Discussing our definitions . . .

[En français]

[pregnant woman] What is this woman carrying?


  • Did you know Canadian law says a child is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?
  • A child has no human rights until its entire body has emerged from its mother’s body.
  • This law was developed by judges over 400 years ago when medical science knew nothing about the development of children in the womb.
  • Does this make sense in the 21st century, when doctors can see a child’s heart beat—and even operate on a child—long before birth?
  • Will Parliament refuse to accept this or any law that says some human beings are not human?  That’s up to you!  Read on to find out how you can make your voice heard.

Tell your MP you want Parliament to support a fact-based and respectful dialogue. You can find your MP’s name and contact information by entering your postal code at www.elections.ca

Circulate a petition. Give your petition containing 25 or more valid signatures to your MP and request that it be read in Parliament.  One can be downloaded here along with other resources to help raise awareness in your community.

“But what about the woman’s rights?”

It’s an important question.  
Let us first consider that no person’s rights have ever been made more secure by denying fundamental human rights to another.

     Compassion for the woman.
        Compassion for her child.  
                                Why can’t we have both?

[Download printable resources here.]

Please note: The purpose of this site is to encourage fact-based, respectful debate regarding Canada’s current definition of “human being”.  The moderator is a concerned citizen who has no ties to any political party.

Both agreeing and dissenting voices are invited to enter into debate on this site, but comments will be published only if they meet the following criteria:

  1. Please write respectfully and sensitively.
  2. Please try to keep to the subject at hand.  If you do not understand what is being discussed, don’t assume.  Please ask.
  3. Please be inclusive.  This is not a religious issue.  People of all belief systems can agree or disagree with Canada’s law—based on observable data.  Writing about your personal religious beliefs only detracts from the salient points you may have to make.

If your comment has not been published within five days, please be encouraged to edit what you wrote and re-submit.  Thank you!

39 Responses to Discussing our definitions . . .

  1. Jeff Scott says:

    Thanks for all the work that has gone into this site.

    I can’t think of any significant issues throughout the history of mankind where there was a truly healthy outcome that resulted from a “don’t bring it up and don’t talk about it” policy.

    This “let’s talk about it” movement is gathering momentum. Most importantly, people on all sides of the issue will grow in understanding and compassion as the dialogue spreads throughout our nation.

    • Rob says:

      I agree Jeff, we must BE A VOICE! That’s how I’ve been feeling as well so I created a website called http://www.beavoice.ca where you can sign a digital petition. All data from this petition will be forwarded to Stephen Woodworth in support of Motion 312. Please sign and ask other Canadians to do the same! Thank you.

      • notyetborn says:

        Thanks to several commenters who are asking how reach MPs and the Prime Minister. The following page provides contact information and some guidance in letter-writing: Tell the Members of Parliament about your concern

        Petitions are good too—but be sure to talk with your MP about it. MPs are not required to present petitions in Parliament. If your MP is firmly opposed to the motion, you may try to submit your petition via another MP. A petition (en français aussi) is available on the Downloads page.

        Motion 312 is currently scheduled for a vote in the House of Commons in September 2012.

        Please ask Canada’s Parliament to look closely at what M-312 is proposing: an evidence-based test of Section 223(1)’s definition of human being. An MP need not adopt a pro-life position to vote “yes” to M-312. Those who advocate for the status quo regarding abortion on demand also need to let their stance be tested in light of observable data.

        As I see it, what M-312 comes down to is ensuring Canada upholds universal human rights. Our legislature needs to examine why our laws regard human beings as such—what is the criteria for being reckoned a human being under Canadian law.

  2. Jessica Bergeron says:

    Thank you for making these materials very user friendly. Would someone be able to tell me if there is a deadline or a desirable date to have these petitions mailed in by?
    Thank you.

    • notyetborn says:

      Thank you, Jessica. Currently Parliament’s first debate on Woodworth’s motion (M-312) is set for April 26, 2012. I’m guessing it would be most effective to send petitions to your MP’s office as soon as possible. *UPDATE: The second debate and vote are scheduled for September 2012.

      If you are so moved, you can also write a personal letter or e-mail to your MP and to the Prime Minister respectfully expressing your views on the issue and urging them to support M-312. *UPDATE: Information on letter-writing available here.

      A reminder to everyone: Despite what you may be hearing, M-312 is NOT an attempt to criminalize abortion. Rather, it seeks to get Canada on the road to acknowledging and safeguarding the fundamental rights of every human being. M-312 asks for a special House committee to answer four basic questions regarding: the humanity or non-humanity of the not yet born; the justness or unjustness of Canadian law’s current definition; and what can be done to ensure that all human beings in our society are afforded fundamental human rights.

  3. Jason Cooper says:

    What is the point to this? What issues have arisen from this law?

    • notyetborn says:

      Hi Jason,

      Thank you for asking that question. I’ll do my best to answer it.

      [Note: I do not represent Mr. Woodworth; nor do I have ties to any political party. I’m merely the moderator of this site. As an ordinary Canadian citizen, I gladly join in the discussion here and invite others to do the same.]

      The main purpose of the resources available on this site is to raise public awareness. The most recent polls reveal that the majority of Canadians are unaware of the existence of this law.

      When told that Canada’s law does not consider a child a human being until his or her entire body has emerged from the birth canal, around 72% of Canadians say they want some legal protection for children before birth (Environics, Oct 2011).

      In my opinion, those statistics justify the debate that’s happening this afternoon in the House of Commons.

      The debate is on Motion 312, which asks for a special House committee to answer four basic questions regarding: the humanity or non-humanity of children in the womb; the justness or unjustness of Canadian law’s current definition; and what can be done to ensure that all human beings in our society are afforded their inalienable human rights.

