Jackson Doughart
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Is the abortion debate really about religion?

The Holy Post, 19 August 2011

The controversy over abortion received more attention earlier this month, when pro-life advocate Linda Gibbons was arrested for illegally picketing an abortion clinic in Toronto. Ms. Gibbons has spent about nine of the last 17 years behind bars for her protests, the latest of which was staged singlehandedly on August 4. According to National Post’s Charles Lewis, the 63-year-old activist has been arrested over 20 times since 1994, when a restricted zone was established around abortion clinics.

The Canadian abortion debate is the quintessential example of a political football, which has been fought passionately by both sides while occupying next to no time in parliamentary dialogue. Since the R. v. Morgantaler case in 1988, in which the Supreme Court struck down existing restrictions on the voluntary termination of pregnancies, Canada has been left without any relevant legislation, including any prohibitions on late-term abortions.

Though all federal political parties avoided the issue in the last election, including the Conservative Party, the legality of abortion remains a very divisive social issue that is far from being definitively resolved. According to a March 2010 EKOS poll, 52% of Canadians describe themselves as pro-choice, while 27% identified as pro-life. The rest of the respondents did not support either position or did not answer the question.

Much is made about the influence of religion in determining one’s opinion about this issue. Indeed, Christian beliefs are cited as a principal motivation for many prominent opponents of legalized abortions, including Linda Gibbons, whose June 25 speech to the Toronto Pro-Life Forum included several references to her religion. However, the faithful do not hold a monopoly on objection to the euthanizing of unborn children, as I consider myself to be a committed, though lonely opponent of both abortion and religion.

I am convinced that the pro-life position is not dependent upon any references to Christianity and that religious arguments about the sanctity of life and the protection of unborn children are actually very powerful secular arguments in disguise. Nevertheless, both sides of the debate continue to promulgate the notion that religion, or lack thereof, is the linchpin of both pro- and anti-abortion perspectives.

It is impossible not to notice the way in which this debate has been unnecessarily complicated by religious differences. With few exceptions, both hardline supporters and opponents of abortion have set up hermetically-sealed universes for themselves, in which they write and speak of their convictions before pre-approved audiences and then smear each other’s positions outrightly as hedonistic or theocratic. The consequence is a stalemate, in which positively no progress is made on the debate.

In order free ourselves from this deadlock, both sides need to take responsibility for these false perceptions. On one hand, opponents of abortion need to have more faith in their own arguments, ironic as that may sound, and resist the urge to mire their dialogue with religious rhetoric. While using this sort of language may be mutually satisfying among fellow believers, it quite effectively alienates adherents of other faiths and non-believers who may be sympathetic to the pro-life persuasion. Making this adjustment would not only serve to gain non-Christian support for the cause, but would also shake the pro-life position from its stereotype as an entirely religious opinion.

By contrast, the pro-abortion camp should recognize that there is a secular debate to be had about the issue. (I could barely believe my eyes when, in response to this claim, a liberal and fellow secularist wrote to me: “I suspect [that] religious dogmatism is so deeply entrenched, you cannot see how ingrained it is. What viable reason is there against abortion? I say none. Any reason given would probably have its roots in religious dogma.”) Most reasonable people, on either side of the political divide, should be able to recognize that the abortion issue amounts to a conflict of rights between an expectant mother and her unborn child, and that prioritizing these competing freedoms is the role for rigorous public discourse.

Furthermore, apologists for abortion should be cautious about characterizing pro-life advocates as misogynists. This is not only hopelessly demagogic, but is also false in almost all cases, including religious opposition to abortion. Finally, supporters of legal abortion should recognize that the privilege of comprehensive and secular dialogue is an end in itself, and not simply a means of achieving liberal aims.

It is certain that the religious angle to the abortion debate provides both sides with ammunition in prosecuting their cases; however, it has also led to a protracted gridlock, in which all parties refuse to further engage. Only by recognizing the self-evident ethical dilemma posed by abortion, without being obstructed by religious differences, can we hope to make progress toward ending the practice.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com