MP Wagantall recently stood in the House of Commons to introduce her private member’s bill, the Violence Against Pregnant Women Act.
This bill, Bill C-311, draws attention to the fact that there are two victims when a pregnant woman is assaulted or murdered. Its goal is to add aggravating factors to sentencing requirements in our Criminal Code. Let’s walk through what that means.
Principles of Sentencing
After an offender is convicted of a crime, a judge considers what the appropriate sentence should be. Some Criminal Code offences have parameters for sentencing. For example, Section 237 states that a sentence for infanticide should be not more than five years imprisonment. The question is, how does a judge determine what is the appropriate sentence within that range?
Section 718 begins a section that guides judges in how to give an appropriate sentence. This includes the fundamental principle in Section 718.1 that “A sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.” In simple terms, the sentence should match the crime.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in Sentencing
Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code lays out the aggravating and mitigating factors that the judge must consider as he crafts the sentence. The judge has to consider various factors, including evidence of whether the offence was motivated by racism, whether the victim was under the age of 18, or whether the offence was related to organized crime.
For example, a known drug dealer who assaults an immigrant minor as part of a drug deal will receive a harsher sentence than a young woman assaulting a peer as a part of bar fight.
When deciding on a sentence, a judge must consider all the aggravating and mitigating factors listed in the Criminal Code.
Pre-born Victims of Crime Aggravating Factors
The proposed Violence Against Pregnant Women Act adds two aggravating factors to the list in Section 718.2:
- Evidence that the offender, in committing the offence, abused a person whom the offender knew to be pregnant;
- Evidence that the offence caused physical or emotional harm to a pregnant victim.
This means that, when a judge is dealing with a person who assaulted a pregnant woman and caused injury to her pre-born child, the judge will consider those factors in sentencing. All else being equal, that person will receive a harsher sentence than a similar offender who assaulted a non-pregnant person.
This is appropriate because, in order for the sentence to match the crime, the victim’s vulnerability (being pregnant) and the full harm of the crime (including the harm to the pre-born child) should be considered. Adding these aggravating factors will give judges the opportunity to make sentences better match crimes in cases involving pregnant women.
How does this impact abortion?
The Violence Against Pregnant Women Act, if passed, would not change the current legal reality around abortion. Canada would still have no abortion law. Abortion would still be legal for any reason and at any gestational age.
So why support this law? Joyce Arthur, the director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, probably put it best when she said of a previous pre-born victims of crime law that, “If the fetuses are recognized in [law], … it could bleed into people’s consciousness and make people change their minds about abortion.”
We want the humanity of the pre-born child to “bleed into people’s consciousness.” This law is an opportunity to highlight how Canada’s lack of abortion law leaves pre-born children unrecognized even when it comes to violent crimes.
What can I do?
Use this bill to start a conversation about the humanity of pre-born children. Have the conversation with your family, your friends, your neighbour, and your member of Parliament. We need to use every opportunity we have to point out the humanity of pre-born children and continue to move Canadian law in the right direction.
For more action items to support this bill, visit our website dedicated to this issue at ThereWereTwo.ca.