Stephen Woodworth’s “science,” and why Canada’s far-right isn’t really interested in it.

Stephen Woodworth’s Motion M-312 is scheduled for its second hour of debate this Friday, and the vote on the following Wednesday.  And over summer’s Parliamentary break, there has been an interesting change of direction from the Canadian far-right backers of Woodworth’s action.  In a way, there’s some obvious desire to parlay M-312 into a personhood amendment — but along the way, it also reveals a likelihood that they could undermine his efforts, if the direction that Woodworth’s plan goes ends up being anything but.  And more than anything, it shows something interesting about Stephen Woodworth’s “science,” and why Canada’s far right isn’t particularly interested in it.

First, a brief recap is in order. Even major mainstream media have displayed some lack of clarity at times about what the Motion actually proposes to do.

Motion M-312 is sometimes portrayed as an effort to ban abortion, but the motion itself is designed to appear more innocent — it tries to look like an effort simply to strike up a committee to study it further.  It boldly declares that birth is an outdated benchmark for when one becomes a legal person, and that Parliament needs to investigate how far back that benchmark should be moved.  Of course, the implicit mandate it provides to this committee is the presumption that Canada’s laws about when one becomes a person are inadequate, and that it’s necessary to backdate legal personhood to the fertilization of the embryo or some stage thereafter.  And the committee he’s proposing to lob the question to — the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) — is at least half composed of MPs with anti-abortion voting records, with many known or suspected members or former members of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus.  So the Motion is also a veiled attempt to stack the deck a little.

The Motion also removes women from the equation entirely, even though the fate of a woman and the foetus she carries are inextricably linked, as the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada recently reminded us:

This motion would challenge and change the fundamental principle of women’s autonomy. It could suggest that a pregnant woman serves as a mere carrier for another person with full legal rights. As a result, her treatment would require care-givers and institutions to seek protection for the foetus’ rights through the intervention of a third party separate from, and other than, the pregnant woman herself. Any decision about her treatment would have to take into account the new legal rights of the foetus in her womb. Her own interests, needs, or choices would be considered in treatment decisions, but these would be subject to the rights of the foetus she is carrying. The foetus’ unexpressed wishes would be interpreted by proxy by courts and legislators...”

Stephen Woodworth has relied heavily on a couple talking points that he had hoped would go viral, including the dubious “toe in the birth canal” deflection.  Among them, he keeps trying to co-opt “the science” as indicating that life begins prior to birth.

He doesn’t labor on the science too long, though, because the question then becomes “which science are you referring to, and which benchmark does it point to?”  It’s easy enough for Woodworth to deflect this, right now: that’s the question, he replies, that he wants the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) to answer for us, all behind closed doors, where none of us have to be burdened with the debate.  Because if he delays on the science too long — what stage an independent heartbeat begins, when implantation happens (given that most fertilized ova are flushed from the body naturally, before this point), what stage the foetus detects sensation, what stage brain activity can be detected — we might start remembering that pregnancy is a process, and until birth, there will always be one form of dependence or another on the mother, even if isolated stages show different levels of autonomy.

That’s one of the reasons that many on the Canadian neo-conservative far-right aren’t terribly interested in the “science,” other than exploiting the idea that there is some science to back them.

Enter LifeSiteNews (LSN), vying to be Canada’s largest neo-con “news” site on social issues (perhaps in the vein of WorldNetDaily), and their parent organization, Campaign Life Coalition (CLC).  When CLC declared unwavering support for Motion M-312, they were all jazzed about the “science”:

“It is time to bring the law into sync with the 21 century [sic] and modern science. We are able to view the child in the womb moving, sucking their thumb, yawning etc, in 3D ultrasound and real-time 4D ultrasound,” said Mary Ellen Douglas, National Organizer of CLC. “The denial of the child’s humanity comes from those who are ‘science deniers’ when it comes to the facts on human development.”

Because we know how LSN is so up on science.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that LifeSiteNews was guilty of spin, omission or whatever else it takes to further the Campaign Life Coalition agenda.  CLC has regularly used the LSN blog to trash Catholic organizations that don’t follow exactly the kind of path that CLC believes is proper and Catholic, bringing it into regular conflict with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.  Another Quebec priest, Fr. Raymond Gravel, was the target of several articles (some dating back to 2003), and eventually filed suit against LSN for portraying him as a “pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage parish priest,” a “former homosexual prostitute” and a “so-called priest who supports abortion.”  As a consequence of these and other conflicts, LSN was banned from the recent Canadian bishops’ annual plenary assembly, and has experienced decreasing cooperation from other far-right groups.

And their reputation issues haven’t been limited to behind-the-scenes skirmishes.  In fact, there’s now a recurring adage that says that the moment LSN posts about all the wonderful work being done in any particular African nation, you can expect news to come out in the next week or so about some new law or toughening of existing laws penalizing homosexuality from that country (sometimes regardless of whether the death penalty is involved).  And in the infamous Isabella Miller-Jenkins kidnapping case in the US — in which a Mennonite minister is accused of helping ex-lesbian Lisa Miller smuggle her daughter to Nicaragua so that she wouldn’t have to share custody with her still-lesbian former partner — LSN receives curious mention as a means for the minister to keep in touch with his Nicaraguan contact, although there’s no evidence that LSN was consciously complicit in the case.

