Response to A. Alan Borovoy's October 29 National Post article, "When it comes to abortion, personhood is beside the point," published online October 30, print edition November 5.
By Faye Sonier
A. Alan Borovoy argues that the personhood of the pre-born child is irrelevant to the abortion discussion because, in his opinion, there is no rational way to decide when personhood begins (Why personhood is beside the point, Oct. 29). As such, he implies, Canada cannot establish any legislation that would regulate abortion. This stands in direct opposition to the reality in countless countries across the globe. Even China, the land of the One-Child Policy, and the horrific forced abortions that have resulted from it, has laws against sex-selection. Personhood can be known, and even if it couldn’t, we would still need to grapple with the critical matter at hand in every abortion, which is to ask at what point the pre-born child has value.
Mr. Borovoy implicitly acknowledges the distinction between identifying human life, a scientific fact, and granting personhood, a Parliamentary recognition. Science and medicine recognize that human life begins at fertilization. In medical books, such as the Biological Principles and Modern Practice of Obstetrics, we find language like “The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of a new life.” What is being debated is when to protect or permit the killing of that human life, and for which reasons. Is it acceptable to abort pre-born children when they can live outside the womb? Should pre-born females be aborted because parents prefer a boy? If the child in the womb has a cleft palate, do we as a nation feel that’s reason enough to extinguish human life? Currently, abortion is legal for any and all of these reasons.
Canada and North Korea are alone in having no abortion legislation whatsoever. That means that the rest have some laws and regulations. Before we assume that our current legal status quo lines up with Canadian values, consider any number of recent polls that reveal Canadians are largely against sex-selection abortion (92%, Environics, 2011) and most think life should be protected at some point before birth (59%, Abacus Data, 2011). If we were to find agreement with Mr. Borovoy in dismissing personhood arguments, we could still consider outlawing some forms of abortion.
What would happen if we theoretically granted personhood rights to a child in the womb? What would that mean for the mother? Mr. Borovoy argues that a mother’s child is like a person seeking sanctuary in the body of someone who doesn’t want it there.
Mr. Borovoy’s comparison is not morally relevant. He takes a stranger-to-stranger relationship to rationalize lethal force in a mother-to-child relationship. A child is not a stranger, trespassing onto a foreign property, to seek sanctuary from another stranger. The human life in the womb is the child of its pregnant mother. The child is not seeking safety in a foreign environment. Rather, its life was brought forth by its parents and it is growing in its natural environment. This is the only environment in which the child can grow. Granted, some will cry foul as there are rare exceptions to some of these statements, but for brevity’s sake those considerations will be left to others.
The question is, despite the significant differences between stranger-to-stranger contact versus mother-to-child contact, should the mother use lethal force, such as poison or dismemberment, to expel the child from her body?
If we push Mr. Borovoy’s argument further, that “there is no rational way to decide when personhood begins,” there is no reason to grant personhood at birth. What is the moral difference between a child an hour, one week or one month before it is born and a moment, day or year after it is born?
Could it be the child’s level of development? Or size? Its degree of dependency on another person? Could it be the child’s increasing self-awareness? Pro-lifers argue very consistently that the key is the inherent dignity of the human life, not any one of these other extraneous factors. When we as a society choose any characteristic other than the dignity of human life, we find ourselves in murky moral ground, perhaps potentially agreeing with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer who states that “[n]ewborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”
Examining the issue of personhood for the pre-born child may be complex. As a society, we’ll likely want to consider scientific evidence, medical facts, legal principles, philosophy and, for those of us who have them, religious beliefs. These areas of human study are in fact “rational” means by which we could determine when personhood begins. If much of the rest of the world is capable of doing so, why CAN’T Canadians?
Faye Sonier is legal counsel with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in Ottawa.