Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-510, an act to prevent coercion of pregnant women to abort, which was first introduced in the House by the member for Winnipeg South in April.
In his press release dated April 15 of this year, the bill's sponsor stated:
This bill would help protect a pregnant woman who does not want to terminate her pregnancy...No woman should ever feel intimidated to have an unwanted abortion. Anyone who attempts to force a woman to abort her wanted fetus should face consequences.
At the outset, I certainly agree with that sentiment and I have great respect for the sponsor, my friend from Winnipeg South. However, I am troubled by the legislation before the House.
I am sure we all agree that the safety of all Canadians is paramount, in particular protecting the most vulnerable in our society from violence. It is clear that violence against all women, pregnant or not, is a serious issue, with far-reaching effects and consequences.
Violence against women is a persistent and ongoing problem in Canada and around the world, affecting women's personal safety and their ability to contribute to society. It also affects their children, who witness this violence and experience its aftermath, therefore contributing to intergenerational cycles of violence. Although Canadian women fare better than women in most parts of the world, violence against women, sadly, persists in Canada.
However, Canada's criminal law provides a broad range of measures designed to protect persons from violence, including provisions prohibiting all of the following: assault and sexual assault, murder and manslaughter, kidnapping, forcible confinement, trafficking in persons, criminal harassment, uttering threats and intimidation. This government has taken concrete steps to build on these protections through further recent criminal law reforms to ensure that everyone, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society, feel safe and secure in their homes and communities.
The government is proud of its accomplishments in promoting safe streets and communities. For example, the Tackling Violent Crime Act, enacted in 2008, includes enhanced mandatory minimum penalties for firearms offences and strengthens the danger offender provisions. Bill C-48, which is recently before the justice committee on which I proudly serve as a member, would protect Canadians by ending sentence discounts for multiple murders act. It will return to the House in short order.
The Criminal Code also takes violence against women into account in its sentencing provisions, which requires that spousal abuse and abuse of positions of trust or authority must be considered as aggravating circumstances for the purposes of sentencing. In other words, this fact should increase the sentence imposed against the perpetrator.
It is evident that Canadian criminal law aims to protect all women, indeed all Canadians, from violence in its many forms.
As I understand it, Bill C-510, also known as Roxanne's law, was introduced in response to the tragic murder of Roxanne Fernando because of her unexpected pregnancy in a volatile relationship. She was tragically murdered by her boyfriend and two of his friends. One of the reported motives was that Ms. Fernando was murdered because she would not have an abortion.
It is important to point out that all three offenders involved in this murder are currently serving prison sentences for that murder. There is no question that this is a tragic case, but appears to be one where the criminal justice system has been used to its fullest extent.
Since the case of Ms. Fernando was the inspiration for Bill C-510, let me now discuss the legal effects of the bill. I apologize in advance that some of it is technical and legal, but it is important that members understand the legal ramifications of the bill.
Bill C-510 would create two new hybrid Criminal Code offences. The first would be the offence of coercing a woman to procure an abortion she did not want. This would be punishable by a maximum sentence of five years on indictment and 18 months on summary conviction. The second proposed offence would be the offence of attempting to coerce a woman to procure an abortion she did not want. This would be punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment on indictment and six months on summary conviction.
The bill proposes a number of definitions to help bring clarity to these offences. Most notably, the bill defines “coercion” and explains where coercive behaviour would reach the level of attracting criminal liability.
The bill states that a person coerces an abortion when he or she engages in conduct that directly or indirectly causes a pregnant woman to consent to an abortion that she would otherwise have refused. The bill goes further to include anyone who conspires with another person to engage in coercive conduct.
Also in the definition of coercion is a list of conduct that could amount to coercion if it were undertaken for the purpose of causing a pregnant woman to have an unwanted abortion. The conduct includes, but is not limited to, violent and threatening behaviour directed either at the woman, her fetus or a third party. Also included is removing, or threatening to remove, financial support or housing from the pregnant woman in attempting to compel by pressure or intimidation including “argumentative and rancorous badgering and importunity”.
While most would agree, and I certainly would, that we would not want to encourage such conduct, it is not conduct that normally attracts criminal sanction.
The bill states that the conduct outlined in the proposed definition of coercion is not exhaustive. Therefore, it could encompass much more conduct than is currently outlined in the bill, or for that matter, that the author of the bill foresaw, but it leaves this open to be determined be a court.
A final part of the definition of coercion is what I call the charter exemption. It is a novel approach in crafting a criminal offence. The bill states that speech, which we all know is protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would not be captured by the definition of coercion and therefore would not attract criminal liability.
There are two other sections of the bill that are worth noting.
First is the limited exemption for a physician who attempts to convince a pregnant woman to have a medical intervention, which may result in the death of the fetus, when the woman's physical health is endangered.
Second is the unique severability provision, which states that if any provisions of this bill are found to be invalid or unenforceable they are to be severed from the bill and shall not affect the application of the other provisions.
In summary, the impacts of this bill would be to criminalize conduct that is already captured by several Criminal Code offences.
For example, conduct such as committing, attempting to commit or threatening to commit physical harm is captured by the offence of uttering threats in section 264.1, assault in section 265 and the general attempt provisions contained in section 24 of the Criminal Code.
Other types of conduct, such as compelling by pressure and rancorous badgering and importunity, are not defined in the bill and would most likely lead to interpretative difficulties and subsequent charter challenges.
Further, interpretive difficulties would most certainly arise because of the charter exemption, which attempts to insulate certain types of conduct from criminal liability if the conduct is protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This exemption would require individuals, police and prosecutors to determine whether the conduct in question is protected by the charter, though ultimately it would be the courts that would have to pronounce and be determinative on this issue.
Finally, the novel severability provision, which aims to sever any provision of the bill that a court finds unenforceable, could be interpreted as fettering the discretion of the court to determine the appropriate remedy in the event of a charter breach.
In short and to conclude, I certainly appreciate the objective of the bill and support its author in bringing this matter forward to this House for debate. I believe all members of this House support better protection of pregnant women against any specific form of violence and, in fact, protection for all members of society against all forms of violence. However, I strongly believe that the existing Criminal Code protections adequately protect women, as evidenced by the convictions and significant penalties imposed in the Roxanne Fernando case.
With all due respect and for those reasons, I will be voting against Bill C-510.