Canada’s recent choice
not to fund abortions with foreign aid dollars isn’t about keeping women in
their place, it’s an ethical decision to value human life
Whether abortion should
or should not be funded as part of the proposed “G8 maternal and child health
initiative” is currently the focus of conflict. That conflict encompasses
issues that include what is required in order to respect women and their
rights; what is needed to protect and promote women and children’s health; and
how we should view fetuses/unborn children, especially in the context of
becoming complicit in abortion by funding it.
advocates,” such as Jane Cawthorne, author of the play The Abortion Monologues,
like many feminists, make the litmus test of respect for women that of not
placing restrictions on abortion and, as in the case of the “maternal and child
health initiative,” making it available by funding it.
Writing in the
Globe and Mail, Cawthorne accuses the Conservative government of defining “good”
women as traditional women – women who are mothers, nurturing, submissive, and
married – and describes such a view as “the last vestiges of ... outdated ideas”
and disrespectful of women. She argues that “by refusing to fund abortions as
part of its ill-conceived maternal health initiative, the Conservative
government is effectively saying only women who become mothers are worthy of
complete health care.”
In response to her
claims, we should first note that this initiative is specifically “a maternal
and child health” one, not just women. Otherwise we would have strong reasons
to ask whether we were unjustly discriminating against men, as compared with
women, in excluding them.
Then, we need to
consider the claim that abortion is properly characterized as health care.
Pro-choice supporters characterize it in that way in all circumstances. In very
rare cases that could be correct, but the vast majority of abortions are not
undertaken for medical reasons.
One reason pro-choice
and pro-life adherents view abortion differently, is because they view the
nature of the fetus/unborn child differently. Many who are pro-choice see it as
tissue that is part of the woman’s body until it is born. They believe the
woman is entitled to have it removed. Those who are pro-life, see it as a new
human life, a human being with the full potential already present to develop
through all the later stages of life, if it is allowed to do so. Obviously,
these two views lead to very different conclusions about the acceptability of
different models of how we see the development of a fetus might also provide
further insights about how our perceptions of the fetus/unborn child and, as a
result, views about abortion differ. American law professor Richard Stith
proposes that under a “construction model” the fetus is seen as being “constructed”
and the maker – the woman – can decide to stop construction, just as she could
if she were building a house, for example. This is a model that adopts the view
that, at least up to a certain point, the new person is not there.
In contrast, in a “development
model,” the unborn child is seen to have its full potential to develop
throughout its future life already present at conception and the woman makes
possible the conditions – conditions that every human being has needed at this
earliest stage of life – that are required for it to do so. This is a model of “continual
presence, but gradual appearance” of the person.
The values focus of
those who support funding abortion and those who do not also differs.
Pro-choice adherents focus on the woman and her rights to have control over her
own body, her rights to autonomy and self-determination. Pro-life adherents
focus on the unborn child’s right to life and the breach of the value of
respect for all human life, in general, that abortion entails. In prioritizing
these conflicting values, each side chooses differently.
Finally, as has been the
case with other pro-choice advocates in this “maternal and child health
initiative” debate, Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff being one example,
Cawthorne alleges that “the maternal health initiative (in not funding
abortion) facilitates ideology, not health.” She is wrong about the health
goal. There is such a vast need in this regard that, provided it’s not
sabotaged by the abortion issue, the initiative can’t help but achieve much
desperately needed good, that we can all agree on.
Moreover, we should keep
in mind that even so-called “safe” abortion involves risks and harms,
especially in developing countries which often have minimal or no adequate
health-care resources. Pro-choice adherents are reluctant, at best, to
acknowledge these risks and harms. And most people agree abortion should not be
used as a form of birth control. There is a high risk of its being used as such
in developing countries.
It’s true, as Cawthorne
says, that the “initiative facilitates ideology,” but that’s the case whether
or not it includes funding for abortion. The pro-choice arguments for funding
abortion are just as much based on an ideology – a set of values and beliefs –
as the pro-life ones against funding it are.
Obviously each of us
must choose one or the other position. I propose that in doing so, we must try
to place abortion in a moral context and always see it as a major ethical
decision, whether it involves ourselves or our co-operation in providing it for
others. My hope is that most Canadians would decide against it.
Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre
for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, and author of The Ethical
Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.