Two sides of Motion 312 - the abortion debate

With parliament set to vote on Motion 312 on Sept. 26, our writers weigh in on the bill that could restart the debate

Credit: 
Graphic by Ali Zahid

Rachel Helferty

The question of when human life begins isn’t a religious or moral question — it’s a scientific question. Canada’s definition of when a child becomes a human being is outdated, and in this 21st century — dishonest. There’s an obvious need for this issue to be brought before Parliament and discussed.

Some may argue Motion 312 is simply an attempt by pro-lifers to bring up the issue of abortion again — an issue that was decided on by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988 in R v. Morgentaler. However, the remarks of former Justice Bertha Wilson, who took part in the decision, indicate a simple obligation.

Justice Bertha Wilson said during her 1988 closing remarks that ,“The precise point in the development of the foetus at which the state’s interest in its protection becomes ‘compelling’, I leave to the informed judgment of the legislature which is in a position to receive guidance on the subject from all the relevant disciplines.”

Wilson played an important role in abolishing Canada’s abortion law, yet she supported the idea of some protection for the human fetus before complete birth. In her closing remarks, former Justice Wilson stated her belief that protection should be given to fetuses sometime in the second trimester.

Following along with Wilson’s recommendation that the legislature be informed by the relevant disciplines, one may ask, “What does the science say?”

Drs. Keith Moore and T. Persaud’s embryology textbook used by medical students at the University of British Columbia defines zygote as the following: “This cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm during fertilization. A zygote or embryo is the beginning of a new human being.”

Also, here at Queen’s, the Thomas Sadler medical embryology textbook used in the fourth-year anatomy class ANAT417 describes the zygote as human.

These modern scientific texts refer to the zygote as both human and undergoing development. The law that Motion 312 seeks to review states, on the contrary, that “A child becomes a human being … when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not: it has breathed; it has an independent circulation; or the naval string is severed.”

That statement can be found in Canada’s Criminal Code, Subsection 223(1), and is based on the Institutes of the Laws of England, first published around 1644.

That statement is a clear example of something both outdated and not based in scientific fact.

A discussion about the medically relevant evidence and its consistency, or rather discord with the Canadian Criminal Code is all Motion 312 is asking.

Considering the obvious differences between today’s scientific knowledge and our current law derived from the 17th century, the possible legal impact and consequences of Motion 312 can’t be ignored.

If Motion 312 were to pass, and based on the scientific evidence, it may be that the motion’s committee would suggest to Parliament that the Criminal Code be amended. If this were to occur, it’s possible that a debate regarding the rights of pre-born children could follow. However, Motion 312 doesn’t necessarily provoke this debate.

Motion 312 is simply asking for an update on an old definition.

Canadians wouldn’t be upset even if this debate were to occur. A nationwide survey commissioned by Postmedia News and Global TV in June, found that 60 per cent of Canadians would be in favour of a law protecting pre-born children at some point before complete birth. Perhaps even more would be in favour of such a law if they knew that a fetus’ heart is usually developed and beating by the end of two months.

It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or pro-life, what matters is that you’re pro-dialogue.

Society progresses because of civil discourse, not because people are afraid to embrace the facts.

A dishonest definition of what a human being is doesn’t further anyone’s cause and it should be an embarrassment if it does.

Canadians have access to a plethora of scientific information from various medical fields to answer what Motion 312 proposes. Let’s use this information responsibly and update our 400-year-old definition of what a human being is. Embryology texts tell us that a zygote is a human being — are you willing to discuss that?

We owe this discussion to everyone who calls themselves a human being.

Rachel Helferty is the president of Queen’s Alive.

Marvin Ferrer

Motion 312 wants to ask medical science for evidence that answers the question of whether or not a fetus only becomes a “human being” after birth. This is a malicious and misleading motion that aims to restrict reproductive choice to millions of Canadian women and must be defeated.

The first reason that this motion must be defeated is that the answer to the question of whether or not a fetus is a human being is not a medical one. It is painfully obvious to anyone that a fetus is indeed biologically “human,” a member of our species containing human genes and tissue. What Motion 312 and it’s author Member of Parliament Mr. Stephen Woodworth is really asking is whether or not a fetus deserves moral consideration and if so, how much. Medicine can (and should) inform debates about morality and ethics.

However, while medicine can surely answer questions about which brain cells have formed at various time points during pregnancy, it cannot answer when or whether those brain cells or the fetus containing them deserve moral consideration. Medical science definitely cannot determine whether the rights of a pregnant woman to control her body are overridden by any rights anyone would assign to a fetus. I want my friends to be able to decide that because I value them more than I value their pregnancies.

Any parliamentary hearing resulting from this motion, therefore, will be informed not by medical experts but by ideologies. Since we have a Conservative majority government, the makeup of the parliamentary committee will be stacked with anti-choice members of the Conservative party. Most importantly, they will be speaking to committee members like Mr. Woodworth, who stated on April 26, 2012 during parliamentary debate that he has “concluded that the point of complete birth is not a rational or a reasonable point at which a child suddenly transforms from a non-human into a human being,” before any hearing has even taken place! This hearing will be a a cover for anti-choice members of the government to restrict women’s reproductive choices under the cover of medical science. Let’s assume Mr. Woodworth’s question can be answered by medical science (it cannot). Given this government’s dismissive attitude toward science regarding climate change, fisheries, environmental review, etc that does not fit their agenda, is it reasonable to believe they will similarly reject science that does not fit their anti-choice position? The answer is a resounding “yes.” If I am ever proven wrong on this point, I hope Canadian scientists take note and relate their climate, fisheries and environmental research to the well-being of fetuses to get the government to notice them.

Not only is Mr. Woodworth’s motion misleading, but more importantly, it is malicious. Mr Woodworth seems so concerned about fetuses, yet his motion contains literally zero mention of the pregnant women sustaining them. Yet they will be affected tremendously if Mr .Woodworth gets his way and a fetus is given moral consideration equal to the woman sustaining it.

Statistics Canada notes that there was an average of almost 100,000 induced abortions per year in Canada over the past decade. If Mr. Woodworth gets his way, each of those women could have been forced to carry a pregnancy to term against her will under threat of criminal sanction. Put more plainly, under threat of criminal sanction, women would be coerced to grow a fetus, balloon in size over 9 months, and then expel it out of their vaginas. I am sure that we are all very thankful that we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that will keep Mr Woodworth in check.

No one with pro-choice views wants abortions to happen simply for the sake of abortions happening and abortion-related topics are only a part of the things the SHRC does. No pro-choice service provider, including the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC), would ever deny a client anything offered service because of a client’s views. However, Mr. Woodworth’s motion is a step towards restricting an important service provided at the Women’s Clinic in Kingston General Hospital. SHRC volunteers accompany clients there who wish to have an abortion with a supportive person present.

I wrote this opinion piece motivated to preserve best interests of all of our clients. It is unfortunate that we are having this discussion again, decades after the Morgentaler decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that first decriminalized induced abortions and recognized a woman’s right to security of the person regarding her reproductive choices.
This motion needs to be defeated so future generations can enjoy the freedoms women enjoy today.

Marvin Ferrer is the director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre.

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