There has been much outrage over Motion 312, the attempt by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to reopen the debate about when fetuses legally become people, and with it the debate over abortion. In the eye of the storm is the decision of Minister for the Status of Women Rona Ambrose to vote in favor of the motion.
Ambrose has since become the target of intense criticism, with many calling for her resignation. By voting to reopen the abortion debate, her critics allege, the Minister has endangered women’s fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies. Devyn Noonan, for instance, writes in the October 22 issue of The Varsity that those in favor of discussing fetal rights “fail to realize that abortion is necessary for gender equality,” and that “So long as reproductive rights are ‘honestly debated’ gender equality is under threat.”
Although secular liberals — myself included — are right to be suspicious of Conservative fetal-rights initiatives, Motion 312 is actually quite moderate, calling only for an examination of the medical evidence pertinent to legal personhood; and although abortion rights are undeniably a sine qua non of civilized democratic societies, it is by no means necessary that those rights be unlimited. Canadian law has been grossly incomplete since R. v Morgantaler — placing zero restrictions on abortion, and acknowledging fetuses as people only once they have “completely proceeded” from the womb. This allows for elective terminations up until the last possible moment — something which few pro-choicer’s are in favour of. The law also considers attacks on pregnant women which kill the fetus to be murder only if death does not occur in-utero, and few pregnant women would consider the killing of their children to be mere ‘assault’ simply because the fetus happened to die inside the womb, rather than outside.
Clearly a more nuanced, less arbitrary policy is required, and some good examples exist from which we could learn. The precedent-setting American case of Roe v Wade, for instance, stuck a balance between women’s rights and those of the fetus by allowing the state to protect the unborn once they become viable outside of the womb.Renowned ethicist Peter Singer takes a similar position, pointing out that once a fetus becomes sentient at around 18 weeks it attains an interest — the interest in not being harmed — which entitles it to at least some type of moral consideration. Crafting policy is a delicate task, politically as well as ethically, but it should be clear at least that both outright criminalization and complete lack of regulation crudely oversimplify the matter.
Furthermore, the rather imprecise claim that “abortion is necessary for gender equality,” while surely correct, is not equivalent to the claim that completely un-restricted abortion is necessary for gender equality. One can easily make the case that elective abortions before 18 weeks, and medically necessary abortions at any stage, are essential to the status of women. It is a bit harder, however, to demonstrate that the inability to terminate a viable fetus for any reason at any time would put women at a social disadvantage. While it would indeed be outrageous for the state to prohibit abortion in the first 18 weeks, when only the mother’s interests are at stake, it is a simple fact of logic, not a political position, that once the fetus becomes sentient there is more to be considered than just the woman’s right to choose.
Abortion rights are crucial to the status of women, but so are justifiable restrictions on those rights. Pro-male sex-selective abortion — of which few feminists approve — is not uncommon in Canada, and is one of the consequences of unconditional pro-choice laws. There is, furthermore, a glaring contradiction in the argument that the placing of any limitations whatever on abortion violates women’s rights. It lies in the fact that this line of reasoning presupposes either that fetuses are not people, or that all aborted fetuses are male.
If fetuses do become people sometime before birth, then it follows that unconditional abortion rights allow for the arbitrary termination of viable baby girls in-utero, and it is essential to women’s rights that the state intervene to protect them — assuming, of course, that women have the right not to be arbitrarily killed. The pro-choice side will hopefully admit that not only male fetuses are aborted, but reply that this argument is nevertheless unsound, because fetuses are simply not people — and that is precisely the point: whether fetuses are or aren’t people at a given stage of development is not already certain, it is an empirical question requiring reason and evidence, and pro-choicers can hardly expect a favorable determination of the matter while simultaneously refusing to allow any inquiry into it.
Although the skepticism surrounding ‘pro-life’ initiatives is well deserved, it is no reason to let a vacuous and unprincipled law go on without improvement. Liberals who insist that ‘women have the right to choose — period,’ are every bit as dogmatic and unhelpful as Conservatives who insist that ‘abortion is murder — period.’ Their common fault is their lack of willingness to engage in the rational, informed moral reasoning that is demanded by an issue as important and complex as the abortion debate. Democratic societies require a plurality of opinions, as well as a free and open environment in which they can be respectfully discussed.
Rona Ambrose has not, as of yet, done anything to warrant her resignation. In the interest of Canadian democracy, she should at least be given the chance.