Commentary | Basing the abortion debate on biology

Hyde Park

I have been watching the misleadingly named “pro-life” club debate with amusement and increasing revulsion over the last few weeks. In a letter to The Daily (Let’s include the unborn, Nov. 6), Choose Life member Amy Bergeron writes, “the present lack of protection of unborn human persons in Canadian law is no less worth questioning and challenging than was the legal status quo before women were recognized as persons in Canadian law.” I hope that statement caused every feminist on campus to breathe a collective gasp of moral outrage. What, if anything, is Bergeron basing that statement on?

If her argument is based on biology, then Bergeron does not appear familiar with the subject – including what constitutes conscious life. It is not my responsibility to ensure that those who oppose abortion are sufficiently proactive in obtaining a rudimentary understanding of developmental biology. However, it might strengthen their arguments – despite what Bergeron states, they are currently certainly worth questioning.

According to Bergeron and the regressive definitions she espouses, conscious and rational McGill women should be legally considered tantamount to a mass of cells with “potential.” From a materialist, neurobiological perspective however, this mass of cells has no functioning neural system, no consciousness, and thus is not a person, rendering her comparison to suffrage nonsensical. Even in the second trimester, a baby’s neural system is not complex enough for it to be considered conscious, except perhaps in the same way that a lobster is aware of its own existence to the extent that it knows not to pinch itself. Why does Bergeron consider this a person? Biology doesn’t.

If her argument is based on faith, and if she is a dualist, Bergeron likely believes that this little blastula is a human because it has some sort of soul; perhaps comprised of something in the ether, or bestowed by a god whose existence is supported only by faith. She is of course entitled to hold and express this opinion under Canadian law – that’s part of what makes this country so great. However, back here in the realms of the tangible, as these faith-based beliefs begin to slide from opinion into a mandate, they gain potential to impinge upon the rights of others.

And that is precisely the problem with the pro-life club. Obviously, Choose Life’s mandate includes ultimately extending legal rights to my aforementioned blastula, or to a bunch of cells to which the members intuitively ascribe a soul at the expense of adult, conscious people and their mature choices about what to do with their own bodies.

However passive, we can expect lobbying on their positions because such a group would not exist simply for those who hold identical beliefs to sit around and preach to the converted. Self-righteous moralizing unpredicated on fact becomes perturbing when those who hold these irrational beliefs move from the farcical fringe and onto the ramparts of legitimized power. Hence why Palin appeared to be a hilarious troglodyte, but the idea of a VP Palin wielding actual political power in conjunction with her antiquated, faith-based beliefs, was sufficiently terrifying as to help motivate record voter turnout.

A student group, however small and ill-supported, has both a voice and a capacity to influence its increasingly aggressive mandate on others. Freedom of speech and expression should not supersede human rights; you can say and believe what you like, but that doesn’t mean you can foist these opinions and their related implications on those who do not share them. However in the debate specific to legal status, anti-abortionists would do well to select an example more suitable to their cause than women’s suffrage if they expect to convince anyone with even modicum of scepticism.

David Sean Paterson is a U3 Honours Cognitive Science and Neuroscience student. He can be reached at david.paterson@mail.mcgill.ca.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.