      M-312 is not an attempt to criminalize abortion or control women’s bodies. Many who advocate for a woman’s right to choose whether or not to give birth are leaping to that conclusion.

      Aversion to this discussion is understandable. The issue of abortion hits so close to home for so many. But as a young woman myself, I do not feel threatened by Woodworth’s initiative. As a nation, let’s examine the facts squarely. Only then can we work together on better serving all members of our society—including the women and men who find themselves in seemingly impossible situations.

      If a child that’s developing inside a woman’s body is a human being, then surely our country’s legal definition should reflect that fact. Anything else is an embarrassment to our nation, and opens the door to all sorts of injustice.

      And if it’s not a human being, then what is it? Terms like “pregnancy tissue” are comfortable, but are they accurate? Are we burying our collective head in the sand?

      What are some implications of having no legal protection for the unborn? Sex-selective abortion has been making headlines recently. Regardless of one’s views on abortion in general, almost all Canadians see the practice of selectively aborting female babies as utterly unacceptable. But the law allows it. Who’s next?

      In discussing these issues, compassion and respect are of the utmost importance. I do hope the resources on this site haven’t fallen short in that regard. No good can come of vilifying those who think differently than us—and there are many on all sides of these issues who are guilty of doing that. Respectful, fact-based speech and honest listening are vital in any debate.

      Thanks again for your question.


      • Ritana says:

        Hello Sarah,

        What exactly do you mean by “including the women and men who find themselves in seemingly impossible situations. “?

        Why is a definition an “embarrassment to our nation”?

        What definition do you want to give to a human being? Does it need to viable? A fetus is not viable until 25 weeks or later. Before that, no intervention will keep it alive except being in the Mother. No one is burying their head in the sand calling it a fetus. That is medically accurate.

        When you ask “who is next”? What do you mean? You think because abortion is legal, something else may be aborted? In order to have a clear conversation, please explain. Or maybe you want to bring capital punishment into the conversation? Or is that okay?


        • notyetborn says:

          Hello Ritana,

          You’ve asked some excellent questions. Thank you very much for your thoughtful reading and respectful response. I’ll try to work through your questions one by one.

          Impossible Situations
          Pregnancy can turn life upside-down, even under the best of circumstances. When there are factors such as poverty, or when the child was conceived through rape (to name two immense challenges among many), carrying the fetus to term and parenting the child can seem utterly impossible to the woman—and perhaps also to the child’s father.

          As a society I believe we need to offer tangible support to those affected by unplanned pregnancy. Often the decision to end the life of the child in utero is made because it appears to be the only solution. Often that decision is heart-rending and has severe psychological repercussions for the woman and others affected. I believe Canada (and each of us as individuals) can and should do better in offering real support, real compassion, and real options to women and men facing the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy.

          Embarrassment of holding onto a dishonest definition
          Canada’s current definition of “human being” is embarrassing, in my opinion, because it is dishonest. Asserting that a child is somehow transformed into a human being only after every last bit of it has exited the mother’s body is an insult to Canadians’ intelligence. How many Canadians actually believe that? One look at modern in utero imaging tells us that the child 5 minutes before birth is no different from the child 5 minutes after birth. Rational-thinking people like you and I don’t subscribe to some fanciful definition originating in an era when medical science didn’t know much of anything about what goes on during pregnancy.

          What makes a human being a human being?
          That’s the million-dollar question. M-312 doesn’t attempt to answer it. M-312 doesn’t even ask the committee to answer it—but merely to hear from the relevant disciplines, study the question in light of the data, and give a report to Parliament. It’s not an easy question.* But I do hope that Parliament will take the opportunity to chew around on it. Indeed it is Parliament’s duty to ensure that each one of Canada’s laws is both honest and just.

          Is viability the criterion for being reckoned a human being?
          You are correct in pointing out that, before a certain gestational age, the fetus is 100% dependent on its mother’s body for sustaining its life. But here’s a question to consider: What level of independence must an entity have in order to be defined as a human being? If we say that a fetus is not a human being because it is totally dependent, then we need to conclude that neither is a newborn a human being. (Leave a newborn alone in its crib for a week and you’ll have a dead baby.) We’d also be forced to conclude that a severely disabled person, who cannot perform basic self-care, is not a human being and therefore perhaps not worthy of being sustained and cared for by other human beings.

          Terminology—the power of words
          I don’t object to the term fetus, and I use it sometimes myself. It is indeed the accurate medical term for a child in utero after eight weeks’ gestation.

          It’s terms like “pregnancy tissue” and “uterine contents” that I believe are unwise. If we bat these terms around and never consider that the entity growing inside a pregnant woman’s body may actually be a distinct human being, then we simply avoid dealing with uncomfortable questions. But are we okay with the possibility that we might be lying to ourselves?

          Implications of how we define “human being”
          I often roll my eyes when I hear the question, “Who’s next??” because it sounds alarmist. When it comes to our country’s definition of “human being”, though, I don’t hesitate to ask it in all seriousness. To put it a different way: “What criteria do we use for determining who is reckoned a human being? Who, therefore, given that criteria, is not to be reckoned a human being?” I’ve already outlined (above) two logical yet horrifying implications of the viability/independence criterion. We don’t need to look too far to find real examples—not just philosophical musings—of what can happen when our definition of human being is flawed.

          You asked about capital punishment
          Honestly I don’t see how the topic of capital punishment has any bearing on a conversation about the humanness (or non-humanness) of a fetus. I’ve heard this question before, and would be grateful if you might shed some light on it for me.

