The House of Commons, as you’ve likely heard by now, has resoundingly defeated a curious motion from Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth that would have established a special committee of the House of Commons to study when a developing child “becomes a human being”. The motion was seen as a tentative step towards changing Canada’s legal status quo on abortion, which is basically that anything goes. To be a bit less facetious about it, Canada has no laws restricting the practice of abortion, so a pregnancy can be ended at any point up until birth. Subsection 223(1) of our criminal code says that a child is defined as a human being, in law, only “when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother”. (In the rarefied thoughts of lawyers and parliamentarians, children apparently “proceed” from their mothers like Victorian ladies proceeding down a shady lane on a summer afternoon.)
I don’t want to see Canada’s legal status quo change, but I think the question of when a developing individual deserves to be thought of as human is a perfectly valid one. No objective answer is out there in the universe waiting to be discovered, but there’s much to be said for the exercise of considering different possibilities, hashing out their implications, and asking whether some seem to be more expedient, intuitively reasonable or morally desirable than others. From an atheist and/or secular perspective, it’s all part of a necessary process of continually re-examining and re-negotiating a host of issues that used to fall squarely within the domain of religious “truth”.
Whether a parliamentary committee is an appropriate forum for that kind of discussion is another question, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be in principle. The issue is of legitimate interest to parliament because it has a bearing on abortion law and other legal matters, such as whether someone who shoots a pregnant woman has committed one murder or two. The committee would be venturing into complicated territory that would probably be well beyond the expertise of any of its members, but it could call in some philosophers to testify.
Unfortunately, Woodworth seemed to have no intention of listening to philosophers. His bill was quite specific about the questions the committee would have been expected to ask:
(i) what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth, (ii) is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth, (iii) what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth, (iv) what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1).
Medical evidence? That seems almost pathetically clueless. Embryology can tell us when the heart begins to beat and when the pancreas begins to secrete insulin, but deciding which (if any) developmental milestones of that type are sufficient to nudge a foetus across the line to personhood is not fundamentally a medical or scientific question. Woodworth, even taking his motion at face value, wanted to send his committee barking up the wrong tree.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that the pro-choice side of the discussion has been particularly reasonable either. People have been calling for the resignation or sacking of Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose because she voted in favour of the motion (this blog post is a wonderfully foul-mouthed and oddly eloquent specimen of the “down with Ambrose!” genre), which seems more than a little knee-jerkish and simplistic. The debate over abortion is too complicated and multifaceted for a position either way to be used as a sensible litmus test of one’s commitment to upholding the rights, or the “status”, of women. For the same basic reason, suggestions that Woodworth’s motion – limited, remember, to forming a committee to investigate a definitional question – constituted some kind of attack on Canadian women are rather less than persuasive.
Again, I think the motion was misguided, and I’m quite happy with Canada’s total lack of abortion restrictions. In fact, I would like to see late-term abortion access, which is apparently a bit of a problem, made easier. But Canada is a mature democracy with a literate, well-educated populace. We really should be able to discuss all these issues like adults, without demonizing our opponents or caricaturing their positions.