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Outgoing Letters and Public Statements

February 13, 2012 

Re: Parliamentary Review of the Criminal Code Definition of "Human Being"

Dear Members of Parliament and Senators,

Do you want to write a letter like this to your MP? There is a an EFC template you can use.

We encourage you to support Motion M-312 introduced by Stephen Woodworth, MP (Kitchener Centre) to establish a special committee of the House of Commons to study and report back on questions contained in the motion that pertain to Canada’s legislative definition of “human being” as found in subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code. The subsection sets out that “a child becomes a human being…when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not it has breathed, it has independent circulation; or the navel string is severed.”

We also encourage you to participate in the national discussion on the legal definition of “human being.” As a nation that prides itself on being a global human rights leader, it is not unreasonable to examine the current Criminal Code definition, which finds its roots in centuries old concepts of science and medicine.

The current definition has led to illogical consequences in both fact and in law. Using the language of subsection 223(1), if the “child” has nearly “completely proceeded from the body of its mother”, but its foot is still in the birth canal, Canada does not recognize the “child” as human. Is it subhuman? Near human? A child of another species? What is clear is that the child has no access to human rights or other legal protections as provided for in Canada’s commitments to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1959 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One example of the illogical consequences of this definition is an Ottawa area case where a mother was charged with attempted murder after she used a pellet gun to shoot her nearly full term son while he was still in the womb. The boy, born two days later, survived after surgery and time in intensive care. Charges were dropped because the child was not considered by law to be a human being when he was shot.  According to subsection 223(2), the mother would not have been charged had her son died before he was born but had the child died from his injuries after he was born, she would have been charged with homicide. Is this result either logical or consistent with Canadians’ contemporary, 21st century understanding of life, law and human rights?

This discussion presents itself at a unique time in history. Medicine recognizes a point of viability for a child in the womb. Science is prepared to experiment using pre-natal human tissue from conception onward. Professionals in the fields of ethics, science, and medicine are having the discussion about what is human in the face of modern experience, research and thought. It is time that Parliamentarians do the same and cease simply relying on the legal “born alive” definition that finds its roots in the 17th century’s Coke’s Institutes of Law.  It is time to determine for ourselves, as Canadians, what definition reflects our beliefs about who, what and when is human.


Faye Sonier
Legal Counsel

Don Hutchinson
Vice-President, General Legal Counsel
Director, Centre for Faith and Public Life

Outgoing Letters


EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger writes regular commentaries about public policy issues. The EFC magazine Faith Today often publishes articles and essays that examine such issues.

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