Winds of change?

By 
  • October 11, 2012

It was hardly a wind of change. But it was at least a whisper of hope.

And if Parliament’s vote on MP Stephen Woodworth’s motion gives new hope to pro-life Canadians, it also affords an opportunity to change for the better.

Woodworth’s private member’s motion seeking to have a House of Commons committee study when life begins was, of course, defeated 203-91 in late September. But while the win-loss margin seems large, the 91 “yeas” were much more than just a moral victory. They were a shock. Few, if any, predicted such a level of support. No one publicly foresaw high profile cabinet ministers such as Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose voting for the motion.

Whatever their other motives, it’s clear Woodworth’s character and conduct during the acrimonious debate was key in making it possible for his colleagues to vote yes. He was implacably patient and polite. He went out of his way to try to help reporters understand that his motion did not pit him “against” Prime Minister Stephen Harper but merely signaled a “difference” between them.

The distinction has virtually no currency in the binary world of parliamentary media coverage, where conflict-model news reporting is the default, indeed almost exclusive, mode. If Woodworth’s efforts in that regard help the penny to drop in just one reporter’s head, he will have done this country a world of service.

He did at least two additional things that were strategically brilliant precisely because, more than mere tactical maneuvers, they formed the essence of his action. First, he made the motion about study, not insistence. Second, he made it about science, not shouting. The upshot was that those who argued “nay” were arguing to resist the scientific study of the most foundational question any lawmaking body faces, namely how we define being human.

As Preston Manning wrote on The Globe and Mail’s op-ed page, the response of some of God’s children was a reflexive fallback to ideology and, in some cases, mere shrill harangue. Referencing Woodworth’s honestly intentioned attempt to reframe the debate, Manning wrote, “the opposition and most of the media insisted on debating... within the historical abortion-focused framework — still polarized between pro-choice and pro-life positions developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The result was not only divisive but embarrassingly unproductive — confirming once again in the public mind that our Parliament seems to be the last place in the country where we can have a forward-looking discussion of a substantive issue.”

That confirmation opens up questions as to why this is so, and whether it need remain so. Starkly, it asks us all to confront the basic question of what a Parliament is for. It asks us where can we debate such contentious matters if not in Parliament? In that sense, Woodworth’s motion was as much about democratic life as it was about when life begins. It was predicated on the reality that scientific certainties have moved us a long way from the 19th-century misconception that life commences only when birth is completed. It required us as a democratic people to take a first step toward deciding how our laws and lawmaking can best embody that reality and balance it against the equal reality of the rights of the mother within whom that life begins.

The opening, lesson and hope for those Canadians who consider themselves pro-life comes directly from Woodworth’s recognition of the necessity of an incremental approach not to win, but to balance and, perhaps most importantly, to balance democratically.

Such talk naturally raises hackles among some pro-life Canadians. As one of the finest and smartest once asked me point-blank: “Who in their right mind would talk about incrementalism if the subject was bombing the train tracks into Auschwitz?” It’s a fair question, and it’s a strong question but it’s also, ultimately, a question of despair. It presumes there is not even a whisper of hope that democratic means remain available to resolve Canadians’ most foundational conundrum.

The fate of Woodworth’s motion, the unexpected support it received, undermines that presumption. It shows the system, minus the shouting, can be made to persuade in the name of what is right for all. Can the wind of change do anything but follow?

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