On Feb. 6, MP Stephen Woodworth filed a motion with the Clerk of the House of Commons to ask Parliament to form a special committee to study what he called Canada’s “archaic” definition of human being, a move broadly supported by the Canadian pro-life movement.
Woodworth, a Conservative MP from Kitchener-Centre, notes that Section 223(1) of the Criminal Code which defines human being, originates in a 400-year-old law as recorded by the 17th century English lawyer and jurist, Edward Coke in his posthumously published Cokes Institutes of Law (1642) and the predominant scientific and philosophical understandings of the time. When Canada adopted its Criminal Code in 1892, it largely imported the English legal tradition. Section 223 (1) says “ A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not: (a) it has breathed; (b) it has an independent circulation; or (c) the navel string is severed. Woodworth as often referred in speeches to the absurdity of the law not acknowledging the humanity of the child until the “toe pops out of the birth canal.”
Woodworth’s motion, if passed, would have Parliament form a select committee to consider scientific and medical evidence to determine whether a child in the womb is a human being and if so, what implications that might have in law considering a modern understanding of human rights.
At a press conference announcing the motion, Woodworth said, “A respectful dialogue to update a 400 year old definition of human being, with the aid of twenty-first century information, will benefit everyone.”
“Canada’s 400 year old definition of human being says children are not human beings until the moment of complete birth,” said Woodworth. “I’ve concluded that modern medical science will inform us that children are in reality human beings at some point before the moment of complete birth. Canadians need to know there’s no human rights for children before complete birth.”
He began his press conference announcing the motion saying, “don’t accept any law that says some human beings are not human beings. That’s my message to Parliament and to Canadians.”
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada agrees. In a press release signed by Faye Sonier, EFC legal counsel, and Don Hutchinson, EFC vice president and general legal counsel, the organization said, “professionals in the fields of ethics, science, and medicine are having the discussion about what is human in the face of modern experience, research and thoughts. It is time that Parliamentarians do the same.”
Sonier and Hutchinson ask what the child is, if not human? “Is it subhuman? Near human? A child of another species?” The problem with the law as it is, they note, is that “the child has no access to human rights or other legal protections” in contradiction of Canada’s United Nations commitments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959), and Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The pair of EFC lawyers also note the “illogical consequences” of Section 223(1). They reported on a 1996 legal case in the Ottawa area in which a mother, Brenda Drummond, was charged with attempted murder after shooting herself in the vagina with a pellet gun while her son was still in the womb; two days later he was born and survived after surgery. Charges against the woman were dropped because her son was not considered a human being when he was shot.
Woodworth said laws should be based on truth and that without it, the rule of law itself is threatened. He said, “just laws must be based on accurate evidence, not arbitrary lines unrelated to reality. If there’s no objective criteria for who’s a human being, then personhood and the fundamental rights that go with it can be defined in any way any powerful person or group decides. Is that the Canada you want?”
The motion will need majority support from the House of Commons, and Woodworth expects an hour of debate in March and another hour in June. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried to steer clear of moral issues and there is speculation that he might whip the vote; sources inside cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office gave mixed signals to The Interim about Harper’s reaction to the motion. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the media that the government does not want to re-open the abortion issue.
Meanwhile, opposition MPs and some journalists are insinuating that Woodworth is acting on the Prime Minister’s behalf, to cover for Harper’s supposed hidden agenda.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said it is tiring to hear abortion supporters raise the bogeyman of the hidden agenda, considering that Harper has long sought to distance himself from the abortion issue by promising not to re-open the abortion debate and repeatedly thwarting pro-life efforts in the House. Hughes told The Interim: “Stephen Harper is not pro-life. He does not want to debate these issues. We are worried he will scuttle this motion like he did two private member’s bills on unborn victims of violence.”
Campaign Life Coalition announced it supported the motion and Hughes said clarifying when human life begins is long overdue considering changes in medical technology and scientific information. “We applaud Stephen Woodworth’s efforts to get a discussion started about when human life begins and when it should be protectable in law.”
CLC national organizer Mary Ellen Douglas said, “scientific evidence is clear that life begins at conception.” The law should catch up to the science, she said. CLC has urged supporters to contact MPs to ask them to support Woodworth’s motion.
Other pro-life groups have likewise expressed support for the motion.
“We feel that it is long overdue given the fact that the government was asked to look into such matters years ago,” said Natalie Hudson Sonnen, executive director of the national educational group LifeCanada. “It is an international embarrassment that we are in this current situation,” she continued. “Most countries in the world have revisited the issue, but Canada remains mired in a political correctness that forbids us to discuss such issues.”
Jakki Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, said she and her organization “applaud” Woodworth for “raising the appalling plight of children before birth and the lack of recognition let alone protection of their lives by our Canadian Criminal Code.”
Michèle Boulva, director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, a joint project of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus, said MPs need to hear from the pro-life community. “It is about time women and men who disagree with the radical feminist agenda stand up and speak up about the need to respect the dignity of every human being at every stage of his or her existence,” she said.
Jane Richard, president of Kitchener Waterloo Right to Life, based in Woodworth’s area, said her group supports the motion. “This motion sets a precedent for getting to the fundamental principle of whether or not a preborn child is a person that has implications for the protection of life beyond the womb,” Richard said. However, she cautions, “we are under no illusion that there will be an immediate law to make abortion illegal.”
Indeed, feminist Kitchener Record columnist Louisa D’Amato supported Woodworth’s effort to initiate a discussion about the status of the child in the womb, saying laws should reflect modern facts and philosophies. She added that even if the unborn child is acknowledged as a human being, it is by no means certain that such an understanding would threaten abortion’s permissibility in Canada.
Hughes told The Interim the law should change because it bears no resemblance to truth, but added that the pro-life case for supporting the motion is that “any debate about the humanity of the child is bound to weigh on the hearts and minds of the public and lead to a questioning of why we are allowing tiny human beings in the womb to be killed through abortion.”