          Here’s why I think it’s not relevant to the topic at hand: The death penalty (in countries where it’s employed) is carried out on people who have been found guilty of crimes. People are being put to death not because their country has deemed them “not human beings” but because their country has been given the authority to execute those found guilty of certain crimes. Whatever one’s opinions on capital punishment, what does this have to do with the questions we’re examining about the definition of human being: “Is it right to end the life of a fetus? If it is, then at what point and why? What is the fetus? Is it a human being? If so, what makes it so? Even if it is a human being, is it justifiable in some circumstances to terminate its life?” Certainly it would be ludicrous to answer these questions by saying that the fetus is guilty of some crime deserving death.

          Seriously, help me out here! I don’t get what one subject has to do with the other.

          Thanks again, Ritana, for entering into respectful dialogue here. How did I do with my response? I realize I probably haven’t covered all the bases. Very happy to continue the conversation, if you wish.


          • Hi Sarah,
            Do you believe the world is round? Yes, I am sure you do. It’s a scientific fact. You say in your reply to Ritana that it is not an easy question. Why? Science has proved for years that human life begins at conception. The DNA is created when sperm and egg come together. What’s so tough?

            • notyetborn says:

              Hi Jeff,

              For clarification please read further in the comments, particularly this one and this one.

              I apologize for the lack of clarity in the earlier comment to which you refer. My ability to communicate effectively on this topic continues to develop. I’ve added a note of explanation so that new readers hopefully will understand.

              P.S. I appreciate your feedback and would welcome further comments. At the same time, I want to urge you to speak/write respectfully. Most people will simply stop listening if you approach them in a confrontational manner and insult their intelligence. And, as we’ve just seen, often people are not as silly as one first might perceive them to be.

          • notyetborn says:

            *It has been brought to my attention that this statement is confusing. For clarification, please see this comment and this comment.

  4. Kari H says:

    As a mother of two, I am very supportive of this new Let’s Talk About It approach. I have not yet come to know my own specific timeline beliefs of when a fetus becomes a baby, but I know that I believe it is at a point during pregnancy, and well before the last little toe exits the birth canal.

    If anyone wants to know what Canadians think about this issue, listen to pregnant women talk about the baby inside them – how many refer to it as their “baby” and not as a “fetus”? Most, if not all, pregnant women would refer to it as their “baby”. Also, people talking with a pregnant woman will talk about the “baby”, asking when the baby is due, or if there are any baby names picked out yet – nobody ever asks if there are any “fetus names” picked out!

    Whether someone is pro-life or pro-choice, I think everyone would be able to agree that a baby is a human being at some point before they are born. Talking about it is the only way to establish an appropriate legal definition of when that is. Whether everyone agrees on the exact timing or not, using modern medical/scientific evidence we must be able to find a definition that appropriately recognizes the stages of pregnancy and the abilities of an unborn baby.

    Also, I want to emphasize that I say “legal” definition, as everyone’s moral/ethical/personal definitions will vary from others. The legal system will never be able to satisfy everyone, but hopefully it will be able to acknowledge the concerns on all sides of this debate, and find a reasonable outcome that we can all accept as our law.

  5. Reginald Smith says:

    I was in my mid teens when I first heard the word ‘abortion’ — I’m guessing that Roe vs. Wade was in the news at the time.
    I became very disturbed at the time. I was perplexed that people don’t realize that the law cannot determine whether or not someone is a person. The law is merely an arbitrary definition. We could pass a law stating that anyone under the age of, say, 21 is not a person. That wouldn’t change the FACT that everyone under 21 are persons. The law would simply disagree with reality.

    In criminal cases people have to be found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” before being found guilty of a crime. The same logic is not followed when it comes to abortion.

    During our lives we go through only two actual changes. First we are conceived and secondly we die. Everything else in between consists of development and decay.

    Even if you do not agree with the above statement, can you be 100% sure that it is wrong? With any abortion, or even the use of an abortionific birth control pill, something, or someone, dies.
    We think of ourselves as being civilized and yet we still proceed to kill something that just may be an actual innocent human being. What ever became of “erring on the side of caution”?

    – Reg.

    • notyetborn says:

      Hi Reg,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Could you elaborate on your second paragraph, please? I don’t understand what you mean by, “That same logic is not followed when it comes to abortion.”

      I see a big problem with any law that disagrees (or possibly disagrees) with reality. The state declaring that someone is not a human being does not render that person “not a human being” in reality. It does, however, guarantee that his or her inalienable human rights will not be upheld. (For more on that please see my response to Ritana, above.)


      • Reginald Smith says:

        Sorry Sarah, I should have elaborated more.
        In criminal court, the guilt of the accused must be “proved beyond a reasonable doubt” for a conviction. But when it comes to abortion we condemn the innocent fetus to death even though it is impossible to be sure that said ‘fetus’ is not a human person. If we cannot PROVE that the fetus/baby is not human how in the world can we kill him/her???

        Did I manage to muddify my point?


        • notyetborn says:

          I think I understand now. The two things being compared in your analogy are The Guilt of a Person Accused of a Crime and The Non-Humanness of a Fetus.

          Your assertion (if I’m hearing you right) is that we must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that those statements are accurate before taking any action that would impinge upon another human being’s life or liberty.

          In the former case, The Guilt of the Person Accused of a Crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before:
          (1) declaring him/her guilty of the crime in question, and
          (2) punishing him/her under the applicable laws of the land (since he/she truly is guilty of a particular crime).

          In the latter case, The Non-Humanness of a Fetus must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before:
          (1) declaring the fetus to be not a human being, and
          (2) allowing the fetus’ life to be terminated by the will of its protectors (since the fetus truly is not a human being and therefore not worthy of being protected).

