In decrying his failed nomination of Conservative MP Rachel Harder as Chair of the Status of Women Committee, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer is confusing freedom of expression with the basic qualifications required for any MP holding such a Parliamentary position. In the process he has revealed his disregard for the Committee and women’s rights.
Canadian law recognizes that human life begins at birth. In its 1988 decision in R v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Criminal Code restrictions on access to abortion because they violated women’s rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter. Since that time, an increasing number of Canadians have come to view abortion as matter for a woman herself to decide. Indeed, the PEI government recently acknowledged that the lack of abortion services on the Island was sex discriminatory and had to be addressed.
In contrast to the majority of Canadians, Scheer believes that life begins at conception and that any attempt to end such life is wrong. Mr. Scheer is entitled to voice his opinion but when he and other anti-choice parliamentarians argue that their religious beliefs or moral values should dictate whether or not all women in Canada have access to abortion, that’s a problem.
Granting legal status to the foetus or recriminalizing abortion services would violate the freedom of conscience rights of those who do not share Scheer and Harder’s religious beliefs or moral values. More significantly, however, the Criminal Code changes demanded by Harder and other anti-abortion MPs, would violate the life, liberty, security of the person of all women in Canada.
Sheer, Harder, and anti-choice organizations like Campaign Life are free to express their views abound abortion, including in Parliament and before Parliamentary Committees. Nevertheless, as the Liberal and NDP members of the Committee pointed out in appointing Conservative MP Karen Vecchio instead, Harder’s views on women’s reproductive autonomy and choice provide a clear indication that Harder lacks the basic qualifications necessary to be a member, let alone the Chair, of the Status of Women Committee.
Canadians reasonably expect the Chair of the Access to Information Committee to believe that access to government information is important; the Chair of the Justice and Human Rights Committee to support human rights and the rule of law; and the Chair of the Environment Committee to believe in sustainable development and the risks of climate change. It is for this reason that former Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose’s decision to remove Senator Lynn Beyak from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee was universally applauded. Senator Beyak does indeed have the freedom to try to defend residential schools. But in doing so, she revealed that she was unqualified to sit on the Senate Committee engaged in the challenging task of transforming relationships with Indigenous Peoples in Canada based on recognition, rights and respect.
Likewise, a substantive understanding of, and wholehearted support for the freedom of conscience, security of the person, and equality rights of all women in Canada – starting with their reproductive rights – are a minimum qualification for the Chair of the Status of Women Committee.
Whether or not Harder was appointed Chair of the Committee was not a freedom of expression issue. And, contrary to what Scheer would have Canadians believe, rejecting Harder’s nomination is not an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. The role of the Status of Women Committee – and indeed the constitutional obligation of Parliament and the Government of Canada as a whole – is to protect and promote the equality rights of all women and girls in Canada not just the rights of those who share Scheer and Harder’s religious beliefs.
Denying access to a health care service that only women require is clear sex discrimination. The failure to grasp this fact showed not only that Harder was unqualified to chair the Status of Women Committee, but that Scheer didn’t care.
Professor Martha Jackman is a member of the Centre for Health Law Policy & Ethics at the University of Ottawa and the Co-Chair of the National Association of Women and the Law.