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 |
What is taboo in federal politics is the subject of something of an Inquisition elsewhere. Pro-life student groups have been banned on a number of campuses across Canada, including York, Carleton, and University of British Columbia-Okanagan. At Lakehead University, the student union voted to withhold "any and all funds, space, resources and services within its control from any group [that] holds any aim, principle, belief goal etc. that is anti-choice in nature, explicit or implicit."
Meanwhile, a recent billboard by LifeCanada, a pro-life group, was rejected for use by Advertising Standards Canada. The ad contained none of the gory images or over-the-top slogans that have made some pro-life groups notorious. It simply depicted a (fully-clothed) pregnant woman, with the slogan: "9 months. The length of time an abortion is allowed in Canada." Yet this is unquestionably true: abortion is legal in Canada from conception to birth.
Again, whatever your view on abortion: is this how we treat dissent, in a democracy?
Whatever the attempts to bury the issue, it has not gone away. Indeed, public opinion remains as stubbornly divided as ever. The Gallup organization polled Canadians from 1975 to 2001, asking the same question each year. In February of 1988, for example, shortly after the Morgentaler decision, Gallup found that 28 per cent of Canadians felt abortion should be legal "in all circumstances" — the status quo — versus 55 per cent who felt it should be legal "under certain circumstances." A further 13 per cent said it should be "illegal in all circumstances." Thirteen years later, in 2001, the same poll found the public divided much the same way, 32-52-14.
Polls will differ, of course, depending on the question and the methodology. But even if you take last month's Angus Reid Strategies poll, showing 49 per cent support for the proposition that "abortion should be legal under any circumstances," versus 47 per cent in the "legal in certain circumstances" and five per cent in the "illegal in all circumstances" camps, it still doesn't add up to a national consensus in favour of unrestricted abortion.
One wonders what the polls would look like, moreover, were more Canadians aware that the absence of an abortion law, far from the norm, makes Canada the outlier among the world's developed countries. Take our neighbours to the South. A casual observer of American politics might assume that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that touched off the modern-day abortion controversy, made all abortion laws unconstitutional — that the status quo in America, as in Canada, is abortion on demand, at any stage of a pregnancy. But in fact Roe applies only to the period prior to fetal viability, defined as the first 24 to 28 weeks. States may not limit abortion in the first trimester, and may impose only minor restraints in the second. But past that point restrictions are legal, provided they make exception for the life or health of the mother. At present, 36 states bar late-term abortions.
The same picture emerges as you look across Europe. Britain, for example, allows abortion for reasons of physical or mental health up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Thereafter it is prohibited, except to save the woman's life or to prevent grave and permanent injury to her health. Most other countries impose restrictions at a much earlier point. France does so at 12 weeks of pregnancy — on condition that the woman undergoes counselling on alternatives, and with a one-week waiting period. After 12 weeks, two doctors must certify that her health would otherwise be endangered.
Germany, likewise, permits unrestricted abortion only in the first trimester, subject to counselling and a waiting period. And on it goes. Norway permits abortion on demand until the 12th week; Italy, the13th; Sweden, the 18th; the Netherlands, until viability. Typically, these countries define a further period of some weeks in which abortion is allowed in certain circumstances. But none allows abortion in the third trimester, except in extreme cases.
Australia. India. South Africa. Japan. Canada is alone. Can all these other countries be "extreme"? Are they all anti-women, anti-choice — all of them? Was our own Supreme Court? Was Parliament? Are two-thirds of the Canadian public?
Of course, in one sense, even if we did follow other countries' lead, it wouldn't change much. Suppose we set a time limit of 20 weeks. As it is, almost 90 per cent of abortions in Canada take place in the first 12 weeks — 99 per cent in the first 20. The Canadian Medical Association already recommends against performing abortions after viability, but for "exceptional circumstances."