Newborn baby, white
Ethical and legal issues surrounding reproduction, including new technologies, are under discussion again. (Photo by Christian Darkin/Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Health

Abortion, other choices at life’s start, in spotlight and on survey

The Observer asked readers their views on beginning-of-life issues and found a sharp divergence with general public


Just after she graduated from nursing school in 1965, Emily Phillips, then 22, endured her defining pro-choice moment. A young woman with Down syndrome had been raped and become pregnant. Phillips was handed the responsibility of helping her through the labour and delivery of her baby. “Sitting with that girl was absolutely the hardest thing I’d done in my life,” says Phillips, 69, a Blythe, Ont., resident and United Church member. “She didn’t understand what was happening to her body . . . and she was crying out for mom and dad. It’s stuck with me forever.”

Abortion — which Phillips believes would have been an obvious solution in this case — wouldn’t become legal for another 23 years. In that time, she witnessed the gruesome tactics some Canadian women used to get rid of unwanted pregnancies: coat hangers, Drano douches and knitting needles. Even at the end of her career nine years ago, as an obstetrical nurse in a small hospital near an Amish community, she cared for women living without reproductive options. Given her experiences, she strongly believes in choice.

And, according to our 2012 Life and Death Decisions survey, so do the vast majority of Observer readers. Just nine percent of readers surveyed believe that the law should prohibit or restrict abortion, compared to 19 percent of the general population. Readers are also more likely than the general public to support stem-cell harvesting and paying surrogates for their expenses only.

Yet there are strings attached. For both readers and non-readers alike, support drops significantly when technologies are used frivolously. For example, just seven percent of readers and 19 percent of the population support infertile couples selecting the sex of embryos to be implanted through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just two percent of readers and six percent of the public support abortion for sex selection.

Those ideas matter.

Beginning-of-life questions have recently returned to the political spotlight in Canada. On April 26, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener, Ont., introduced a private member’s motion asking that a parliamentary committee be set up to study the legal definition of when human life begins. Media, opposition members and even Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor criticized the motion as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate. That criticism may be warranted, but among Observer survey respondents, it seems the value of embryos and fetuses still raises compelling questions.

According to the survey, just 10 percent of readers and nine percent of general Canadians believe that abortion is acceptable at any point during the pregnancy; in other words, about 90 percent disagree with current Canadian laws, which allow for abortion at any time. Most of those who said abortion is acceptable draw the line at 20 weeks or sooner; after that, support drops off, suggesting there is sensitivity to the idea that the fetus is an individual pre-birth.

Furthermore, 20 percent of readers and 23 percent of the general public oppose taking stem cells from a “spare” embryo, the youngest stage of development. Clearly, as a country, we’re struggling with the idea of how the unborn should be treated.

If Woodworth’s proposed committee were to change the definition of when human life begins, the legality of most reproductive technology could be questioned, from embryonic screening to the commonplace termination of “excess” fetuses after IVF, and to a woman’s right to exit a pregnancy at any time, for any reason. Currently, Canadian law dating back to 1892 states that life begins at the moment of complete birth.

“How many Canadians believe that birth is a moment of magical transformation that changes a child from a non-human to a human being? Very few; most Canadians know that our existing definition dishonestly misrepresents the reality of who is a human being,” Woodworth said in Parliament. He pointed out that Madam Justice Bertha Wilson, who heard the 1988 Morgentaler case that legalized abortion, also asked for a committee to find a new legal definition of when life begins, and proposed that it may be in the second trimester.

That committee never formed. And indeed, Woodworth’s proposed committee seems unlikely to go forward. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has previously vowed never to reopen the abortion debate in Canada, said he will vote against it, although he hasn’t yet indicated if he will whip the vote. Thomas Mulcair promised NDP opposition en masse, while interim Liberal leader Bob Rae will allow his caucus to vote their conscience. The motion will be debated again this fall.

Of course, the Observer survey didn’t ask whether respondents think most reproductive technologies should be legal; just whether the use of them is “acceptable.”

Sheila Lavender expressed this difference. The Saskatoon resident and Observer reader says she believes that life is sacred. God is the Creator, and human life shouldn’t be cheapened through the thoughtless use of reproductive technologies. That said, though, Lavender thinks women should have access to safe, legal choices.

“I would hope people would be more responsible with their sexuality,” Lavender, 66, says, noting that she’s never wanted children and used the birth control pill to effectively avoid getting pregnant. It would behoove Canadians, she adds, to remove the pressures on women to bear children, and as a country to think more about procreation generally.