          Interesting thought. I see the connection to what you said earlier about declarations/definitions which may disagree with reality.

          Perhaps others would like to weigh in on this?

  6. Erin says:

    I really appreciate your responses to the questions and comments posed on this site Sarah. My personal view on the matter is for Parliament to address the issue of 17th century law concerning ‘what is a human being’ as we have done over the decades with numerous other laws concerning human rights. Why should human rights laws be updated for only part of the human race?

    Thank you,

  7. Jana says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I just want to say that I am very appreciative of this site! It seems that any site, pro-choice or pro-life, is riddled with comments that are extremely biased one way or the other, and don’t deal with straight facts. The truth is, most people will become angry, defensive, or downright rude when they see comments that contradict their own personal beliefs.
    I’ve always thought that leaving religion out of the abortion debate would be wise. Deal with facts from an objective standpoint, and we can continue to have respectful dialogue. Throw religion into the mix, and you automatically raise people’s defences. This particular issue, M-312, is not about religion, personal conviction, or anything other than a scientific definition that is embarassingly out-of-date. Having said that, I hope that it helps to re-open the abortion debate. I think that human rights should be extended to babies well before they fully emerge from their mother’s bodies.

    Thanks again for your dedication to this subject.

  8. earl says:

    i think we should bring our laws into the 21 century and some our other outdated laws that hurt the safety of our children even in womb

  9. Dave says:

    Looking to support Motion 312 so as to recognize that life begins at conception, and therefore human status begins at conception.

    To support this view, let’s recognize the numerous examples of abortion survivors who have gone on to live meaningful lives, like Gianna Jessen and Ximena Renaerts and Amy Charlton. Logically, they were just as much human before the abortion attempt as they are after. Zero difference.

    • notyetborn says:


      Thanks for offering observable support for your assertion.

      (I hope you don’t mind: I provided a hyperlink to the website of one of the women you mentioned, in case readers are not familiar with the term “abortion survivor”.)

      I’ll leave it open for others to ponder and offer their own responses.


  10. Miles says:

    Hello Sarah, I can appreciate what you are doing here. I am wondering if you would be open to me posing a series of questions here in your comments. I would like you to provide the answers. The questions are short and simple and do not require lengthy answers. If you will agree, it will help clarify your stance as well as help people think through the issue of Motion 312.


    • notyetborn says:

      Hello Miles,

      Certainly! The main goal of this page is to help foster respectful discussion about the question of when human life begins, Motion 312, and the implications of Canada’s laws that specify who is to be regarded as a human being.

      I’ll do my best to address your questions as succinctly as I can. Perhaps other commenters would like to contribute as well. I don’t claim to be an expert in any field.

      I should repeat the disclaimer published above (for everyone’s information): I do not represent Stephen Woodworth, nor any political party, nor any organization. I’m a young woman who thinks, like many who visit this site, that this discussion is important for us as Canadians.

      I can’t guarantee that I’ll respond right away (this is a very part-time endeavour) . . . but, please, fire away!


      • Miles says:

        Thank you Sarah.
        Q1) Would you agree that the mandate of M-312’s proposed committee would be, in part, to give proof of the humanity or inhumanity of the unborn child based on the medical findings of experts?

        Taken from motion-312
        “(i) what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?, ”


        • notyetborn says:

          [For the benefit of readers who haven’t yet looked at Motion 312: The motion requests a committee of the House to give answers to four questions, the first of which is referred to here in Miles’ question to me. For ease of reference, I’ve posted the full text of M-312 here.]

          Thank you, Miles. It’s good for us to examine M-312 in detail.

          Could you clarify what you mean by “give proof”?

          The reason I ask is that ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ are not synonyms. Rather, one could venture to prove something based on evidence.

          Hence, this first part (which you’ve quoted) simply asks the committee to inform itself on the evidence and report the evidence as such to Parliament.

          The word ‘proof’ has different meanings in different realms. In the realm of civil law, I’m fairly certain that even the term “preponderance of evidence” (see M-312’s second question for the committee) is not the same standard as ‘proof’.

          I don’t think I’m splitting hairs. Mr. Woodworth practiced law before entering politics, so I think it’s fair to assume M-312 says precisely what he means it to say.

          • Miles says:

            Thank you for your careful consideration. Please understand that I use the term proof as synonymous with evidence. I use the terms as defined below.

            Encarta Dictionary
            Proof – evidence or an argument that serves to establish a fact or the truth of something
            Evidence – something that gives a sign or proof of the existence or truth of something, or that helps somebody to come to a particular conclusion

            Thus I believe it is safe to conclude that we agree upon the meaning of this part of M-312. If not, please inform me.

            To continue the line of thinking.
            Q2) Given the definition of the word evidence, would you agree that the mandate of the proposed committee would be in part to offer, to Parliament, information with which to establish the ‘truth’ of the humanity or inhumanity of the unborn child?

            • notyetborn says:

              Hi Miles,

              Nope, we’re still stalled on your first question to me. I know you’ll agree it’s important we reach a common understanding on terminology before proceeding.

              If I understand correctly, you’re asserting that the word proof can be substituted for the word evidence. I reject that claim. While the two words are closely related and—as you correctly point out—in some contexts can be used as synonyms, they’re usually not interchangeable.

              Any dictionary will offer multiple definitions for a word. Words have different shades of meaning depending on where and how they’re used. The question we need to answer is not, “What does Sarah or Miles or Jane or Bob understand the word evidence to mean?” but rather, “What does M-312 say? How is the word evidence used in the motion?”

