Morgentaler: Changing the debate


Wellll, I have to say that I’m getting  less and less out of the discussion a few posts down. Interesting as it may be to some, my intention was not to spark a debate over abortion, since that is pointless. I was more interested in the question of how — or if — a country should honour polarising figures in the face of deep diversity. Only commentor SeanP recognized that was my intention, which is probably my fault. (But props to Sharon, whose comment further entrenched the universal validity of Godwin’s Law).

Anyway, foolish as this is, I’m going to  try again. Here’s the question:

Given a) the fact of deep disagreement over conceptions of the good, and b) that reasonable people can reasonable disagree over the moral valence of something abortion, is it legitimate for a liberal society to give public honours to polarizing figures such as Dr. Morgentaler. Another way of putting it: Could we reasonably expects someone to accept something like the following: “Even though you disagree with what this person stands for, you must respect what they did enough to honour them”?

Interesting answers might reference the following: Louis Riel, Malcolm X, John Rawls, Creationism vs. Darwinism.

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Morgentaler: Changing the debate

  1. “liberal society to give public honours to polarizing figures such as Dr. Morgentaler.”

    Well, they did make Pierre Trudeau a Companion of the Order of Canada.

    Has there been any Canadian figure post-World War II more polarizing than Pierre Trudeau?

  2. Or to put it a third way: “Can a small but vocal minority prevent an otherwise deserving candidate from being honoured?” On the current issue, only a very very small number of people want to curtail the vast majority of abortions. A significant number say they would support certain limits would would restrict access in a manner that would affect very very few people. Interstingly enough Dr. Morgantaler appears to be one of them.

    The idea that proponents of controversial ideas shouldn’t be appointed to the order might have more validity if it could be awarded posthumously. Several issues now considered obvious, like the idea that women should be able to vote, were resisted by large numbers in their time. (Gay marriage is likely to be another, our grandchildren will be astonished and ashamed it wasn’t implemented earlier). If the award could be given after death, it could be waited out until the idea was no longer controversial.

  3. Let me first state that, during your first post, you enthusiastically praised Morgentaler precisely because of his championing of abortion. So, how could abortion not have been part of the discussion?

    Secondly, why should people respect someone who they consider to be morally repugnant?

    In other words, people have good reason to not respect Morgentaler, which is why they don’t feel he deserves to be officially honoured by this country.

    I’ll throw another name out there for you: Augusto Pinochet. His supporters would claim that he did wonderful things for Chile. His detractors would claim that he was a dictator who committed systemic human rights violations.

    According to your argument, he should still get something like the Order of Canada because, hey, even his opponents had to respect what he did. Right?

  4. This is a silly question. The purpose of the Order of Canada is to take people and single them out as examples of goodness. If it were a morally relativist exercise, you could just pick people randomly. No one argues that the order of canada should be handed out like Time’s person of the year.

  5. Seems a perfectly fine question to me, the furthest thing from silly. But I do wonder why it wasn’t the source of equally fevered discussion a year ago when the Order of Canada welcomed Rev. Brent Hawkes as a member. Surely his cause is as troublesome for the National Post editorial board as that of Dr. Morgentaler.

  6. I disagree, Jason. If the Order of Canada was base don morality, then the awards could potentially be arbitrary, simply because we all have different ideas on morality (see previous discussion for proof) I think that the bases for an Order of Canada should be : Has this person permanently changed Canada, both for the people themselves and in the eyes of the world? In the case of Dr. Morgantaler, the answer is a resounding yes. No matter hwo you view his actions, they permanently changed Canada for her citizens and in the opinions of people across the world. after all, he troly ‘desired a better country’, and, remarkably, (in the eyes o fmany) achieved it. That’s something worht celebrating.

  7. I disagree, Jason. If the Order of Canada was base don morality, then the awards could potentially be arbitrary, simply because we all have different ideas on morality (see previous discussion for proof) I think that the bases for an Order of Canada should be : Has this person permanently changed Canada, both for the people themselves and in the eyes of the world? In the case of Dr. Morgantaler, the answer is a resounding yes. No matter how you view his actions, they permanently changed Canada for her citizens and in the opinions of people across the world. after all, he truly ‘desired a better country’, and, remarkably, (in the eyes o fmany) achieved it. That’s something worht celebrating.

