The Myth of the 39th Week Abortion

4 years ago

f you are a Canadian living in Canada (or even a Canadian living abroad, or maybe even a non-Canadian), you’ve probably been hearing a lot about Motion 312. I know I have!

In case you’ve been living under a rock and/or you’re not up on Canadian politics, here’s a section of the motion that should give you a good idea of what it’s about:

That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth;

 (i)            what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,
   (ii)            is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,
 (iii)            what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,
 (iv)            what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?

You can read the full text of the motion here, on Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s website.

The Conservative government has been quick to point out that this is not a motion put forth to criminalize abortion, or even reopen the abortion debate. They want you to believe that they simply want to update the 400 year old definition of what a human being is.

The issue is that this motion could pave the way to giving personhood to fetuses, which would certainly cause legislation to be passed on when and how abortions can be performed.

Currently, abortion is not limited by law in Canada. This means that you can have an abortion at any point in your pregnancy, right up to the moment when you give birth. By ascribing personhood to a fetus, the Canadian government would begin moving towards criminalizing abortion. Because, of course, having status as a “person” would mean that the fetus would be protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And on the surface, that seems pretty reasonable. I mean, a typical pregnancy can go to 40+ weeks, but we all know that a baby born earlier than that can often survive with little or no medical intervention. My son was born at 36 weeks and, other than a little time on the C-PAP machine (which was more likely needed because of my c-section than because of his premature birth), he was totally fine. I even have a friend whose daughter was born at 25 weeks gestation and, while she obviously needed a lot of medical aid in the beginning, she is now two years old and thriving.

So how, in good conscience, could we allow women the legal right to abort a fetus that could survive outside of the womb?

I’m here to tell you that we can, and we should.

When I was pregnant with Theo, I had my first ultrasound at 11 weeks gestation. I’d had some bleeding in the early weeks of my pregnancy, and, going into the ultrasound, I was terrified that they would find something wrong with him.

The minute the probe hit my belly, though, itty bitty Theo appeared on the screen. He was perfect; all blobby torso-head and stubby little limbs. When I saw him, I laughed with joy, and when I laughed, he jumped, waving his arms and legs in protest. We watched, mesmerized, as he wriggled around, his heart a flickering beat in the middle of his chest.

To me, in that moment, he went from being two-lines-on-a-pregnancy-test-morning-sickness-and-achy-breasts to being an actual little person. Seeing him on the screen made me fall in love with him.

And this is the problem: if my feelings could make me believe that a baby the size of a fig is a person, then someone can likely argue that any fetus, at any gestational age, is a person. If I, a staunchly pro-choice feminist can, under the right circumstances, believe that a fetus of 11 weeks gestation is a person, then it’s not impossible for our government to come to the same conclusion.

Yes, I understand that in M-312 they promise to examine “medical evidence” in order to decide whether or not a fetus is a “person” before birth, but really, you could find “medical evidence” to back up just about any claim.

Would they say that a fetus is a person once it can survive on its own, outside of the womb, without any medical aid? Because there is honestly no foolproof way to test this.

Would they say that a fetus is a person once it reaches viability  at 24 weeks? Because the truth is that only 25% of babies born at 24 weeks gestation will survive, and those that do live are likely to have a lifetime’s worth of medical complications. As well, dating ultrasounds are not very accurate, especially once a woman enters her second trimester. Without knowing the exact date of conception, no ultrasound tech could say for certain whether a fetus is 23 weeks or 24 weeks.

Would a fetus become a person at 20 weeks, the age at which some studies have said that they can feel pain?

Would a fetus be declared to be a person at 19 weeks, which is the gestational age at which, if a Canadian woman miscarries, she becomes eligible for maternity leave?

Would a fetus become a person when their heart starts to beat, when they start to grow limbs, or even from the very moment of conception?

You could find medical evidence for all of these claims, but there’s no way of empirically proving when a fetus turns into child, except for the moment of birth, when they begin to live independently of their mother’s body. So, ultimately, the decision would, at least in part, have to be based on the emotions of the committee appointed to decide when personhood begins.

Pro-life advocates would like you to believe that abortion is too common in this country, that people use abortion as a form of birth control, or that it’s wrong to abort a fetus because it could grow up to be the person who cures cancer. Most of all, they want you to believe that women in Canada are actually aborting fetuses at 39 weeks gestation via intact dilation and extraction (more often, and incorrectly, called partial birth abortion).

First of all, let’s look at the prevalence. In 2005, the last year for which this data is available, the abortion rate was 14.1 abortions for every 1,000 women – so, 1.41% of Canadian women had an abortion that year. You guys, that is not a very big number.

Of that number, only a tiny percentage – in 2010, it was something like 0.2 percent of the TOTAL NUMBER OF ABORTIONS – were performed after 21 weeks gestation. I am having a hard time finding actual government statistics for this, but I got that number from a pro-life site, so I doubt that they are underreporting.

Regarding the use of abortion as the only form of birth control – I have honestly never known anyone who has done this. Abortion is still a painful medical procedure, and it’s not something anyone wants to go through. My other issue with this line of thinking is that it’s a way of saying that some abortions are okay, but some are wrong. Like, if it’s your first abortion and it’s because the condom broke and you took the morning after pill and for some reason that didn’t work, then it’s fine to have an abortion. But if you’re not careful with your birth control and you’ve have multiple pregnancies terminated, then it’s wrong to abort. As this brilliant article says, there should be no hierarchy of abortions. On demand, without apology.

The any-fetus-could-grow-up-to-cure-cancer argument is one of my favourites, only because it totally ignores the fact that, if the woman does terminate her pregnancy, maybeshe will be the one to go on to cure cancer. Maybe having a child would have made university impossible for her, or maybe the mental distress of carrying an unwanted pregnancy would have meant that she wasn’t up to the task of higher education, or maybe raising a kid would mean that she couldn’t spend hours and hours in a lab looking at test tubes or whatever the fuck it is researchers do. We so often hear about the fetus could-have-beens, but no one ever talks about what greatness the mother could have gone on to do.

And, finally, the 39th week abortion. The great myth of the 39th week abortion. This myth exists because technically, legally even, it could happen. Yes, it could happen – but it doesn’t.

I challenge you to find me an incidence of a healthcare professional who provided an abortion at 30+ weeks, because I doubt you can. Even second trimester abortions are hard to obtain in Canada, and women often end up being sent to clinics in the States if they are over 20 weeks gestation. The vast majority of these women are choosing to terminate that late in their pregnancy because they’ve only just learned that the fetus is severely or fatally impaired, or that there’s a significant health risk to the mother, or both.

I promise you that no one gets to 39 weeks of pregnancy and is suddenly like, gee, I’ve been meaning to get this thing aborted, I guess I should stop putting it off!

Finally, criminalizing abortion won’t stop it from happening; history has proved this time and time again. What it will mean is that women will be forced to seek out unsafe abortions with possibly life-threatening consequences. Sadly, this is an indisputable fact.

I’ve never had an abortion, and I hope I never will. I would frankly be beyond horrified if a woman terminated her pregnancy at 39 weeks. I’m still glad, though, that it’s possible from a legal standpoint. I’m glad that there are no laws that say what a woman can or can’t do to her pregnant body, which, by the way, is still her body. Because once you start creating that legislation, no matter how well-meaning it is, it’s a slippery fucking slope. A slope that ends in the Handmaid’s Tale. Kidding. Well, mostly kidding.

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