              Motions are crafted using precise parliamentary or legal language to avoid ambiguity. As I’ve noted already, “preponderance of evidence” is a different standard than “proof”.

              Even in everyday parlance, the two words have different connotations. Proof connotes sufficient evidence: evidence on the basis of which it is legitimate to claim that the conclusion is a fact. Evidence does not have that connotation.

              I’ll offer here a possible paraphrase of M-312’s first two parts/questions. I hope it clarifies what I understand the questions to mean:

              Part 1 asks the committee to inform itself of the evidence.
              “Is there medical evidence to support the assertion that a child is a human being at some time before the moment of complete birth? If so, what is that evidence? Is there medical evidence to support Section 223(1)’s assertion that a child does not become a human being until the moment of complete birth? If so, what is that evidence?”

              Part 2 asks the committee to weigh the evidence.
              “Place all the medical evidence on a balance scale. Does the scale tip in the direction of upholding Section 223(1)’s assertion (that a child does not become a human being until the moment of complete birth)?”

              That’s the only judgment or conclusion the committee is being asked to make. Not to prove one assertion or the other.

              In my opinion it wouldn’t make sense to ask the committee to give proof. A committee of MPs with widely diverging viewpoints couldn’t possibly approach its task collectively intending to prove either the fetus’ humanity or inhumanity. The evidence will need to advocate for itself.

              The committee’s biggest challenge might come in discussing why we regard human beings as human beings. What criteria must be met for a living thing to be regarded as a human being in our country? It’s a difficult question that requires thinking a lot of things through to their logical conclusions—but that’s a vital process. I don’t see how the committee could provide cogent answers to those two questions without first addressing the question of why we regard human beings as such. We touched on this challenge a bit in looking at Ritana’s question (above) about viability/dependence.

              When you’ve had a chance to mull over my assertions here, please let me know whether we’re getting closer to a common understanding about M-312’s use of the word evidence. I’ll be otherwise occupied for the next few days, but when I receive your response I’ll read and ponder it and get back to you as soon as I’m able. Thanks!

              P.S. Although we can’t proceed with your next question until we finish dealing with the first one, if you still want to address it in some way you might answer this: What meaning were you intending to convey (or ought to be inferred) by your use of quotation marks around the word truth?

              • Miles says:

                I will accept your answer regarding proof. You have made yourself clear that it is not the mandate of M-312’s proposed committee to give proof of the humanity or inhumanity of the unborn child based on the medical findings of experts.

                I agree with you, that the committee could not possibly determine the humanity or inhumanity of the unborn child. If the authority to decide an issue is vested to a group of people each limited in knowledge you are simply left with a pile of conflicting opinions, nothing more. This is not what Motion-312 is proposing.

                If we may move on:

                Sarah, you stated that “The evidence will need to speak for itself”. Are you propounding that the medical evidence is the authority on the issue of personhood of the unborn child, and that thus the committee would be responsible to determine whether Subsection 223(1) is consistent with medical evidence, based not on their personal opinions but on the authority of the evidence itself?

                • notyetborn says:

                  Good! Yes, let’s move on.

                  I must ask you another question of terminology, because it’s not clear whether you’re using the term person as distinct from human being. Person is a word that’s defined very differently in different realms and does not appear in M-312 or Section 223(1). That said, my stance is that all who are regarded as human beings must also be regarded as persons, with all the attendant rights of a person under Canada’s law as anything else would be discrimination, e.g., the former legal status of women, African-Americans, etc. In the future, can we avoid muddying the waters by keeping to the terms used in M-312 and Section 223(1)?

                  If one does so, then a rephrase of your question might look like this:

                  “Are you propounding that the medical evidence is the authority on the issue of whether or not an unborn child ought to be regarded as a human being under the law, and that thus the committee would be responsible to determine whether Subsection 223(1) is consistent with medical evidence, based not on their personal opinions but on the authority of the evidence itself?”

                  If this accurately reflects what you were asking, then I would answer “Yes”.


                  • Miles says:

                    My apologies for interchanging terminology. I agree with you on this.

                    My next line of questioning is not intended to be insulting to your intelligence. It is simply a step in a logical chain of reasoning.
                    a) Do you personally have complete and perfect knowledge of all things? (including past, present, and future events)
                    b) Does a group of experts (in this case medical experts in particular) have complete and perfect knowledge of all things? (including past, present, and future events)
                    c) Does humanity have, collectively, complete and perfect knowledge of all things? (including past, present, and future events)

                    PS Would it be helpful to start a new comment under this? The column is getting quite narrow and more difficult to read. As the moderator I thought you might want to organize this as you see fit.


                    *See new comment thread below

  11. notyetborn says:

    *Continued from thread above
    No problem, Miles. Thanks.

    I doubt if my answer to your three questions will surprise you. It’s “No, absolutely not.” That would be my answer even if you hadn’t included the clauses in parentheses. Really—is there “complete and perfect” anything on this planet?

    But I’ll let you explain why you’re asking!


    • Miles says:

      Thank you for answering that question Sarah. You are absolutely right and I think we can be quite certain of the fact that we simply cannot gain complete knowledge of all things. The reason I included the clause “future events” is because some people believe that they can learn all things if only they look hard enough. True we can extend our observations with tools (telescope, microscope etc), though it is a stretch to say that we will ever understand all things, however the clause “future events” is important in helping us understand that we simply don’t have all the data.

      This is where I would like to tie together this line of thinking into a bit of a conclusion and hopefully spark some further discussion.

