The Ontario Science Centre is currently distributing a pamphlet informing women that abortion is one of their choices after amniocentesis.  The pamphlet, Amniocentesis, describes the procedure in simple terms and explains how it can be used to detect abnormalities in the developing fetus.

 

“About one out of every 50 children in North America is born with a significant genetic abnormality,” the pamphlet argues.  It goes on: “Through amniocentesis, some of these can be detected early in pregnancy, giving the woman who carried a handicapped child the choice of ending or continuing the pregnancy.”

 

After receiving a copy of Amniocentesis last fall, I wrote to J. Tuzo Wilson, Director General of the Ontario Science Centre, (see December 1984 Interim) and Roy McMurtry, Ontario’s Attorney General, pointing out that the Criminal Code of Canada the diagnosis of fetal abnormalities is not ground for abortion.

 

The responses were disappointing.  Mr. McMurtry concluded that the “pamphlet does not advocate the procuring of an unlawful abortion.”  Dr. Wilson indicated his concurrence.  There was no discussion of the substances of my complaint.

 

The pamphlet argues first, that the diagnosis of fetal abnormalities is grounds for abortion, and, then that the decision to abort rests with the woman or couple.  The diagnosis must be made by the 16th week of pregnancy, according to the pamphlet, “in order to allow time for an abortion, if the couple decides to terminate the development of a defective fetus.”

 

But according to Canada’s Criminal Code, the decision for abortion rests with a therapeutic abortion committee in an accredited hospital and not with the woman or couple, and must be made after considering the health of the mother, not that of the fetus.  I think it is probable that the pamphlet was prepared from material originally developed for British or American readers.

 

There is a deeper problem here than all Interim readers will recognize.  The law in Canada affords the child in the womb some protection, but in practice it is often flouted.  What is disturbing is not so much that practice doesn’t conform to the law, as that it doesn’t conform to ordinary standards of human decency and compassion.

 

Unborn children with Down’s syndrome or spina bifida will be given the kind of good medical care that Canada offers – and sometimes more than that, truly loving care – if they survive to term.  But those whose condition is detected earlier through amniocentesis may be destroyed outright.

 

How can this be acceptable?  The child is essentially the same individual, with the same problems, before and after birth.  The Ontario Science Centre pamphlet is offensive above all because it suggests that the perfect child has a greater right to life and care than the handicapped.

 

We can make a far better diagnosis, and a far better assessment of the child’s future capabilities, after he or she has been delivered.  If it is right to destroy him or her on the basis of a somewhat uncertain diagnosis before birth, why if it not right weeks after, or better, years after, when the child’s future can be told more clearly?

 

The Science Centre pamphlet raises these questions briefly in the last section: “Where should the line be drawn on whether or not a fetus is aborted? … And who decides?”  It argues that this is a serious moral question.

 

But it does not treat the question seriously for everything in the pamphlet, up to that point, has been based on a single supposition: that the child diagnosed as handicapped may be destroyed if the mother or couple chose.

 

In any view, the pamphlet clearly ignores the provisions in Canadian law meant to safeguard the unborn child.  And it treats a question of greatest importance for parents and for our society in an offensively casual fashion.