Reputation aside, with CLC and LSN finding themselves unable to co-opt the banner of science, they chose to jettison it instead.  In mid-July, the Campaign Life Coalition fired off a newsletter declaring opposition to gestational approaches to anti-abortion legislation, stating:

“Campaign Life was founded at a meeting in Winnipeg on May 25, 1978. In 1986, Campaign Life and the Coalition for the Protection of Human Life merged, mostly after those who supported a compromise position had left the Coalition. It is counterproductive and wrong to promote or accept abortion legislation that arbitrarily divides humans into protected and unprotected classes. Therefore, measures that create exceptions to abortion (rape, incest, health of the mother, genetic defects, and gestational) should be avoided.

“…

“We have always supported [incremental] measures and always will – with the proviso that we will continue to work for an outright ban.”

The newsletter was characterized at LSN as being “written in response to public criticisms and communications to Members of Parliament that Campaign Life Coalition has followed an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” which would imply that CLC’s competitors on the Canadian anti-abortion landscape are concerned that the organization has some inside influence with Parliament.  Not long afterward, LSN published an article about UK anti-abortion group leader John Smeaton, in which the radical Society for the Protection of the Unborn (SPUC) leader expressed remorse for supporting a gestational ban.  This cautionary tale to Canada’s far-right resulted in a survey conducted by The Interim in which they surveyed 15 far-right groups on whether they supported incremental or gestational approaches to banning abortion.

The distinction between gestational and incremental approaches is worth knowing.  Gestational approaches look at the timeline of foetal development, and picks one stage or another as the new benchmark for when abortion can be restricted or banned outright.  Gestational 20-week abortion bans are the tactic of choice in some regions, and one infamous Arizona 20-week ban redefined when pregnancy begins, to move the goal post back further.  Incremental approaches look at creating new laws that hamper clinics’ ability to function and to impede womens’ ability to access their services, with a goal to cumulatively obstruct.  The Interim clarified that “for the purpose of this survey, gestational limits means restricting abortion after a certain point, whether by trimester or some other time period.”

There is a third approach, personhood, which I wrote about before.  Personhood approaches have far-reaching implications, and would ban in-vitro fertilization, since some fertilized ova are lost during implantation.  They could also ban some forms of contraception, and there has already been the spectre of the state having to investigate miscarriages. It’s also not inconceivable that situations could arise in which the fetus’ life and well-being takes precedence over the mother’s (if the attending personnel want to avoid prosecution) in a medical emergency.

Stephen Woodworth’s apparent objective with Motion M-312 (and CLC’s objective for supporting it) is in hopes that personhood can be legally set at fertilization.  But if his Motion were to succeed in directing the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to create a new benchmark, while PROC were to decline to go as far as complete personhood for the foetus, the inevitable resulting legislation would be gestational in nature.  Because it directs PROC to interpret some stage of medical development as evidence — or as Woodworth and CLC are referring to it, “science” — of the beginning of life.  Despite his intent to manufacture the (in CLC President Jim Hughes’ words) “perfect storm” on abortion in Canada, it appears that Hughes and Woodworth set themselves up for the perfect conundrum that was destined to fail even if it succeeded.

Back to the survey, though, of the 15 organizations surveyed on anti-abortion tactics, ten replied, and five of them supported gestational approaches, with five opposed (in the interest of clarity, three of those five opposed were CLC and/or affiliates, with a fourth being a frequent collaborator).   Nine supported incremental legislation, including CLC — Jim Hnatiuk (leader of the Christian Heritage Party) declined to comment on incremental approaches, a possible indication that he might be further to the right than any of them, holding a “personhood or bust” viewpoint.  Of them, Campaign Life Coalition Youth’s Alyssa Golob drops a hint of what might be next on the CLC agenda:

“I support incremental approaches such as parental notification, complete informed consent, defunding and ultrasound laws; basically any law that would make it extremely difficult for women to obtain abortions.”

Of course, CLC’s track to the right could be a matter of saving face.  Canada’s neo-conservative far-right knows their chances of succeeding with M-312 are poor — even Woodworth has already conceded this.  Even though groups have been trying to flood Parliament with petitions in support (LSN reports “hundreds,” with “nearly 19,000 different names,” even though the linked PDF shows 83 petitions, for a total of 6567 signatures as of the end of August — perhaps they’re mailing them to MPs in billionnuplicate?), barring some unexpected surprise, the Motion appears doomed.  The far right is angling to land on its feet with cat-like “I meant to do that” pride, and try to harness whatever momentum they’ve received so far so that it can be channeled into the next effort.

Which appears likely to be one of incrementalism, probably targeting the funding for the procedure first, if ground chatter in Ontario and Alberta are any indication.  As the history of reproductive justice, current events south of the border, and advocates like Joyce Arthur have reminded us, if the Motion goes to defeat on the 26th, that’s no reason to get complacent.

But in the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether Stephen Woodworth picks up on the message that LSN and CLC are inadvertently sending him: that he, too, is expendable in order to get exactly everything that they want… which judging by the kinds of articles LSN stirs up dissent with, ultimately includes fully banning abortion (with no exceptions), contraception, hormone therapy, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), feminism, organ donation, same-sex marriage, relationships of any type, LGBT parents, and far more.

Be careful how you choose your friends, Stephen.

Crossposted to Rabble.ca

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