  8. Wow, is desiring a better Canada all that’s required? I desire one myself. I haven’t actually made the country any better, mind you, but (in the eyes of many) my inertia still puts me ahead of Dr. M. The Order can reach me at the above email address.

    Oh, and Buzz “please vote for the Bloc!” Hargrove might also be a bit problematic.

  9. More then anything else i think the appointment of Buzz Hargrove demonstrates that this years nominees were little more then a political statement. I very much doubt that if Canada had its own Milton Friedman that he would have even an outside shot at the order of Canada in this day and age. The fact of the matter is that no one who fights for any coservative cause of any kind can get into the order. Want a deserving recipient….how about the lawer for Macleans who defended them from the various Human Rights Comissions after publish the Mark Steyn excerpt.

  10. Aren’t you just trying to see how long it will take for Godwin’s law to take effect in this thread, Mr. Potter?

    After all, there is no shortage of men that can be admired for their political achievements, military victories, or intellectual contributions who are reprehensible human beings that caused a great deal of suffering.

    As for honouring polarizing figures, it is quite obvious that if you choose to honour them it is indicative of the political leanings of the elite.

  11. Mike Young: “I very much doubt that if Canada had its own Milton Friedman that he would have even an outside shot at the order of Canada in this day and age.”

    I wouldn’t say he’s as conservative as Friedman (and they had a few debates over the years) but Robert Mundell was named a Companion to the Order of Canada in 2002 and he’s a conservative, tax cutting, supply side economist. And a Companion is a higher grade level in the Order of Canada than the Member status that Morgentaler received.

    On a the topic at hand, I think a good question is whether or not someone who is a sovereingist should be eligible for the Order of Canada? Like Jacques Parizeau’s late wife Alice and Genevieve Bujold – the latter refusing if I remember correctly? Are they not polarizing given their political leanings towards Quebec’s place in Canada?

  12. Morgentaler brought the conversation about abortion from the back alleys into safe, clean clinics (and I mean safe when they aren’t being blown up or snipered, which hasn’t happened in a while, thankfully)

    He received many threats and even went to jail, and ultimately challenged the backwards looking systems that were in place that encouraged dangerous underground abortions, and won his case in the Supreme Court of Canada.

    This is the type of person the Order is designed to recognize. Those who make us think and ask questions about these kind of debates, especially the emotionally charged issues. Those who challenge our values and mores and make us ask why things are done the way they are done and I think the fact that now only 5 per cent of Canadians believe that abortion should be out rightly banned is a testament to his convictions. Thirty years ago, I bet that number would have been significantly different.

    Congratulations to all the recipients.

  13. I don’t think the Order of Canada should be awarded to such a polarising figure. There seems to be an agenda at play here, more than just giving someone an award.

    I think the OC should be awarded more to those unsung heroes that populate Canada and get very little recognition. For me, there are lots of people across Canada who do positive things for their communities just because it’s the right thing to do and they don’t involve infanticide.

    I am looking at a list of recipients and I notice that awards I agree with most are to religious people who are doing selfless work for their communities. I am not religious myself but they seem to represent what I think should be recognized: humble, aren’t looking for recognition and are doing things to help improve the lot of the marginalized of our society.

  14. jwl, when you say “humble, aren’t looking for recognition and are doing things to help improve the lot of the marginalized of our society,” to me that sounds a lot like what Morgentaler is about.

    I agree that there are more deserving people than Morgentaler, but that doesn’t take away from what he has added to our national discussion.

    With or without him, the abortion law would have been struck down. He became the focal point for a movement that started before he was involved and will continue after he is gone.

  15. “if Canada had its own Milton Friedman that he would have even an outside shot at the order of Canada”

    Hey, I’d be all for giving one to David Laidler.

    But as an earlier poster pointed out, Mundell is a decent comp, and he made Companion.

  16. I think that polarizing figures are acceptable, but that extending the order to someone whose actions, viewed in a not-unreasonable light, are morally repugnant, is going too far. While we may disagree with opponents of abortion, their core position – that fetuses are human before they are born – is not in itself absurd. Anyone who accepts that position must find Dr. Morgentaler’s honour deeply offensive.

