It's time to talk about abortion
Alone among developed countries, Canada has no abortion law. Is 'settling' for a non-decision any way for a democracy to behave?
ANDREW COYNE | July 9, 2008 |
Also at Macleans.ca:
The real scandal is the order itself
Let us work to abolish this dubious, vaguely offensive tradition
Life and the law
How other Western nations deal with abortion
This is not about abortion. This is about democracy.
It is about how we decide things, and by what rules, and how we treat each other when we disagree. Indeed, it is about whether we are allowed to disagree; whether dissent on a contentious issue is respected, or even recognized; and whether, in the face of clear evidence over many years that an issue is not settled — that it was never settled — a democracy should be allowed at last to debate and decide it. Like a democracy.
The furor over Henry Morgentaler's appointment to the Order of Canada, on the other hand, now that is about abortion. There may be some who object out of a disinterested concern for fairness, on the principle that an honour bestowed on behalf of all of the people of Canada should not be given to a man whose life's work is, still, so profoundly upsetting to so many Canadians. But for most people, it's about abortion. In honouring him, we are honouring it, normalizing it, stamping it with the seal of approval.
Or rather not abortion, as such, but the legal void that surrounds it, which Morgentaler did so much to bring about: the extraordinary fact that, 20 years after the Supreme Court ruling that bears his name, this country still has no abortion law of any kind. It isn't that abortion — at any stage of a pregnancy, for any reason, and at public expense — is lawful in Canada. It is merely not unlawful. When it comes to abortion, we are literally a lawless society: the only country in the developed world that does not regulate the practice in any way.
Perhaps the members of the Order's advisory council thought the continuance of this legal void, after so many years, signalled a consensus had formed in its favour. Perhaps they thought, by naming Morgentaler, they could impress one upon the country. Either way, the decision was revealing — as was the reaction. The letters pages of the country's newspapers were filled for days with passionate denunciations. Members of Parliament spoke out against it by the dozen. Several members of the Order returned their pins.
One had the distinct impression of a dam bursting. For the better part of two decades, Canadians who confess a desire for some sort of legal limits, however mild, on abortion, have been effectively silenced. They have been told that the issue is settled, that it was decided long ago, that a consensus had formed. Or else they were told it is too divisive a subject, sometimes by the same people who told them it was settled.
So effective was this campaign that anyone who persisted in arguing the point risked being marginalized as extremist, ultra-conservative, outside the mainstream. (For his part, Morgentaler dismissed critics of his Order of Canada as "the usual suspects: the Catholic Church, fundamentalists, women opposed to women's rights.") To be sure, some abortion opponents are extremist, in rhetoric and tactics as much as in substance. But many others were not. And while some were willing to endure this stigma for the sake of their principles, others, particularly in the political realm, were not.
A strange, disturbing quiet thus fell over the issue. Unrepresented by any political party, the Conservatives in particular having issued strict instructions to their members to avoid even mentioning the word, abortion opponents had no hope of seeing their views enacted into law. And with no prospect of it being taken up politically, there seemed little point in raising the subject — which is, after all, touchy enough to begin with. So for a time it, quite literally, disappeared.
Over the years, we have all learned to tiptoe around the issue, to refer to it by elaborate euphemisms — "a-woman's-right-to-choose," in the politicians' dutiful catechism. It isn't that abortion has been accepted, in the way that abortion rights advocates would wish, as just another medical procedure. It simply isn't spoken of. Even the citation on Morgentaler's Order of Canada talks, not of his long and prolific career as an abortionist, or even of his part in the removal of the last legal restrictions on the practice, but merely of his commitment to "increased health care options for women."