Canada abortion debate rekindled as bill passes

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The long-dormant issue in Canada of when life begins has reemerged with the backing by the House of Commons of a bill that would make it a crime to cause the death of an unborn child when a pregnant woman is attacked.

The House gave approval in principle on Wednesday evening to the “Unborn Victims of Crime Act,” a bill opponents say is the thin edge of the wedge in reimposing abortion restrictions, but which proponents say merely protects unborn children who are wanted by their parents .

The bill is the private initiative of Conservative Member of Parliament Ken Epp and won the vote of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and some, but not all, members of three of the four parties in the House.

“It’s plainly the start of the recriminalization of abortion, and that’s why the NDP opposes it,” Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, told reporters outside the House on Thursday.

The bill says the argument “that the child is not a human being” would not have merit as a legal defense, but it also specifies that the bill would not apply to abortion to which the mother has consented.

Epp said it was a red herring to talk about abortion.

“It has nothing to do with it. It specifically excludes elective abortion,” he said.

He said his bill should be attractive to proponents of choice since it is designed to protect the babies of women who have chosen to carry their pregnancy to term.

The U.S. Congress passed a similar Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004, gaining impetus from the well-publicized California murder of Laci Peterson when she was eight months pregnant. A majority of U.S. states have similar laws.

The U.S. bill was closely watched by both sides of the abortion debate for any suggestion of giving legal status to the unborn.

The Canadian bill passed by 147 to 132, but it still has an uphill battle ahead. It must get through the Justice Committee and then a final vote in the House, which may be possible based on the level of support seen on Wednesday, but then it will have to pass the Liberal-dominated Senate.

A substantial number of Liberal members of Parliament backed Epp’s bill in the House but the majority of the Liberals voted against it, with the Conservatives providing the bulk of the support. Conservative support is much weaker in the Senate.

Abortion in Canada has been legal for any reason at any time up to delivery, since the Supreme Court struck down the country’s abortion law in 1988.

Editing by Peter Galloway