    This can be contrasted with other polarizing figures, such as Buzz Hargrove, Jean Chretien, or Preston Manning. Now, I may profoundly disagree with these people, or even regard them as thugs or ruffians, but at the end of the day, their actions do not have the moral import of Dr. Morgentaler’s, and so honouring them is acceptable.

    So my conclusion is that Dr. Morgentaler is far more polarizing than the other figures you mentioned. I can’t think of anyone else who has had such a significant effect on Canada, whose effect was deeply immoral by the non-unreasonable views of a substantial minority of the population.

  17. Who cares what the “non-unreasonable views of a substantial minority of the population” are? The law of the land, THIS LAND is that a fetus is not a human being. By THIS COUNTRY’s standards and that of the entire Western World on this matter, Morgatenlar’s crusade is not only a moral one but a courageous one that deserves to be honoured.

  18. I’m not sure if this is entirely relevant, but the inclusion of polarizing figures certainly makes the Order of Canada more interesting and relevant. While some of the names previously mentioned (e.g. Trudeau, Hargrove) conjure up visceral responses on the part of some, it seems that the vast majority of honorees are fairly anodyne. And there’s over 5400 of them! I don’t mean to criticize the nominees – I’m sure most are top-notch humans, but I’m certain that I wouldn’t be able to identify 95% of them.

    Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Maclean’s lately, but I think there is tangible value in provoking the sensibilities of Canadians and forcing us to think (hopefully critically) about important issues. Honoring every Canadian recording artist who sells more than 500 copies of their CD doesn’t really accomplish that.

  19. I’ll repeat my previous point: If we had a tradition in this country of honouring all sides of a debate as worthy adversaries; if we believed that robust differences of opinion are the lifeblood of democracy; if we even recognized that there were legitimate differences of opinion on important national questions, then honouring Morgentaler might fit that mold.
    But as in fact the tendency of our cultural, political and media elites, at least over the last forty years, has been to insist that there is but one Canadian way, one set of Canadian values; that dissenters are alien and disloyal, or at best extreme and Albertan; or indeed that dissent does not exist — as exemplified by the famous Kierans-Camp-and-Lewis panel on CBC radio; and as the abortion issue is perhaps the supreme example of the Candian habit of reading one side out of the debate, then I think we have to see the Morgentaler decision as an example of that tradition.

  20. Hey Andrew, just come out and say it. You think that there is a bias against right wing ideology in Canada.

    Regarding the abortion debate, if what you say about Canadian tendencies is true, the same should be said about the entire Western World, yes?

  21. “Who cares what the “non-unreasonable views of a substantial minority of the population” are?”

    Wow, what a dangerous statement. OK, for starters, anyone who has fought for:

    Women’s right to vote
    Rights of African-Americans / African-Canadians
    Abolition of slavery
    Gay rights
    Gay marriage

    All of these things were the “non-unreasonable views of a substantial minority of the population”, and challenged the existing “Law of the Land”.

    I don’t want to get into an abortion debate with you boudica since we are nominally on the same side (if not to the same degree); but your lack of respect for the other side of the argument reminds one of those who were on the wrong side of the issues above, and beautifully reinforces Andrew’s point

  22. Boudica I can’t speak for Andrew but there is an obvious bias against right wing in Canada. I am conservative and there are only a handful of Canadian journalists who I would call right wing and Andrew is one of them.

    This is not true for the entire Western world. The U.S. and UK have a quite lively press in which all sides are presented but Europe and Canada don’t.

    You don’t notice it because you agree with the prevailing ideology. I notice it because I have to read US/UK sources to get news and views that I am interested in.

    As one example, I read/see all the time how everything the Conservatives do is ‘partisan’ but whatever the Liberals do represents ‘Canadian values’ even though there is probably no more than 5% difference in total votes cast between the two parties in each election.

  23. john g, the problem with your run-in-circle reasoning is that a woman’s right to choose is a direct result of those who fought the side that you suggest I should respect.

    Furthermore, I totally disagree with the notion that I HAVE to respect a differing point of view. I can deal with the fact that some take offense to my ability to decide whether I want to be a mother or not but I certainly don’t have to respect that opinion. Am I supposed to respect the opinion of those who suggest that one race is superior to others? Should I respect the opinion of those who believe that capital punishment has a place in a civilized society?

