The linguistic absurdity of pretending that the unborn is not one of us

By Dave Andrusko 

Watching the abortion debate unfold in Canada is nothing short of riveting. It’s like being there at the creation.

The nation has been without an abortion law since 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada swept aside the protections unborn children enjoyed under the Criminal Code.

The justices left it to the legislature (in the words of pro-abortion Justice Bertha Wilson) to decide “the precise point in the development of the fetus at which the state’s interest in its protection becomes ‘compelling,’” (a nod to the nervousness over “late-term” abortions), a task the Parliament has chosen not to take up for twenty five years. The situation is so absurd that,, as hard as it is to believe, a child does not become a ‘human being’ within the homicide provisions of Canada’s Criminal Code until the moment of complete birth!

But, just as the case in Great Britain where the abortion issue is also described as “settled,” cracks are appearing. We’ve written about them on many occasions, most recently at

On Tuesday, Charlie Gillis, a columnist for Maclean’s, wrote a masterful putdown of the absurdities that pretending the unborn is…something other than a human being. Again the culprit is Canada’s Supreme Court which took up the gruesome case of Regina v. Ivana Levkovic last month. As Gillis wrote

“Levkovic was charged under Section 243 of the Criminal Code, which forbids concealing the body of an infant ‘whether the child died before, during or after birth.’ But pathologists were unable to determine whether Levkovic’s baby was born alive or dead, and under Canadian case law, a child has no legal rights before it has emerged from the womb. By using words like ‘child,’ ‘baby’ or “’girl,’ therefore, the judges could be implying humanity on the part of the deceased. They’d also be undermining Levkovic’s defence: if an unborn child has no right to legal protection, her lawyers had reasoned, how could the law stand?”

Gillis described what followed as “a kind of linguistic minuet, as the judges reached for acceptable nomenclature for a hypothetical baby that the law might not regard as a person.” Frankly, what ARE the options? According to Gillis, the judges tried “object”; “being”; “this, um, dead, um, whatever”; and “the thing.” Gillis was not exaggerating when he called this a “determined slog through this marsh of semantic absurdity.”

But Gillis’s larger point was that as clumsy, absurd, and as embarrassing as the judges’ performance was, it “reflected a growing resolve, inside and outside the court’s walnut-panelled chamber, to tackle one of the country’s great outstanding questions: when does a fetus legally become a human being?”

He then cited further evidence that there is movement afoot, developments we’ve written about: the surprising number of Members of Parliament who voted for “Stephen Woodworth’s private member’s motion calling for a review of a section of the Criminal Code declaring a fetus as human only at the moment of complete birth” and a motion “calling on Parliament to condemn the practice of abortions for the purposes of sex selection.” Gillis adds

“Insiders say there are more such initiatives in the hopper. “You are going to see regularly MPs addressing [fetal protection],” said Saskatoon-Humbolt MP Brad Trost in an interview with Maclean’s earlier this year. ‘It might be every six months, which compared to never is going to be a big change.’”

He concludes by observing that while there may be some mileage left in the “familiar pro-choice talking point,” more important developments are in the works. Paraphrasing one of the four Liberal members of Parliament who voted in favor of Woodworth’s private member’s motion, Gillis writes

“Still, the MP says, the whole exercise of tabling the motion helped loosen the logjam on the discussion of fetal rights, and exactly when an unborn child becomes a legal human being. A vast swath of Canadians, he notes, share a visceral sense of the fetus as a fragile being that deserves a modicum of state protection at some point of its development in the womb. And if cases like Levkovic demonstrate anything, it’s that we could all use some well-chosen and commonly understood words to give form to that instinct. Even the justices of the highest court in the land.”

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