June 17, 1997

Abortion debate heats up in Canadian court case

By Randall Palmer OTTAWA (Reuter) - The abortion debate, long dormant in Canada, revived this week with a case heading to the Supreme Court over whether the government can force the protection of an unborn child of a glue-sniffing woman.

Groups were lined up on both sides of the debate on the eve of the court case, which could have implications for abortion rights if the unborn child were found to have rights.

The case, to be heard Wednesday, involves a Winnipeg woman called Ms. G, two of whose three children had been born with a chemical addiction and were developmentally handicapped.

She actually gave birth to her fourth child in December, but the case is proceeding to establish the principle of whether such a person can be forced into treatment.

``Forcing pregnant women into treatment simply drives women at risk away from pre-natal care,'' said Jo Dufay, executive director of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, one of those intervening in the case on behalf of the woman.

The Supreme Court overturned Canada's abortion law in 1988, making it legal to have an abortion up to the time of delivery.

It asked Parliament to enact a replacement, but a Conservative government was blocked from doing so in 1991 by the Liberal-run Senate, and Prime Minister Jean Chretien said last month he had no intention of introducing new legislation.

Arguing in favor of the child protection agency that sought to force treatment, another intervener, Alliance for Life, attacked the idea that fetuses are legally not considered humans until they have totally left the birth canal.

``Alliance for Life will be arguing that the Supreme Court of Canada abandon the existing legal fiction which implies that we are only human beings after we are born,'' the group's executive director, Michelle Blanchette said.

``It's illegal to abuse a child after birth. Therefore it's completely irrational to advocate that a mother can legally abuse this same child before birth.''

Catholic and evangelical groups were intervening in the same vein.

On the other side, Women's Legal Education and Action Fund was concerned that abortion rights not be eroded.

``The facts in this case are distressing, but this case is about more than just one woman. This raises serious issues about women's constitutional rights during pregnancy,'' spokeswoman Karen Busby said.

The arguments will last one day and a decision is expected several months later.