What Is Life?: The Unanswered Question In The Supreme Court of Canada’s Levkovic Case

This blog posting is not about Erwin Schrodinger, the famous quantum physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize. Nor is it about his most famous thought-experiment, Schrodinger’s Cat, which illustrates how the quantum world works or doesn’t work, depending on whether the cat is dead or alive. Ah, “alive.” This posting is about what it means to be “alive” or, as our Criminal Code requires, “in a living state” and it just so happens Schrodinger did have something to say about life in his book entitled What Is Life?

First, let’s step back and set up the conundrum, as I see it, caused by the wording of the Criminal Code and the lack of clarification from the Supreme Court of Canada in the Levkovic case on the issue of life. Homicide under s. 222 of the Code is where a person, directly or indirectly, by any means, causes the death of a “human being.” However, it is only culpable homicide, as in murder, manslaughter or infanticide, which can form the basis of a homicide charge. Section 223 specifies when a child becomes a “human being” and therefore when a child can be the “victim” of a culpable homicide. Under that definition, a

child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not (a) it has breathed; (b) it has an independent circulation; or (c) the navel string is severed.

Thus a child can be a victim of a culpable homicide at the very instance of the completion of the birthing process, when the child has fully exited the mother’s womb but with the caveat that the child must be “in a living state.” This phrase denotes life and suggests the child must be alive to be thus defined as a “human being.” However, the section continues and seems to broaden the definition by making the “living state” independent of breath, circulation, and the umbilicus connection to the mother. This too makes sense in the context of the first moments of birth, when a baby duly born transitions from embryonic fluid to air. It may take a newly born baby up to ten seconds to breathe and for the blood to circulate. In those crucial moments, according to the law, the child is a human being.

But how does this interpretation impact s. 243, an offence requiring the child to be dead? The section creates an offence where the child’s death is concealed even if the child died before or during birth. Clearly if the child dies before or during birth, the child would not be a “human being” in accordance with the definition of s.223, which finds a child is a human being where the child is completely out of the womb and in a living state. Even so, in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Levkovic, Justice Fish, speaking on behalf of the Court, refers to this section to inform the meaning of s. 243 of the Criminal Code, the section creating an offence for concealing the dead body of a child. In order to determine if a newborn child was unlawfully killed, Justice Fish opined, homicide investigators would need to determine if the child would have likely to have been born alive as opposed to a stillbirth. Indeed, Justice Fish suggested

In order to facilitate the investigation of homicides, s. 243 must therefore apply to children that were either born alive or were likely to be born alive and thus capable of satisfying the Criminal Code definition of a human being in s. 223(1). (Emphasis added)

By applying the concepts of s.243 to the definitional section 223, the Supreme Court of Canada has turned life or being “in a living state” into the likelihood of life. To base a required element of an offence on “likelihood,” and to “read down” an interpretation section, which does not require such a reading to be applicable, seems to import the “vagueness,” which the SCC abhors. Instead of taking an opportunity to clarify the meaning of life in the context of death, the SCC choose to apply the catch-all likelihood test as found in the Mabior case and the Whatcott decision (see my previous blog for further discussion). What the Court fails to understand is that being alive is much different than being likely alive.

How does this connect to Schrodinger? Erwin Schrodinger’s 1944 What Is Life? book, based on a series of lectures, is part scientific, part philosophical treatise in which he applies quantum principles to biology in a search for an explanation of life. Many believe his book to be a precursor to the discovery of DNA. Life, in the Schrodinger world, is quantifiable and real as exemplified by genetic “code-script.” Although Schrodinger the quantum physicist would approve, Schrodinger the bio-theorist certainly would not.