Botched abortions and homicide

January 31, 2013

This is not a politics blog, but after what I wrote yesterday about this week’s sad anniversaries, I want to follow up by commenting on a story that has broken just today: three Canadian Members of Parliament have asked our national police commissioner to investigate documented cases of infants who were apparently born alive during an abortion procedure and subsequently died. The MPs contend that these cases may meet the legal standard for homicide.

The media coverage of this story is, once again, incompetent. Several major news outlets (the CBC and National Post, for starters) are running the same story from the Canadian Press, which states, falsely, that

…the MPs say abortions performed at 20 weeks gestation or later breach Section 223a of the Criminal Code.

But Section 223 concerns the definition of homicide as it pertains to newborns, which should have tipped the journalist off. What the letter actually states is this:

From 2000 to 2009 in Canada, there were 491 abortions, of 20 weeks gestation and greater, that resulted in live births. This means that the aborted child died after it was born… According to the Criminal Code, a child is considered to be a human being and a person after proceeding fully from the mother’s womb, therefore, based on Section 223(2) of the Criminal Code, there should be 491 homicide investigations or prosecutions in connection with these deaths.

As I say, this is, at best, incompetent journalism. The MPs are not asking that all abortions performed after 20 weeks gestation be investigated as possible homicides, as the article states, but only those cases in which the child is first born alive and then allowed to die. I don’t think there is a clear moral difference between the two cases, but there is a difference under the Canadian Criminal Code, according to which birth magically confers “human being”-ness upon the child, thereby making the child a potential victim of homicide. Was any medical care offered to these young human beings? Of course it might be that some were not yet at the point of viability and so nothing could have been done to save their young lives (apart from preventing the abortion attempt in the first place), but some of them may have been viable. (With current technology in North America viability is about 50% at 24 weeks gestation.) Certainly it is hard to argue that such cases, grisly as they are, should not at least be investigated to discover the facts. It might be that the cases do not, according to the various fictions governing this section of our Criminal Code, constitute legal homicide, but wouldn’t you like to know for sure?

The Toronto Star, in a piece by Tonda MacCharles, gets the story right.

Update: the CBC have now improved their story to reflect the fact that the letter is about infants born alive. That is a big improvement. However the television segment, accessible through the same page, presents the story as being about all abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Given that the reporter is on camera waving the letter and still doesn’t bother to state the facts clearly begins to look less like incompetence and more like fudging. I don’t actually expect much better from the CBC, but I would have been happy to be wrong.

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