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Winnipeg glue-sniffing mother.

Ottawa--On June 18, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in the case of the pregnant woman who was compelled by the Winnipeg Child and Family Services bureau to undergo treatment for her glue-sniffing habit because she was pregnant with her third child. The woman (whose identity has been protected) has already given birth to two children, in foster care at the time, who had suffered mental and physical disabilities as a result of her substance abuse problem.

With the approval of her family, the woman had been taken into custody and placed in a drug rehabilitation centre. But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and various feminist organizations immediately objected to the idea that any woman could be compelled by the state to undergo medical treatment in the interests of an unborn child, who is not a person under the law. Within days, the order to hold the mother in treatment was overturned.

By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, four intervenors, including CARAL and LEAF, had been granted status to argue for the mother, and seven intervenors had joined the Family Services bureau, including the Catholic Bishops, Alliance for Life and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). The full panel of nine justices heard the case, and were an extraordinarily active bench, posing many questions to determine the status of an "unborn child" (not "fetus") in immediate danger of preventable injury.

Catholic lawyer David Brown, arguing for the EFC, characterised Criminal Code Section 223, the "born-alive rule," as "yesterday's law based on yesterday's medicine," a rule rendered ridiculous by ultrasound and other prenatal medical technologies (see Editorial, p. 3). Angela Costigan, acting for Alliance for Life, asked that the word "everyone" in Section Seven of the Charter be defined to include the pre-born.

The appellant team was particularly buoyed by the last-minute admittance of fresh evidence for their case: the fact that even after the mother was free to leave the treatment centre, she stayed of her own free will, halted her drug habit, and gave birth to an apparently healthy baby. In other words, the "draconian" measures of the state agencies worked, for the maximum benefit of everyone involved.

Arguing for the mother, lawyer David Phillips, confident of victory, thought he would merely address some of the questions raised by the other side. The justices, however, did not take to the idea that this was an open-and-shut case of a woman's right to control her body, and Phillips was grilled at length.

It may be six months before a decision on this case is announced.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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