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Abortion returns to Canadian Parliament this week

2012 September 19

A Conservative MP in Canada has tabled a motion to re-examine the legal definition of personhood, emphasizing that we ought to reconsider whether unborn fetuses should be granted human rights. You can read the text of the motion here (see M-312). Of course, the pro-choice camp (which includes me) has widely decried the motion. But I admit that “I disagree with you” isn’t a good reason to say “let’s not even discuss it”. Seems a little undemocratic, no? Indeed, this argument from democracy is the major argument that has been advanced by the MP who tabled the motion. However, if you actually read the motion, you find that there are other reasons to reject it. So, I wrote a letter to my MP about it, which I figured was worth publishing here too. My letter refers to the motion’s proposal for a committee to address the following questions:

… (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 …

Honestly, I don’t expect this motion to pass anyway, but I saw an opportunity to argue a point, and I couldn’t resist. With that in mind, here’s my letter (which recycles a few lines from the form letter at

Dear Member of Parliament,

It is clear that the Motion M-312 from Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth is an attempt to criminalize abortion, which would restrict women’s reproductive rights. Conservative Party whip Gordon O’Connor has stated that “The ultimate intention of this motion is to restrict abortions at some development stage in Canada.” I see this as an attack on women’s rights, which I believe trump any potential fetal rights. I realize, however, that a not-insignificant minority of Canadians disagree (and opinion polls do show very clearly that they are in the minority). I further realize that arguing over the morality of abortion tends to be fruitless.

There are other flaws with this Motion, however. Most importantly, the text presupposes that the question of personhood can be determined by objective medical evidence. It is true that medical science can tell us when the heart starts beating, or when the limbs start moving, or when the eyes react to light, or when the fetus can react to pain. However, animals do all of these things too: none of these define a “human”. In fact, the definition of “human” is inescapably subjective, and the criteria will vary depending on who you ask. Reasonable people will always disagree, and medical evidence will never resolve this dilemma. In this situation, it is entirely appropriate for the law to simply pick a pragmatic definition, as has already been done, and entirely inappropriate to pretend (as the Motion does) that “medical evidence” can make this decision for us.

Medical evidence does, however, make the consequences of criminalized abortion very clear. There is a long and well-documented history in Canada and throughout the world which shows that criminalizing abortion does not prevent abortion: rather, it only drives desperate women to seek dangerous abortions through underground means or by intentional self-injury, with severe health consequences including even death. Many older-generation doctors can testify to the decades past when hospital wards were full of women suffering the consequences of unsafe abortion, and still today unsafe abortion is a major cause of maternal mortality in countries where safe and legal abortion services are not available. Some of these women already have other children: so instead of protecting unborn children, the major effect of the policy choice to criminalize abortion is only to harm both women and children.

I myself am a doctor, and I have worked with many health care providers who personally disagree with abortion, including for religious or other reasons, but who have seen too many times the human suffering that results when safe abortion is unavailable. Even for those who think abortion is evil, criminalizing it is an even greater evil.

Returning once more to our theme of medical evidence, I could give you plenty of examples of “cures” that were worse than the illnesses they purported to treat. These are now mostly confined to the history books, thanks to careful study of their true consequences. Similarly, study of the consequences of the criminalization of abortion reveals it as another such harmful “cure”. If we are interested in preventing abortion, more effective and humane strategies involve helping women avoid unwanted pregnancy in the first place by providing access to birth control and comprehensive sexual health education; reducing sexual assault; and alleviating other hardships like poverty and poor mental health that make potential parents feel unready.

So, to protect women’s rights, to protect their lives and the well-being of their families, and to reject this inappropriate basis for legal decision-making, I call on you, as my MP, to vote NO to Motion M-312.


[my name]

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