    Absolutely not. What I am not allowed to do is silence that opinion but to give it respect? Not on your life.

  24. jwl, if this is the part where we start bemoaning the perceived media persecution of the right, give me a second while I pull out the violins. As a person who tends to fall on the left side of the political spectrum, I can assure you that this so-called Liberal bias is a complete fantasy.

    Just because Doug Finley says so in his fundraising letters doesn’t make it fact or reality.

  25. The awarding of the Order of Canada to abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler has rocked the country so hard that many Canadians totally forgot it was the Canada Day weekend. The Order is supposed to be given to people who have led by example and accomplished great things for Canada and Canadians.

    Dr. Morgentaler certainly led by example and also accomplished what some perceive to be great things, but the operative element in all this is that a large number of people disagree. They are opposed to abortion for various and different reasons. Some may be deeply religious, while others simply feel that snuffing out a young life like that is just wrong.

    The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill”, and there is really no arguing over this. Whether you are religious or not, killing is wrong. Take another life and you’ll face dire consequences – in the here and now and/or the afterlife. Of course, there are circumstances that permit killing – think of self-defence – but those are only sanctioned here on Earth. The jury is still out as to what God makes of self-defence. Doesn’t the Bible say something about turning the other cheek? Surely, to those who take the Bible at face value and literally (if only they knew a bit about the process behind the Bible’s coming together as well as about Bible translation, they’d be more inclined to apply a more liberal interpretation, if any at all, to the Good Book), this must mean that killing someone else to protect one’s own life, or that of another person, is just as wrong as if they killed in cold blood.

    The problem with religion is that it’s all a matter of belief (or make-believe, as some will interject). We can convince ourselves of believing every single syllable jotted down in the Bible, but in the end, there is no proof – not of the scientifically acceptable kind that could be reproduced in a lab. Wars have been fought over different belief systems between opposing factions, with neither knowing the real truth. On the upside, many have also lost their lives in such wars and conflicts, thus putting them in the (enviable?) position of learning the actual truth that is denied to the rest of us who have to go on living.

    When does life begin? At conception? In the womb? At birth? At 14 when you have your first cigarette and make whoopee for the first time? Life begins whenever people think it does, which may greatly differ from one person to the next. Hence, the conflict.

    Thanks to the jokers handing out those medals, Canada will now surely go through a lengthy public debate on abortion and end up in the well-trod footprints stamped all over that controversial issue after decades and decades of often crazed and lunatic debates in the U.S. Already one can sense a foreboding that Morgentaler’s recognition may lead to abortion being slapped across the plate from which voters will be fed the important issues and policies of the day in the next federal election.

    But at the very core, there is something seriously wrong with this particular award, and it has actually very little to do with the underlying issue of abortion. The real problem is that Morgentaler is considered deeply offensive by a vast number of (religious) Canadians, yet they are now forced to witness his being honoured for the very actions that they so despise. To them, he is no less offensive than, say, Mark Steyn is to Muslims in Canada. Now, there are fewer Muslims in this country than there are those who oppose abortion for religious and/or moral reasons. Still, what would happen, therefore, if Mark Steyn had been given the Order of Canada? What if he had been thus awarded and recognized for the very thing that made him such a bogeyman to Muslims, that is, his book America Alone?

    The Canadian Islamic Congress, for example, would have organized protests in Ottawa and across Canada, with the controversy likely growing into a major problem, very much like the Danish cartoons. Some Canadians in the Middle East would probably be killed in retaliation for Steyn’s Order of Canada.

    Regardless of where one stands on the issue of abortion, the Order of Canada being awarded to Henry Morgentaler proves one thing beyond any reasonable doubt: Christian sensibilities are not only swept under the rug in Canada but trampled on by the heaviest boots imaginable. It is not alright to offend gays or Muslims, but Christians and their beliefs have become fair game.

  26. Werner, as a christian, I would ask you to refrain from speaking on my behalf because your views most certainly do not reflect mine or that of my family and friends, all of whom are christians.

    I wish people such as yourself who refrain from using God as a means to justify your political agenda.

