Canadian ultra-conservatives want to re-open the debate on abortion and are using a new tactic: “science.” Stephen Woodworth, the MP for Kitchener Centre wants the House of Commons to form a committee to study the section of the Criminal Code of Canada that states: “A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act (my emphasis) when it has completely proceeded, in a living state from the body of its mother….”
Woodworth (a notorious anti-abortionist)insists this is not an effort to criminalize abortion, but simply an attempt to review when a child becomes a human being “in light of 21st century medical knowledge,” according to Yorkton MP Garry Breitkreuz, who supports the motion.
You will have to forgive me for taking his assertion with a dump truck full of salt. If a parliamentary committee decides that a zygote, or an embryo, or an unborn late-term fetus is a human being, it would be incumbent upon our elected officials to at least partially criminalize abortion.
First of all let’s dispense with the spin (i.e., red-herring terms such as “pro-life and pro-choice); this debate is about one thing and one thing only: abortion.
The reality for Canadians is that there is an entire spectrum of opinion on what constitutes human life from the moment of conception (28 per cent) to the moment of live birth (20 per cent) according to a 2011 Environics poll commissioned by LifeCanada, a national association of anti-abortion groups.
But another poll indicates only eight per cent think there should be an outright ban on abortion meaning that even among the from conception crowd, most agree with legal abortion under certain circumstances.
And among those who are perfectly satisfied with the current definition, there is significant discomfort with the idea that there might actually be mothers and doctors out there willing to abort a child right up until the moment of live birth.
But this is not now and never has been a scientific issue; it is a legal, social and philosophical issue. Neo-cons have failed time and again to push the issue with moral and religious arguments, so, they have decided to invoke science, or rather abuse science to make an end-run around public opinion and erode women’s hard-won reproductive rights.
But since they brought it up, let’s talk science.
First up, of course, is viability. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) states in its policy on induced abortion that, “…extrauterine viability may be possible if the fetus weighs over 500 g or is past 20 weeks’ gestation, or both.” Note the operational phrase in that statement is “may be possible” not “is viable” as anti-abortionists like to claim. A fetus that young simply cannot survive without very serious medical intervention.
Next up is the fetal pain argument. Several American states have managed to pass laws restricting abortion to less than 20 weeks based partially on dubious science that some structures of the nervous system have developed by this time. The preponderance of evidence, however, indicates the capacity for conscious perception of pain most likely occurs closer to the 29-30 week mark when links from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex have been established.
Finally, even if we could somehow come to a majority scientific opinion on what constitutes a human being, we are right back to the lose-lose philosophical, social and legal debate over balancing a fetus’s rights with that of its mother’s.
The law on this is very clear. It is legally impossible to grant both mother and fetus the full protection of the Canadian Bill of Rights and Freedoms. By giving full rights to one, we necessarily restrict or fully negate the rights of the other. Personally, I have to side with moms on this one.
The Canadian Medical Association agrees. In August, delegates to its annual general council meeting voted to oppose Woodworth’s motion. Why would scientifically-trained, 21st century medical doctors, most of whom will not perform late-term abortions anyway, support keeping the current criminal code definition of a human being? Because, it is not a scientific issue.
I have no problem reopening the debate on abortion. What I object to is people using bad science or distorting good science as a smokescreen for their real arguments.
Science or nonsense?
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