In 2012, the conservative MP for Kitchener Centre, Stephen Woodworth, filed a modest motion proposing a re-examination of Canada’s seventeenth-century definition of human personhood in light of 21st century scientific knowledge. His motion proposed no new laws and merely recognized the fact that a 400-year-old notion of prenatal life might be a little out of date. Predictably, however, this sensible measure met with the breathless indignation and spluttering condemnation of pro-abortion pundits and opposition politicians alike. But precisely by opposing such a reasonable proposal, Woodworth’s adversaries proved the point: Canada desperately needs to discuss this crucially important issue with calm, open-minded maturity.
Canada’s record on what are commonly called “human rights issues” is the envy of the world. Except for the shameful shenanigans of human rights tribunals – as well as some distressing recent curtailments of religious freedom
– Canada rightly boasts of its record, and justly reproaches repressive regimes like Syria, Iran, and Red China for their flagrant violations of their citizens’ freedoms of religion, assembly, and speech. And yet, Canada’s moral leadership is fatally marred by an internal contradiction which makes such censures seem like a list of motes from a people blind to the beam in their own eye.
In western nations with proud traditions of justice, violations of human rights can only occur when essential definitions are compromised by what we could call “moral gerrymandering.” The atrocities of the 20th-century illustrated with tragic clarity that the greatest threat to human rights is not their incomplete enumeration, as if unknown rights were the only ones at risk: rather, the greatest threat to human rights exists at the perimeter of the definition of personhood. If this definition does not encompass every citizen at every stage of life, if personhood is tendentiously defined, then the dignity of man can be violated with impunity, Charters and tribunals notwithstanding.
Human rights, thus, rest upon the weak lynchpin of a legal technicality: rights are only held by persons, and if the definition of personhood is not given its full and proper purview, flagrant injustices ensue. More essential, then, than even the right to life is what Hannah Arendt called the right to have rights, that tautological identification of the human person as a person. When this essential intuition is codified in law, we honour the holy endowment which is the wellspring of every right: the human person, created in the image and likeness of the Creator, bears the unmistakable mark of this arch-right, and we recognize all other rights – to life, to liberty, to virtue – by the light of this divine sign.
To save such sacred rights from those who have detrimentally redefined the boarders of their defence, Woodworth has proposed that we take a sober look at the legal conceit that ought to make any modern person blush with shame: that reprehensible fiction, which is currently the law of the land, that human life only begins when the umbilical cord is severed. Ceremonial ribbon cuttings mark the beginning of buildings, not the lives of men, which, instead, span an unbroken continuum from an embryonic dawn to the twilight of old age.
For raising the profile of personhood so prominently with his motion, The Interim celebrates Stephen Woodworth as its person of the year. To be sure, Woodworth is an unlikely hero, proposing nothing more radical than a simple discussion. But to those who would impede the cry of conscience from being echoed in the law, nothing is more dangerous than a plain examination of fact. For the personhood of the unborn child speaks for itself. And we are deeply grateful that Woodworth has shown courage enough to speak up for them.