      You have mentioned several times on this forum in numerous ways that “The committee’s biggest challenge might come in discussing why we regard human beings as human beings”. You have also said that M312 does not attempt to answer this question (response to Ritana above), and I agree. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the Viability/Dependency argument (Ritana). However the point still stands that the definition of human being is still the central question to this whole issue. If we can’t answer it with the Viability/Dependency evidence what evidence can we answer it with? I think you will find that there is not a single argument for humanness which is based on the available observable data which won’t get you into similar moral debacles. I would be happy to offer such an analysis of any such argument that a reader might propose.

      So where does this leave us. At the end of the day our government must make a decision on the definition which is in our Criminal Code. Is it right or not?

      Remember we do not want to get ourselves into a similar situation to which we are in now. Think about this. If the government revised the Code to say that a fetus becomes a human being when it reaches the stage of viability outside the womb then we run in to the situation where, as Sarah has already said, the handicapped, comatose, etc. would by definition not be human beings and could be killed as ethically as we euthanize animals.

      Can the question of when humanness begins be settled definitively? In other words, can we finally determine a concrete undisputable definition of human being such that it could be written into our law code?

      And the more difficult part of the question
      Since we have already admitted that as human beings we do not have a complete data set and cannot produce an argument that will hold water on what authority would this undisputable definition rest?

      • notyetborn says:

        First a distinction is necessary, since it may not be obvious to all readers.

        1. There’s the biological definition of human being—which grows through extending our observations, as Miles has aptly put it;

        2. And then there’s our country’s legal definition of human being.

        The two are not equivalent—although one could make a very convincing argument that they ought to agree.

        Miles, in my response to Ritana, to which you refer, I was speaking of our legal definition and the proposed M-312 committee’s mandate. I apologize if that wasn’t clear. Although the M-312 committee would need to wade through all the potential moral quandaries you refer to, it is not actually being asked to come up with a new legal definition. The fourth and final part of the committee’s mandate is to present Parliament with options on how to address Section 223(1) in ways that would not compromise anyone’s fundamental human rights. It doesn’t go any further than that.

        (Actually, M-312 even leaves open the possibility to “affirm” Section 223(1) as is. The question for the committee could be rephrased thus: “Does our current law in Section 223(1) stand up to scrutiny from the disciplines of embryology, logic, ethics, etc.? If not, then what are some options for fixing it?”)

        I did not say that we as a society can’t answer the question of why we value human beings as human beings. We most certainly can—and we must!

        We don’t need complete and perfect knowledge to make legal definitions. What we have established, from your previous question, is that our knowledge as human beings is always less than perfect. If complete and perfect knowledge were a requirement for establishing and judging laws, then we’d need to repeal most of the Criminal Code. If it’s wrong for us to establish a legal definition of human being, then—logically it would follow—it was wrong to write Section 223(1) in the first place, and it should be declared null and void.

        But the reality is that our laws need a legal definition of human being in order to function. The vast majority of laws address wrongdoing by human beings against other human beings.

        The challenge, as I see it, is in making sure our legal definition of human being (1) is as reasonable as it can be based on current biological knowledge, and (2) doesn’t impinge on anyone’s fundamental human rights.

        Motion 312 brings to light the fact that our law’s current definition of human being is at variance with embryology’s accepted biological definition. Section 223(1) perhaps made sense to people in centuries past, when the entire nine months of pregnancy was shrouded in mystery. Now, however, medical imaging allows us to actually see the baby developing from incredibly early in gestation.

        I probably haven’t addressed everything you wrote about, but hopefully this is a start.


        • Miles says:

          Would you agree with this statement?
          “The use of logic or reason is the only valid way to examine the truth or falsity of any statement which claims to be factual.” – Dr. Gordon Stein

          This, to me, seems to sum up what you are saying Parliament must do once presented with the proposed committee’s findings.


          • notyetborn says:

            Well, I certainly hope that our elected representatives employ both logic and reason (which aren’t equivalent) in all of their day-to-day work on our behalf. In this case, the proposed committee should base its reasoning on relevant disciplines such as those which I have already mentioned (embryology and ethics).

            We’ve touched on the distinction between a biological definition and a legal definition of human being. Let’s look first at biology. The following may seem elementary, but I don’t want to assume everyone is aware.

            Embryology has known for a century and a half that even a mammalian zygote is a distinct, unique, living being with all its DNA determined. If its parents are of the species homo sapiens, then that zygote is a distinct, unique, living human being. Currently that’s how human being is defined biologically. It’s a definition that’s unlikely to gain much further precision, because sperm and egg are clearly not human beings or organisms but, rather, human cells.

            Before the development of microscopes in the 1800s, these realities were unknown to us.

            So far biology.

            The question Canada’s legislature must answer is this: What determines eligibility for human rights? Is it simply a living organism’s biological human status, or some further criteria? What reasons does Canada give for granting legal protection to the tiny human being in its mother’s arms, but not to the tiny human being in its mother’s uterus? Why does Canada’s law value one and not the other?

            Parliament’s answers to these questions are important not only for the issue of elective abortion, but also for human rights in general. If Canada denies human rights to the child in utero because of its high degree of dependency, then what does that mean for newborns? Severely disabled people? At what level of dependency is the line drawn? If the reason is self-awareness, then, again, where does that leave infants? Comatose patients?

            To reiterate my stance on M-312:
            I support this proposed study and discussion by our legislature because Section 223(1) does not explain itself. It is an arbitrary legal definition that needs to be re-examined closely—for the safeguarding of all Canadians’ fundamental human rights, now and in the future.

            Miles, your questions appear to be driving toward a point you wish to make regarding Motion 312. May I ask you to articulate your current stance?

  12. notyetborn says:

    A gentle reminder to everyone from the moderator:

    All comments and questions—from any viewpoint—that meet the criteria described on this page (respectful, on-topic, fact-based) will be published.

