Nearly four years ago, Roxanne Fernando’s body was found in a Manitoba snow bank. The 24-year-old had been brutually beaten and left to die by her boyfriend after refusing to have an abortion.
In April, Canadian MP Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South, CPC) moved to introduce Roxanne’s Law, also known as Bill C-510, which seeks to “make it an offence for someone to coerce or attempt to coerce a female person to have an abortion.” You can read the text of the bill here. According to Bruinooge:
I was just very moved by her decision to stand up to essentially the threats of her boyfriend to have an abortion, to end the pregnancy. To see her make the choice to continue despite all that pressure, I felt was worthy (of) acknowledging.
At first glance, it all sounds reasonable. Who wouldn’t support making it illegal to force women into having abortions? But many people – including me – now worry that the bill would open the door to restricting abortion access. MP Niki Ashton (Churchill, NDP) called it “a front to attack a woman’s right to choose.” She explains:
(The bill) attempts to reintroduce the notion of fetal rights through indirect means, by presenting abortion as a social harm to be criminalized (…) we see a much greater movement to coerce women not to get an abortion, often with very aggressive tactics.
Others point out that coercion is already illegal under Canada’s Criminal Code.
Ashton is referring to the bill’s definition of “abortion”, which could open the door to legal recognition of the fetus as having the same rights and freedoms as a person. The bill defines abortion as:
(…) the act of using or prescribing any instrument, medicine, drug or any other substance, device or means with the intent to terminate the clinically diagnosable pregnancy of a female person with knowledge that the termination by those means will with reasonable likelihood cause the death of the child (emphasis added).
The bill’s vague definition of coercion could also make it easy for anti-abortion advocates to attack providers and pro-choice pregancy counselors (anyone who coerces a woman into having an abortion could spend up to five years in jail; for attempted coercion, it’s up to two years). While it’s unlikely that such charges would be upheld in court, I’ve no doubt they would be made.
Roxanne’s Law masquerades as a bill to protect women’s right to choose, which makes it all the more infuriating to those of us who firmly believe that the decision to continue a pregnancy (or not) is an inviolable personal choice. The bill’s promotion of anti-choice ideology is all the more clear when you consult the list of its most ardent supporters, which includes anti-abortion advocates like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Canadian Bishops’ Catholic Organization for Life and Family, Priests for Life and the Campaign Life Coalition (Buinooge himself serves as chair of the parliamentary pro-life caucus).
In fact, the Campaign Life Coalition’s Alissa Golob argues the bill doesn’t go far enough. The group takes issue with a section of the legislation that protects doctors who advise women to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons:
(Our) stance is that abortion is wrong under all circumstances, whether the mother’s life is in danger, whether it’s because of rape or incest, so we don’t support that section of the bill.
Luckily, Parliament defeated the bill on Wednesday, by a vote of 178 to 97. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has repeatedly said his government would not support any bill that reopens the abortion debate.
Roxanne Fernando’s murder is a tragedy. But her story – and the stories of women like her – shouldn’t be used to garner support for legislation that threatens women’s right to choose, while pretending to do just the opposite.