In a press release in early June, Kennedy Stewart, member of parliament for Burnaby-Douglas and NDP critic for science and technology, made the following statement: “A government that truly respects accountability should not be afraid of dissenting views and should not try to silence evidence brought forward by Canadian scientists.” The press release further reminded Canadians that “without a comprehensive understanding of scientific evidence, major environmental, social and economic decisions will be made based on ideology instead of fact.”
Stephen Woodworth, conservative MP for Kitchener Centre, has heard the challenge, and put forward a motion to seek scientific evidence to inform Parliament. One would assume that the more progressive parliamentarians across the political spectrum would support the motion. Certainly, scientists and other academics across Canada would applaud this effort. Instead, Mr. Woodworth’s motion is being vilified and attacked by otherwise scientifically open-minded Canadians. Why? Because Motion 312 put forward by Mr. Woodworth is seeking scientific evidence to examine a Criminal Code provision that states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth. His motion will be presented for a vote on Sept. 26.
Science allows us to define what constitutes an individual human being from its earliest moment of existence. Scientific research has established that a fertilized human egg is a human being. The single-celled human embryo has the unique property of being “totipotent.” As the name implies, this single cell exhibits total potential and has the capacity to differentiate into all the specialized cells that make up a living being including the extraembryonic tissues necessary to support development. The totipotent cell therefore develops as an organism and is a self-contained entity with all the signals that drive development of the organism arising entirely from within the cell. As development unfolds, the embryo undergoes multiple rounds of cell division progressing from a single-cell to a two- four- and eight-cell stage of embryonic development. Throughout these early stages of development, the individual cells of the developing embryo exhibit totipotency. The fascinating consequence of this is that if one were to pluck apart a four-cell embryo and place the four totipotent cells in a nourishing environment in a petri dish, each of those four cells would develop as four individual organisms.
As the embryo proceeds past the eight-cell stage of development, the individual embryonic cells lose totipotency and become “pluripotent.” As the name implies, pluripotent cells have the capacity to become many different types of specialized cells, but a degree of irreversible differentiation has occurred. The cells have differentiated into one of two lineages – those that will continue development as the organism and those that will continue development as the extraembryonic tissues such as the placenta. Pluripotent cells, therefore, cannot develop into a fetal or adult organism because they lack the ability to organize into an embryo. If one were to attempt the same experiment and pluck apart a 16-cell embryo into individual pluripotent cells, each cell would grow as a pluripotent cell, but not as an organism. Totipotency is therefore the characteristic marking the existence of an individual organism. Scientifically speaking, an individual human being exists whenever a totipotent human cell is created.
A discussion of the scientific definition of human being seems non-threatening, yet many Canadians feel threatened by the prospect that such evidence may be aired in Parliament. Are the realities posed by the scientific evidence so terrifying to Canadians that parliamentarians should not even consider it? Sometimes science presents truths that are inconvenient, but should inconvenience be a reason to avoid discussion?
Perhaps Canadians and our parliamentarians would be more open-minded to hearing scientific evidence if they understood what Motion 312 would and would not accomplish. Motion 312 would not criminalize or restrict abortion in Canada, nor would it grant human rights or personhood status to unborn children. If Motion 312 passes, a group of 12 members of parliament, both pro-life and pro-choice, representing the different parties would meet and engage in a reasoned discussion of a provision in the Criminal Code. They would hear expert evidence and propose answers to the questions posed by Motion 312. Ultimately, the Committee’s findings would be non-binding. However, the members of the Committee would have engaged in a thoughtful discussion on what is human life and when it begins.
Is this so terrifying?
Suzana Kovacic holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is studying towards a master’s degree in bioethics.