    I will never edit what you write (aside from correcting obvious typos).

    I realize there is plenty of subjectivity in my deciding which comments meet the criteria. Many commenters—from all viewpoints—have salient points to contribute. Sadly, some—again, from all viewpoints—clutter up their comments with off-topic musings, personal religious beliefs, or even blatantly disrespectful speech toward those who think differently. I hope readers can appreciate my decision to try to moderate this comment feed in such a way that we stay focused on the issue at hand.

    I find it helpful to remember that each person involved in the discussion feels just as strongly about his or her view as I do about my own. Unless we truly listen to each other and refrain from vilifying or ridiculing those who see things differently, we will never benefit as individuals or as a society.

    We can choose not to let our emotions control our speech. When we fail in that—and we all do—we need to apologize and try again.

    Call me an idealist, but I do think we Canadians can manage to have a civil and cogent discussion! Surely, given the topic of what it is to be human, we can treat each other as intelligent and compassionate human beings.

  13. J. Comeau says:

    My compliments Sarah on the quality of your replies. I particularly like the way you have carefully articulated evidence versus proof, and biological definition versus legal definition.

    I have written number of paragraphs on this issue, and would like to share some, and possibly all of them here. I’ll start with some points about definitions sometimes being arbitrary…


    The question of defining a human being is necessarily imprecise and somewhat arbitrary because it must combine biology/medical science with law. Medical evidence is not like a mathematical proof, nor is it like the sciences of chemistry or physics…some professional interpretation of the evidence is necessary to arrive at a reasonable, yet sometimes arbitrary, standard.

    Choosing a date that a human tissue becomes a human being while the zygote/embryo/fetus/etc. is in the womb is no less arbitrary — and certainly less precise — than using the moment of complete birth.

    Tissue that looks like human hands, or a fetus that can suck its thumb does not make it a human being. A chimpanzee fetus has tissue that looks like a human hand, and it has a heart beat…that does not make it a human being.

    If human fetus has not breathed on its own, and if it has not been detached from the nourishing/waste removing umbilical cord and placenta, and if it is still in the womb…that makes it still a body part — though certainly a wondrous one — of the mother. The fetus has not ever existed as a separate living being.

    When the government starts to regulate a person’s body parts, that is intrusive, especially when it jeopardizes the health and/or life of the already-born person being regulated.

    If a fetus is considered a human being, a legal can of worms, or even a Pandora’s box gets opened: …the fetus becomes a separate patient, with the inherent conflict of interest between it and the mother in certain medical circumstances requiring action to save the life of the mother. At what date is a health card issued? SIN? Legal identification? What if the parent picks a name, then decides to change it? Gender identification…boy or girl? All ID requires a DOB…what is the DOB? Income tax returns due for taxable income…income splitting…? Citizenship depends on place of birth. Inheritances, when a parent dies without a will. Estate planning…does a fetus require a will if it inherits property? And on and on.

    There are thousands of legal implications if a fetus is legally considered a person before complete birth.

    A fetus is a wondrous organism, as is a zygote, a blastocyst and an embryo. They are human tissue — just like any other body part — but more wondrous, and with the potential to develop into a full mature human being. But each are merely potential human beings, none are actual human beings.

    Legal definitions are necessarily arbitrary at times. For example, what makes a person one-day younger than 16 undeserving of a driver’s license? Or a person one day younger than age 65 undeserving of Old Age Security pension? The requirement to be fully born is a reasonable benchmark for the distinction between a fetus and the legal definition of a human being. A fetus is considerably different than a born human being, even one day prior to being born. That is not to say that there could not be general medical guidelines for the care and treatment of a fetus, and there already are. But those guidelines do not require the fetus to be given legal status of a human being.

    When tissue is physically inside and biologically attached to the mother, it presents a unique legal and medical situation…especially in defining precisely when human tissue becomes a legal human being. Perfection is not possible. Where perfection is not possible, it is sometimes best to provide a general framework and then trust those closest to the situation to do their best to deal with it in a reasonable manner based on their professional judgement and the unique facts of the personal situation. The law in its current form does just that. It leaves the medical treatment of the mother and the fetus up to the doctor and mother, without clouding the issue by attempting to define the fetus as a separate human being. A fetus in the womb is vastly different than a human being outside the womb.

    I have read that the Canadian Medical Association opposes the exercise of reviewing the legal definition of a person, from a medical point of view (CMA has spoken out against it, and they represent the 76,000 doctors in Canada). How much more medical evidence is needed than this fact alone! What could 12 non-medically trained politicians possibly add to the search for scientific evidence that 76,000 doctors are not already aware of?

    • notyetborn says:

      Hello J.,

      Thank you. I wish to commend you, also, for your honest reading and thoughtful response. The respect and cool-headedness you’ve displayed are a fine example for our elected MPs and others to follow.

      Your concerns regarding “What would happen if…” are good legal questions that, should M-312 pass next week, the resulting committee likely would need to examine in detail. It’s quite reasonable to expect that, at the end of the committee’s work, one of the options it would present to Parliament would be to leave Section 223(1) as is. (The proposed committee is tasked only with studying and presenting all options for addressing Canada’s current legal definition of human being—and each one of those options must be in line with the Constitution and with Supreme Court rulings. Passing M-312 does NOT equal changing the Criminal Code, as the public fear mongering has falsely suggested. See the fourth and final question of M-312.)

      I think it’s important to note that asking our law to recognize the humanity of the fetus is not some wacky innovation. Canada is the only Western nation that offers no legal protection to biological human beings until after they are born.