Where does The United Church of Canada stand on reproductive rights and technologies? In 1977, the church’s General Council laid out its belief about bioethics, informed by Jesus’ teachings. In 1980, it followed up with a statement about contraception and abortion, describing the latter as “a personal matter between a woman and her doctor.”

The preamble to the 1980 document starts confidently, “As Christians we wish to affirm: The sanctity of human life, born or unborn. That life is much more than physical existence.” According to the Observer survey, however, individual readers, almost all of them United Church members, seem less sure about the relationship between faith and life’s beginning and end. Just 53 percent of readers said that following Jesus led to their beliefs about life and death; 35 percent identified God’s rules as factoring in; and 31 percent said scripture influenced what they believe.

That didn’t surprise some respondents. Rev.Gordon Churchill, a United Church minister in Calgary who no longer serves in the pulpit, doesn’t think Jesus has much influence over opinions about IVF, embryo selection, abortion, stem cells or surrogacy — the gap between what’s written about Christ in the Bible and the questions the technologies demand are just too wide. Sure, on a survey such as The Observer’s, readers might tick off a box marked “Jesus,” Churchill says. But that doesn’t mean the Gospel is a serious factor in this ultramodern debate.

“I don’t think the Bible is clear on this,” the 62-year-old says. “Tommy Douglas said, ‘The Bible is a fiddle upon which any tune can be played.’ So anyone who says the Bible has something to say about this stuff is supporting their own prejudice. They’re not interpreting the Bible, they’re using it.”

Indeed, both the pro-life Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) use the Bible to support their lobbies. Stephanie Gray, the 31-year-old executive director of CCBR, is Catholic (though the organization is secular). “Jesus’ whole life was oriented to expressing what is right and what is wrong,” she says, reacting to the survey’s finding that Observer readers were less likely than the general population to claim that they make decisions based on an inherent sense of right and wrong (55 percent versus 73 percent, respectively).

Gray points out that a prenatal John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when he felt the embryonic Jesus nearby in Mary’s womb. “Mary didn’t enter that room alone,” Gray says, indicating that the Bible clearly recognizes the individual life of a fetus.

Joyce Arthur, the executive director of ARCC, was raised as a fundamentalist in the Canadian Reformed Church, though she has been an atheist since her 20s. “Empathy, social justice, fighting poverty — these are all supported by the Bible,” she says, noting their congruence with reproductive technology. She notes that Exodus lays out a rule that if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is injured and miscarries, the man who injured her must pay a fine. But if the mother is killed, then the man can be put to death. “So killing a baby in the womb is considered a misdemeanour, not a crime,” Arthur argues.

For Phillips, a lifelong United Church member, these arguments don’t hold weight. It’s her experiences as an obstetrical nurse that galvanized her pro-choice stance. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” Phillips says. “Being a member of the [United Church], I understand biblical teachings; I believe in the church, in religion. I believe we should care for others, be ethical in our dealings, be inclusive. But I cannot say to you, ‘Because I believe in Jesus we should have this [reproductive] choice.’ I believe that because we care about other people, we should have this choice. But not because of Jesus.”

The tale of Canada’s beleaguered Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) offers a glimpse into Canada’s fevered attempt to place a legal and ethical framework on emerging reproductive technologies.

Passed in 2004, the act outlawed embryonic sex selection, fees for surrogacy, and using technology to make human hybrids, among other things. Since then, however, several sections of the law have been challenged in Canada’s Supreme Court as being outside federal jurisdiction. Currently, many of the act’s 78 sections are deemed unconstitutional or are not yet in force. As a result, the federal government’s 2012 budget calls for the phasing out by March 2013 of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC), the office that handled regulation and education regarding the AHRA. The office’s remaining responsibilities will be rolled into Health Canada.

As those policymakers are receiving their pink slips, though, it’s clear from the Observer survey that readers and other Canadians are deeply engaged with defining their own ideas about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to reproductive technologies.

Churchill believes the key to making good ethical decisions is to not make any decisions in haste. The church, he says, is often too quick to jump in and pronounce on the hot issues of the day. So are individuals. “We need to recognize the value of long-term listening on these questions,” Churchill says. “The church is an incredibly conservative institution. Not in terms of pushing back against anything new, but about conserving knowledge across generations, so we can bring something of value and perspective over time. We have to learn to live in this undecided time. Not hide from it or fix it. Live in it.”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s July/August 2012 issue with the title Little lives, big questions.”


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