Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that Canada's prostitution laws were unconstitutional. The judges gave Parliament one year to pass new laws that would pass the constitutional test. On June 4, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced a new prostitution law (Bill C-36) into the House of Commons.
Predictably, this proposed law has given rise to intense debates that go beyond predictable ideological divides. No government would voluntarily open up debates on prostitution legislation unless forced to by courts. Prostitution is a complex, difficult issue that defies a simple solution.
In recent years, national governments have chosen one of three
approaches. One is decriminalization and legalization, the path taken by Germany and the Netherlands. There are loud voices that argue this should be Canada's future path.
Another approach is to criminalize the purchase and management of sexual services (johns and pimps), but not the prostitutes themselves. Rather, sex trade workers, primarily women, are supported in making life decisions to get out of the sex trade. This is the "Nordic" model, enforced in countries such as Sweden.
The third approach is prohibition as practised today in the United States (outside of Nevada).
The Catholic Church has had to address the issue of prostitution since biblical times. The moral teaching for individual morality has been clear and consistent: Prostitution is an objective moral evil, contrary to Catholic morality.
However, the issue of prostitution as a public policy issue was not seen in such an unambiguous way. Major theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas saw that Christian rulers of a nation might choose a policy of "toleration," which saw prostitution as a lesser evil to be tolerated lest greater evils occur in society if public prohibition was to be enforced.
In recent years, the Catholic Church in Canada has spoken out infrequently about prostitution as a public policy issue. The last statement of the Canadian bishops on prostitution was 30 years ago in 1984.
However, last month, Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver issued a pastoral letter on possible changes in legislation on prostitution in Canada. He argues strongly that decriminalization of sexual exploitation through prostitution poses "a serious threat to the moral fabric of the nation."
He sees the answer is in curbing the demand which fuels the market to purchase sex. This is a major part of the Nordic model. He calls on Church members, together with all men and women of good will, "to do everything possible to create pathways out of prostitution."
Last December, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada published a major study titled Out of Business: Prostitution in Canada ⁷ Putting an End to Demand, which strongly encouraged the Canadian government to introduce new legislation embodying the principles of the Nordic model.
In recent years, there has been a growing wave of grassroots advocacy across Canada by those working closely with people involved in the sex trade. These voices include the Native Women's Association of Canada, Elizabeth Fry Society and, in Edmonton, the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE).
These advocates argue that prostitution is seldom a "free choice" for those engaged in it. The sex trade by its very nature is said to be abusive, destructive and an offence to human dignity, and should not be seen as a market transaction as in any other business.
Bill C-36 will be debated in the Canadian Parliament in the months ahead. This proposed legislation takes much from the Nordic model by criminalizing the demand for sexual services. It also seeks to support those who want to leave the sex trade, through the allocation of $20 million to provide much-needed support services.
Bill 36 moves in the right direction. Hopefully, upcoming parliamentary committee hearings will bring in amendments that can smooth out some of the controversial rough edges of the proposed legislation.
The debate about prostitution does not take place in a vacuum. We need to continue and expand our present efforts to address underlying issues such as reducing poverty and eliminating homelessness.
Similarly, we need to imagine new educational approaches in Church and community about issues related to right relations between women and men, racism, and the creation of welcoming, inclusive neighbourhoods and Church communities.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)