      Biology: organisms vs. body parts
      Those not yet born are rightly termed biological human beings. We must reiterate the biological status of what’s growing in a pregnant woman’s uterus. You’ve called it both an “organism” and a “body part” (of the woman). It cannot be both. An organism is a whole, distinct being; a body part is only a part of the whole. My fingers typing this letter to you are not acting autonomously; rather they are body parts working in concert with my other body parts, e.g., brain, nerves, muscles, circulatory system. My fingers move in this purposeful way only because other members of my body are directing them to do so. Even in processes that do not involve my volition—such as the beating of my heart or the workings of my immune system—the directives are coming from within my own body, not from anything in my environment. A fetus’ fingers and other body parts function in similarly purposeful ways—sucking its thumb, to give an easily visible example—because the fetus itself is a whole, distinct being, i.e., an organism. The pregnant woman’s body does not direct the fetus to suck its thumb or kick or yawn or move or grow in any way. That’s because the fetus is not one of the pregnant woman’s body parts. The fetus’ body is given the appropriate environment and nourishment—“room and board”, so to speak—by the woman’s body. But the fetus moves and grows by the directives of members of its own body. Visible examples of this purposeful behaviour of the organism are clearly seen at the cellular level, too, right from the stage of a zygote. As mentioned, we made this observation of mammalian zygotes already in the 1800s. One need only consult a grade 10 biology textbook to be reminded that even a zygote is a complete organism—not a “potential” organism. Your assertions that it is “tissue” or a “body part” are false. I don’t blame you or ridicule you, however: these notions are constantly bandied about in the public square.

      Before and after birth: some questions to consider
      You asserted repeatedly that a fetus is different than a born human being. How is it different? The organism’s situation certainly changes at birth: the newborn is no longer housed inside its mother, no longer hooked up to the sophisticated life-support system of its mother’s body, and begins to use some of its organs in ways it didn’t in utero, e.g., lungs. But in what way is the fetus itself different from a newborn? Does birth change what the fetus/newborn is? Consider the many situations of a born human being. No matter where I am (e.g., at home, on a plane, on the moon), or how self-supporting I am (e.g., healthy, afflicted with a severe disability, in a coma), or what abilities I have or lack—I am always a human being.

      Why review Canada’s definition of human being?
      This, which I perceive to be your overarching question, is a good one: “Why is this law even being talked about?” The answer lies in the distinction between rights and privileges granted by the State and inalienable human rights.

      Regarding the latter, civilized society recognizes that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Deviations from that consensus are thoroughly studied in high school classrooms in the hope that future generations will not repeat such deplorable history. The right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights, since other human rights and various State-granted privileges have no meaning for a dead person.

      In your argument regarding the arbitrary nature of many laws, you’ve offered a helpful example of a privilege granted by the State: the right of an adolescent to work toward a driver’s license, by virtue of being at least 16 years old. We are correct to observe that 16 is an arbitrarily selected age, and that this law may be changed by the will of the government now or in the future. But driving a car is not a human right. What is the government’s duty when it comes to safeguarding inalienable human rights?

      Consider this: The law is not declaring, “A teenager becomes a human being at the age of 16 years.” Notwithstanding the bewildering trials visited upon parents of teenagers, it would be laughable to assert that even the most unruly adolescent is not a human being! Not only would such a law be laughable, it would trample on the inalienable human rights of everyone younger than sixteen. Under such a law, children until age 16 could legally be treated as expendable property.

      So the question is, “Are inalienable human rights—in particular the right to life—rights that may be granted or revoked by the State?” In civilized society the answer should be simple: “No, such rights are inalienable.” But it bears talking about, in a world where highly-respected academics such as Peter Singer are positing that ‘simply being human’ doesn’t give one a right to live. Those assertions have dire implications for human rights and justice; therefore they must not be left unexamined by our legislature. We touched on some of the implications earlier in this comment stream.

      Passing M-312 would give Parliament the opportunity to examine this important human rights question in isolation from any of the specific (and contentious) issues that tend to obscure the main question.

      A note about the CMA and politics
      The statement released from last month’s Yellowknife meeting of some CMA members has been sufficiently ridiculed publicly. The CMA has a long history of advocating for elective abortion, so its stance is not surprising. It does not, however, fully represent the views of the majority of this nation’s physicians. And every doctor, regardless of his or her views on elective abortion, knows that what’s residing in a pregnant woman’s uterus is a human organism distinct from its mother.

      Thank you, once again, for the care you’ve taken in thinking through some issues and articulating your concerns. I did receive and digest your two subsequent essays (regarding terminology—see my postscript—and expounding on the question of why proponents of M-312 believe our law ought to be reviewed). However, since their content is primarily based on some potentially incorrect statements in your first essay (as challenged above), I hope I will not offend you by declining to post them. I would be repeating myself if I took time to respond to them in detail, and I expect our conversation may naturally flow differently as a result of this response.


      P.S. At your request (in a subsequent comment) I’ve used only the medical terminology to describe biological human beings before they are born. I don’t mind doing that, and I think you’re correct to say it’s wise to use the most precise terminology even if it is sometimes cumbersome.

      An accusation levelled against advocates of M-312 is that we’re using the word “child” to engage people’s emotions rather than their minds. It’s an understandable suspicion, but I use this less precise word simply for consistency and convenience. This is the language of the law under discussion, Section 223(1): “A child becomes a human being…” The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada subscribes, also speaks of children before and after birth: “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Regarding convenience, in many cases it’s simply less cumbersome to say “child” instead of listing all applicable stages (“zygote/embryo/fetus/newborn/infant/toddler, etc.”) when a broader term is desired.

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