Protecting a Woman’s Right to Choose

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On January 31st, 1991, I delivered my maiden speech in the Senate of Canada.  The country had been within an intense and deeply polarizing debate on the issue of abortion and what the appropriate legal framework around access to abortion services would be.  In the wake of the R v. Morgentaler decision in 1988, the federal government introduced legislation attempting to restrict access to abortion, but it was defeated in the House of Commons.  In August of 1989, the Supreme Court delivered its decision in Tremblay v. Daigle, which ruled that a fetus has no legal status in Canada as a person.   This decision would reignite both sides of the issue in pushing for legislation to regulate abortions in Canada, from guaranteeing access to imposing highly restrictive provisions.  To the dismay of many, the federal government pursued the latter approach.  Later that year, Bill C-43, An Act respecting Abortion was introduced in the House of Commons.   After passing the House, it arrived in the Senate and had been the subject of much heated debate.

Given my knowledge and experience gained through working with women’s health issues, I gave the bill very careful consideration.  But to my mind, it came down to woman having the right to choose, which the bill did not permit.  This meant going against the governing party to which I belonged, not an easy decision but a reflection of my commitment to the best interest of the health of women.  My very first speech in the Senate would address Bill C-43 and my opposition to it.

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After an extensive series of votes to add amendments to the original bill, C-43 unfortunately came to a final vote in its original form.  Along with 6 of my fellow Progressive Conservative colleagues, Senators Norman Atkins, Pat Carney, Wilbert Keon, Finlay Macdonald, John Michael Macdonald and Mira Spivak, I voted against Bill C-43.  Once the standing vote was tallied, it had come down to 43 for and 43 against the bill.  As per the Rules of the Senate, a tied vote results in an automatic defeat of legislation.  The Government’s bill to limit Canadian women’s right to choose was defeated in the Senate.  Women’s groups and all those concerned with access rights expressed their relief toward this outcome.

Nevertheless, to this day, no law on abortion exists in Canada.