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M-312 Doublespeak Decoder: The 'toe in the birth canal' argument

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The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform has been sending its New Abortion Caravan from the B.C. coast to Ottawa -- arriving in Toronto on Wednesday, where protesters attempted to deface the graphic posters on the truck using a coathanger. While the second hour of debate for Stephen Woodworth's attempt to push Parliament to investigate ways to criminalize abortion (M-312) has been pushed back to the fall, and looks destined to fail, that hasn't stopped the far right from mobilizing efforts across the country to change the social conversation on the topic.

Others have definitively dissected Woodworth's intentions and arguments, and I won't dwell on that. Instead, it's worth looking at the curious illustration that Woodworth hinges his argument on and fetishistically clings to: the "toe in the birth canal" argument.

As before, I write as someone who has never had to participate in this kind of life-changing decision, and not likely to in the future. Relatively speaking, that qualifies as a position of privilege, and needs to be deferential to those who have had those experiences. My intention in writing is to add my voice of support for reproductive freedom and justice plus encourage others to do the same, in hopes of helping to dismantling the fear and shame typically heaped upon those with experience when they speak up.

Woodworth's trite argument is that a foetus doesn't just magically become a person after it has completely emerged. It's seductively simple, in a way.

And Stephen Woodworth's "toe in the birth canal" argument is thing of beauty, if you're interested solely in the fine art of framing an argument. It's well-done spin. It focuses on a moment of birth that is seemingly inconsequential. To hear Woodworth tell it, an infant isn't legally a baby until the very last toe has left the birth canal. Seems silly, doesn't it? Makes the existing law seem totally baffling and nonsensical. Sure, abortions don't typically take place that late in a pregnancy, unless there's something particularly unusual happening that is threatening the life of the mother, so the point is technically moot, but there is actually a very specific reason that he has selected this particular moment to illustrate his argument.

It deflects attention from the fact that a foetus is wholly dependent upon a mother until birth, and that any rights and personhood conferred upon it take away the human rights of a living person with whom the foetus' fate is intertwined. It erases another birth moment, which although is also not the legally pivotal moment of personhood, still emphatically illustrates this fundamental reality inherent in the existing legal status quo:

The cutting of the umbilical cord.

Moments after the last toe has left the birth canal, the umbilical cord is cut and the baby becomes an independently-living being. Until then, of course, his or her life and future potential is dependent on the mother... and her human rights must be factored into the equation. It is the first moment that a child's fate can be symbolically seen as separated from the mother's, and no longer transformatively impacts upon her already established legal rights.

These are all the things that are deflected from, by concentrating focus on that seemingly innocent, inconsequential "toe in the birth canal" moment. If you've ever worked in advertising, if you've ever been privy to behind-the-scenes political strategizing, and if you've been observing the far right spin machines, you'll know that these things are never accidental.

The impact of personhood legislation (which, reading between the lines is what Woodworth is pushing Parliament to consider) upon the human rights of the mother cannot be overstated. South of the border, states that have enacted personhood laws have already used them to prioritize foetal care over the health of the mother, and to prosecute miscarriages and attempted suicides.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada recently issued a position statement on M-312 which speaks about the intertwined nature of pregnancy, and how it relates to how physicians perform their work. In it, they state:

Any change to the current definition of when life begins would fundamentally change current Canadian law and would have a substantial impact on the practice of medicine in Canada.

Current law makes it clear that a woman and her foetus in utero are treated legally as one person, not two -- as one patient for a doctor, nurse, or midwife. To do otherwise would create very difficult medical and personal situations.

This motion would challenge and change the fundamental principle of women’s autonomy. It could suggest that a pregnant woman serves as a mere carrier for another person with full legal rights. As a result, her treatment would require care-givers and institutions to seek protection for the foetus’ rights through the intervention of a third party separate from, and other than, the pregnant woman herself. Any decision about her treatment would have to take into account the new legal rights of the foetus in her womb. Her own interests, needs, or choices would be considered in treatment decisions, but these would be subject to the rights of the foetus she is carrying. The foetus’ unexpressed wishes would be interpreted by proxy by courts and legislators.

...Every woman’s situation is unique. By placing these decisions in the hands of informed women and their health-care professionals, we get a system which is much more robust than a piece of “one-size-fits all” legislation ever could be.

But Woodworth doesn't want you to notice that. He wants you to stay focused on a moment that seems inconsequential and makes the law -- by extension -- seem nonsensical. And as CCBR's caravan rolls into Ottawa on Canada Day in an attempt to change the social conversation, keeping that attention diverted would suit them just fine.

(Crossposted to Dented Blue Mercedes)

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