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Conservative MP's bill on violence against pregnant women revives abortion debate

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OTTAWA -

A private member's bill from a Conservative backbench MP is stirring up debate over abortion in Canada, though the proposed legislation does not mention it even once.

Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall's bill would encourage judges to consider physical or emotional harm to a pregnant victim as an aggravating factor during sentencing.

"It is focused on pregnant women being attacked by a third party who wants to cause injury or death to that individual," said Wagantall, a Saskatchewan MP.

Wagantall opposes abortion but she said the legislation, known as Bill C-311, has nothing to do with that and is entirely focused on violence against women.

But the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada is urging MPs to vote against the bill on the grounds that it promotes fetal rights, even though there is no mention of fetal rights in the text of the bill itself.

Executive director Joyce Arthur said some groups who oppose abortion view the bill as a positive step because they feel it would legally recognize "pre-born children" in the case of violent crimes, which is not the case now.

"On the surface, it might not seem like an objectionable bill, but there's all kinds of associated reasons that we're very suspicious of it," said Arthur.

"I thought that was very revealing and very alarming in terms of, if this law was passed, how it could be misused, misappropriate by the anti-abortion movement, how they could build on it to try and establish further restrictions."

Private member's bills rarely become law and this one is similarly unlikely to get through the House of Commons, but it has revived abortion as a wedge issue among parliamentarians.

Wagantall spoke to reporters about her bill in the foyer of the House of Commons Tuesday morning ahead of when the bill was to come up for its first real debate. That ended up being delayed.

But while Wagantall spoke, Status of Women Minister Marci Ien was in a building across the street announcing the government would give $4.2 million from the Sexual and Reproductive Health Fund to projects intended to improve access to abortion.

Ien and other Liberal ministers characterize Wagantall's bill as an effort to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.

"We are not a government that will trick people into places that would limit the access to women across our great country to get an abortion," Ien said when asked about the legislation.

Justice Minister David Lametti said on Twitter Tuesday the proposed legislation is an attempt to restrict a woman's right to choose and would make pregnant women less safe.

Campaign Life Coalition president Jeff Gunnarson said he absolutely hopes the proposed bill contributes to a legal argument for fetal rights and restrictions on abortion in the future, but he thinks it's unlikely.

While the bill would move to protect an unborn child in the womb, Gunnarson said, it does not protect it against abortion -- only violent crime.

Still, he was surprised to learn that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre plans to support the bill, given the inferences that could be drawn from that move.

Poilievre's spokesman confirmed the leader does plan to vote in favour of it. Poilievre has in the past identified as in favour of abortion rights and said he would not introduce legislation to limit abortion rights in Canada.

"I still think that he would not vote for it just for the reason that it would look to the media and the pro-abortion people that he's sort of leaning toward a pro-life stance," Gunnarson said.

Gunnarson's group would not be so quick to jump to that conclusion, however.

"I believe him when he says a Poilievre government will not pass or create any legislation to protect the unborn," he said.

The bill is the latest iteration of similar proposed legislation put forward by Wagantall to protect unborn children from violence in 2016.

With the 2016 version, named Cassie and Molly's law, Wagantall sought to make it a separate offence under the Criminal Code to injure or kill a fetus while committing an offence against the mother.

Her latest bill is more squarely focused on aggravating factors during sentencing for offences against the mother, she said.

"The difference is this is very, very honed and very specific," she said

Similar reforms were also proposed in the 2008 "Unborn Victims of Crime Act," and other Conservative private member's bills in when former prime minister Stephen Harper was in government.

During the debate in 2016, Bill Blair, who was the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice at the time, pointed out that abusing pregnant women was already considered an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes.

The Criminal Code also prohibits causing the death of a fetus in some circumstances, though it does not acknowledge an unborn fetus as a human being.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2023.

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