  27. I think MarkCh at 10:17am above makes a pretty compelling point. Andrew asks whether “polarizing figures such as Dr. Morgentaler” should get the OOC, but for people who think fetuses are human—a “non-unreasonable” position, as MarkCh says, just a terribly impractical one—the negative ramifications of Morgentaler’s achievements would be exponentially more severe than any of the other divisive honourees I’ve seen him compared to. I don’t know how to even start comparing Morgentaler to Trudeau, for example, because I don’t know how to compare 100,000-or-so abortions per year in Canada to, say, the lingering effects of invoking the War Measures Act. It’s not because I have strong views on abortion. It’s because, to borrow a line from the Simpsons, it’s like comparing Johnny Mathis to Diet Pepsi.

    If Morgentaler weren’t in the mix, though, I’d like to think the answer to Mr. Potter’s original question would be a resounding “yes.”

  28. boudica,

    Are you trying to deny me my freedom of speech? Just wondering …

    I may not speak for all Christians, but I certainly do for those who are a bit more realistic and educated about the Bible and its translation and evolution, but neither do you.

  29. Werner, you might want to read what I actually wrote instead of inventing things. You are free to say what you want, just don’t pretend to be speaking on behalf of all Christians because you don’t.

  30. let us posit that it is reasonable to believe that all life begins at conception and that abortion must therefore be almost always illegal, and also reasonable to believe that it does not and therefore most abortions are permissible. All the Morgantaler had a hand in doing is preventing one (reasonable) side from being able to enforce its views upon the other (reasonable) side.

  31. boudica, where did I pretend? Where did I say “in my capacity as an authority speaking of behalf the entire Christian community around the world ….”?

    The only one inventing (or seeing) things, I am afraid, is you.

  32. For that matter, boudica, you will have noticed that my article doesn’t contain a single reference to “I” or “me”.

  33. I think my point still stands. When I say milton friendman would not get the order if he was canadian it is because Friedmam is a deeply divisive figure in the states arguing agains (amoung other things) drug laws, minimum wage, universla health care and a lot of othe polarizing stuff. With all dur respect to the other economists posted ad counter examples to my above argument, there is no way a polarizing conservative gets into the order. Not a chance in hell.

  34. I disagree- Preston Manning, anyone?

  35. The Order of Canada has this Biblical reference engraved on it:
    “They desire a better country”
    (see Hebrews 11:16).

    Perhaps a brief description of the recipients deeds should also be engraved.

    On Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s medal,
    one appropriate Biblical quote would be:
    “he ripped open the pregnant women”
    see: Amos 1:13

  36. It seems like we have two options presented here.

    1) Give the Order to anyone of a certain level of prominence without really passing judgement on the morality of their accomplishments. This will essentially strip it of any meaning.

    2) Give the Order to people who have done things the people on the selecting panel appreciated. This will necessarily mean the Order reflects values that are alien to a certain percentage of the population in whose name the honour is given.

    I don’t like either. Human beings seem to have a need to honour other human beings, but other than that I can’t see a reason for having the Order of Canada at all. Awards and honours simply reflect the opinions of those who give them out. It’s their honour, not ours. If they must distribute these medals, I’d prefer they give it out in their own name and on their own dime.

  37. As a teenage Catholic, and part of the substantial minority that believes that this award should be retracted from Morgentaler, i know i might not have all the knowledge i might need to partake in this discussion. But here i go.

    let me start of by stating this

    “The Order of Canada is the centrepiece of Canada’s honours system and recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. The Order recognizes people in all sectors of Canadian society. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country. The Order of Canada’s motto is DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (They desire a better country).”


    In my view, a fetus becomes a human being at conception; when sperm and egg come together.
    when the number of chromosomes in a cell are 46, that is a what i call a human
    “A persons a person no matter how small”
    Dr. Seuss

    let me point out

    “a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.”

    “yet they have all enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country.”

    tell me this, what entitles him to these honours. a LIFTIMEof OUTSTANDING achievement and DEDICTATION to the community and SERVICE to the nation. does a lifteime of ourstanding achievement mean around 100,000 abortions a year, killing innocent children; peoples future husbands, wives, maybe the person who would have cured cancer, another Gandhi, another Pope John Paul 2,

    how as he ENRICHED the lives of others? he has brought pain and hardship to many women and families. yes he sure has made a difference to Canada, he has brought pain to many people throughout.

    I think people who deserve this honour are people that promote life, that promote the well being of Canada and the World, and that have made a difference to better the lives of others

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