. The only thing it would criminalize that isn’t yet a crime is this: “attempting to compel by pressure or intimidation including argumentative and rancorous badgering or importunity.” This is exactly the kind of charge anti-choice groups have leveled against abortion clinics in the past, claiming that counselling is little more than a sales pitch.

It’s telling that Bruinooge couldn’t find a genuine example of a woman being beaten, badgered, or extorted into having an abortion against her will, and had to resort to exploiting poor Roxanne Fernando’s death to publicize his bill. If he was trying to make it a crime to coerce a woman into continuing with an unwanted pregnancy he could have taken his pick of examples of violence and harassment.

Since1997 in the US and Canada, anti-choice extremists have committed eight murders, seventeen attempted murders, 41 clinic bombings and 175 arson attacks, as well as 1,400 acts of clinic vandalism, 179 assaults and 763 clinic blockades. There is no count on the number of death threats they have made, nor the nooses, and bullets with names scratched into them, they have sent through the mail.

Bruinooge’s bill may never reach the floor of Parliament. Nonetheless, it will have done its job if the Conservatives’ base gets the message: re-criminalizing abortion and undoing decades of progress for women may have to wait, but the party has not forgotten the unborn. Give them a majority, and just watch them go.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.