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Woodworth Poses Risk to Women’s Health and Lives

January 30, 2012

By Joyce Arthur, Executive Director, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (http://www.arcc-cdac.ca)

(Originally published Jan 30 in the Guelph Mercury under the title "There's No Need to Re-open the Abortion Debate in Canada" Links have been added to the version below, and the global stats on unsafe abortion have been updated with the latest data).



The pro-choice movement is tired of anti-abortion advocates who just don’t get it. Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth and several of his colleagues in Parliament have recently felt free to “re-open the abortion debate”— at great risk to the safety and human rights of all pregnant women, not just those seeking abortion.

Woodworth issued a challenge on Jan. 12 to advocates of legal abortion to provide medical evidence proving that fetuses do not become human beings until birth. This challenge stems from his recent media campaign to have Parliament review our Criminal Code because it only bestows legal “human being” status on infants born alive.

Like the rest of the anti-abortion movement, Woodworth shows no recognition whatsoever of the human rights of women, or how giving rights to fetuses would harm pregnant women.

In the United States, where fetuses DO have legal personhood rights in at least 38 states (mostly through “fetal homicide” laws supposedly aimed at third parties who assault pregnant women), the laws are used primarily to prosecute pregnant women for drug or alcohol abuse, refusing a Caesarean, or even experiencing a stillbirth. These unjust and cruel prosecutions tend to scare pregnant women away from pre-natal care or even push them to have an abortion. They also turn pregnant women into third-class citizens whose rights are subordinate to those of their fetus.

If fetuses had rights, any wanted pregnancy where something goes wrong could subject women to criminal prosecution for harming or “murdering” their fetus. But there is never any guarantee that you won’t have a miscarriage or stillbirth, or a serious complication that risks your life or health, or any number of unpredictable scenarios. This is of little concern to most anti-abortion advocates, however, who would actually force women to sacrifice their lives to have babies.

Giving rights to fetuses or banning abortion does nothing to “protect the unborn” or women. Every country in the world where abortion is illegal has a well-developed abortion underground, and abortion is generally more common in countries where it’s illegal than where it’s legal. Almost half of all abortions in the world (49% of 43.8 million) are unsafe and mostly illegal. In the U.S. where abortion is now heavily restricted, women will travel hundreds of miles for abortion care, use their rent or food money to pay for it, go before judges to get permission, listen to mandated anti-abortion propaganda, walk past aggressive and bullying protesters, and even huddle for hours in a car in the clinic’s parking lot until the bomb threat is over. In short, most women will do whatever it takes to get an abortion, regardless of the difficulty or risks.

To come back to Woodworth’s challenge about whether the fetus is human, he completely misses the point because he’s confusing the medical/biological aspects of “what is a human being” with the legal/social aspects of personhood. The biological status of the fetus is irrelevant since women need and have abortions anyway. However, given Woodworth’s fixation on the lack of legal rights for 9-month fetuses about to be born, it bears repeating that abortions after 20 weeks are rare in Canada and done only under exceptional circumstances, largely in cases of fetal abnormality where the fetus cannot survive after birth.

As it happens, the Criminal Code’s definition of human being that defines personhood at birth is even more correct today than it was 400 years ago under common law. Women now have established constitutional rights in Canada under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to life, liberty, bodily security, conscience, and equality, all of which are directly implicated in women's decisions around pregnancy. In contrast, fetuses do not have legal rights and cannot be given any, since two beings occupying the same body would result in a serious clash of rights. In fact, if fetuses had legal personhood, pregnant women would lose theirs.

The anti-abortion movement’s fanatical concern for fetuses at the expense of the rights of pregnant women is dangerous. By far the best route to healthy outcomes for pregnant women and their babies is to ensure that women have the resources and supports they need to carry to term. And when they know in their hearts that it‘s not the right time to bring a life into this world, they deserve access to safe and legal abortion instead of risking their lives on the black market. Let's not embark down the same road as the U.S., with its vindictive and punitive anti-abortion restrictions. There’s no need to re-open the abortion debate in Canada because we can trust women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.