Abortion: giving new life to the debate

ProLife Canada ad imageThis week Americans marked the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion in the United States., Canada is also reflecting on one of the most persistent controversies of our time, as the 20th anniversary of our Supreme Court's contribution to the abortion debate arrives.

On January 28, 1988, the court struck down the country's abortion law as unconstitutional, ending the prosecution of Montreal doctor Henry Morgentaler. That left Canada in its present unique position among Western democracies of having no law governing abortion - it is legal until a woman goes into labour. Although the court made clear Parliament could enact law and a majority of Canadians polled believe there should be some law governing abortion, so far attempts to enact such law have failed.

In fact, the pro-life community also is wondering: What should be done
about abortion becoming a prohibited topic of discussion and debate?

A recent spate of articles in Canadian newspapers by pro-choice supporters have lamented that abortion is "still kept very quiet" and argued that society should be more open in talking about abortion, not be embarrassed by it, and that women should feel free to talk openly about having had an abortion.

I agree. Let's bring the talk out in the open.

In fact, the pro-life community also is wondering: What should be done about abortion becoming a prohibited topic of discussion and debate? Just last week the city of Hamilton pulled LifeCanada's advertisement -- Abortion: Have We Gone Too Far? -- from its bus shelters after a handful of complaints. The ad showed a pregnant woman with the statement, "Nine months: The length of time abortion is allowed in Canada. No medical reason needed?" and a tag line, "Abortion: Have we gone too far?"

The city councillor who asked that the ads be pulled said, "For me, personally, it definitely was offensive." He did not explain why and, apparently, it was a sufficient justification that he felt offended.

In the past few months there have been hostile encounters between pro-choice student unions and pro-life student groups on several Canadian campuses. Pro-choice students want to restrict what pro-life students may say; they want to ban the posting of anti-abortion materials and refuse funding to pro-life clubs. One student justified this on the ground that "many students were upset by the [pro-life] poster campaign".

But what about respect for freedom of speech, especially in relation to law and public policy, and for freedom of religion and conscience?

A strategy for silencing pro-life supporters is to label them as religious and as proselytizing. It is unfortunate that abortion can be dismissed as a religious issue, because then we fail to identify and understand the full range of reasons why it is still a source of such major conflict.

Here are some of the reasons.

Moral intution

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reports how recent neuropsychology research is confirming that humans have an inbuilt "moral instinct" that seems to have some universal content. In ethics we speak of an ethical "yuck factor." When we face the facts about abortion honestly, no matter what our views, most of us have such a reaction.

Our moral intuition tells us that abortion is never a "nothing event". Some people deal with their disquiet by suppressing their moral intuitions. Seeing or hearing about what abortion entails makes that much harder to do.

Our choice of language also affects how we see the ethics of abortion. As Canadian columnist Judith Timson noted, in the movie Knocked Up ("a ribald comedy" about a young career woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand) abortion is "coyly referred to [only] as 'shmashmortion'." The sound of this word could make us more aware, both factually and ethically, of what abortion involves. Or it could be a euphemism, which usually dulls ethical sensitivity.

Many use the term "therapeutic abortion" in explaining that 58 per cent of teen pregnancies in Canada end in abortion. "Therapeutic" puts a medical cloak on abortion, which reassures our moral intuitions and provides a possible justification for an act we might otherwise see as wrong.


In finding abortion to be a Hollywood "taboo", Ms. Timson cites an academic who says that Knocked Up "side-stepped the abortion option . . . which seemed out of touch with the modern hip audience that the movie was otherwise directed toward. Here's a movie…that can't include abortion as part of the decision-making process [about pregnancy]."

This statement confirms an important insight of the Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: We have lost our sense that abortion involves "a major moral choice - it's been normalized," he said. "Something has happened to our assumptions about the life of the unborn child . . . when one third of pregnancies in Europe end in abortion."

The basic presumption that a pregnancy would result in the birth of a baby, unless, in rare cases, there was clear justification for preventing that, has changed to a presumption that there is a range of acceptable options in relation to pregnancy of which abortion is one.


Abortion advocates vehemently oppose any legal recognition that a fetus even exists. They want public square silence, legal silence and political silence in relation to fetuses in order to maintain silence on abortion. Their strong opposition to the passage of an Unborn Victims of Crime Act, currently before the Canadian Parliament, despite the act making clear that it does not affect abortion law, is a good example in this regard.

They are correct that shining a light on fetuses, rather than just on pregnant women who want an abortion, makes many people very morally uneasy about abortion (again, our moral intuitions respond). That is what happened when the young pro-life advocate in the movie Juno called out to her schoolmate who was about to enter an abortion clinic, "It's got fingernails." That also personalizes the fetus- we can identify with it, it's like us. The pregnant teenager changed her mind, deciding against abortion.

Surely we should deal with abortion by recognizing what it involves and then justifying whatever position we take. That is certainly the ethical approach.

The use of law

A recent Environics poll showed 62 per cent of Canadians (and two-thirds of Canadian women) think there should be some law governing abortion, at least at the point of fetal viability. In other words, they disagree with the current situation in which abortion is never a legal issue. But a strong majority also believes abortion should not always be a legal issue. So, while all abortions raise ethical issues that must be addressed, when and how we should use the law to govern abortion is a separate question.

Authentic choice

An authentic pro-choice stance requires all options to be on the table, not just that of abortion. It also requires that a woman give her informed consent to the option she chooses. Ethically and legally informed consent means having all the information that would be material to a reasonable person in the same circumstances in making her decision. Those circumstances include facts about the fetus and what an abortion involves, including its harms and risks. These are routinely played down and research demonstrating them is derided by pro-choice advocates.

Respect for women

Abortion has been treated by its politically correct advocates as the litmus test of respect for women. Even questioning the acceptability of abortion is seen as heretical by many. This reaction could be compared to that of a totalitarian religion in which it is heresy to question the existence of God. Sometimes, having an abortion (or, as a young woman physician, doing one) seems to be a required rite-of-passage to join the feminist cause.

A woman's right to choose an abortion is often presented as a dignity argument. Some scholars have defined two concepts of dignity: dignity-as-liberty, which favours individuals' autonomy and self-determination, and dignity-as-constraint, which preserves human dignity in general (the prohibition of sex-selection abortion is a good example). Abortion requires us to balance these two kinds of dignity, but since we don't agree where that balance should be struck, the least we can do is talk about it.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal.


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