How early does a fetus become a baby become a human being? Our politicians may be loath to debate it, but it seems even our hospitals need more work to get their nomenclature straight. Contradictory practices within single hospitals cannot be serving anyone well.
In Calgary's Foothills Hospital, for instance, the "Pregnancy and Infant Loss Program" is described on the website as one which provides information, guidance and "grief support for parents and other family members who have experienced a pregnancy loss (miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, still birth, neonatal death or termination) through individual, couple and group counseling."
The hospital's care for grieving parents is admirable, but its difficulty in finding "the right words" for the discussion is instructive. One page lists options for caring for the remains of a miscarriage under 20 weeks, and the language varies from sentence to sentence. "Collect the pregnancy remains/tissue" . . . "private funeral arrangements can be made for any pregnancy loss" . . . "you may have your pregnancy/baby's remains cremated individually" . . . "You may wish to honour your baby by planting a tree . . . "
Clearly the variance of terminology even in this hospital website reflects a lack of clarity about what to call a child in utero if it dies. There is the term "fetal demise", "missed abortion of 12 weeks or less," "pregnancy remains/tissue", "pregnancy/baby's remains," and finally, it is referred to as a "baby".
The hospital seems to indicate that it is a baby if it dies and the mother experiences grief and loss, but a fetus when the mother has made a choice to end the pregnancy.
In the same hospital—where such care is extended to families who have lost infants anywhere along the gestational timeline—abortions are performed up to 20 weeks. Between 20-24 weeks, abortions can be performed only if genetic damage is detected, and after 24 weeks only if the fetus has a condition confidently predicted to be lethal during the first 30 days after birth, according to the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The language describing and the treatment of a fetus/embryo/child seems to be an entirely subjective matter, dependent upon the attitude of the mother and family and the ensuing hospital procedures and assistance.
Surely this points to an obvious contradiction when it comes to defining a human being. In the absence of a legal definition, which takes into account all of medical science's recent discoveries about the development, experience of pain, and abilities of the fetus in utero, we are currently practicing a highly subjective approach in deference to the preservation of everyone's rights . . . but at what cost?
Last month, when Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative M.P. from Kitchener, Ont. requested that Parliament form a committee to study Canada's 400-year-old definition of a human being, he prompted an outcry from opposition members who called it an attempt revive the abortion debate.
Similar opposition to fetal rights occurred in 2007, when Conservative M.P. Ken Epp introduced Bill C-484, the "Unborn Victims of Crime Act." The law would have made it a separate crime to harm or kill a fetus during an act of violence towards a pregnant woman. The Bill died when the September 2008 election was called.
Under current Canadian law, Criminal Code Section 223(1) reads: "A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not it has breathed, it has an independent circulation or the navel string is severed."
In actual fact, our knowledge of the scientific and biological processes from conception to birth has progressed dramatically since the current definition was penned. Even with sensitive and hard-fought rights at stake, is it not incumbent on us all to ensure a scientifically-based, morally coherent approach to defining what a human being truly is?
For in what other sphere of life would we be so reticent to update definitions based on new discoveries?