Jackson Doughart
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P.E.I. abortion debate: Atheism is no excuse for apathy

The Cadre, 23 November 2011

On November 18, The Charlottetown Guardian printed my short essay entitled “No right to abortion,” which criticized the objective of the P.E.I. Reproductive Rights Organization, a women’s group that organized the pro-choice rally on Saturday afternoon at Province House. P.E.I. is the only Canadian province that does not provide abortion services in its hospitals, so women that want to terminate their pregnancies have to travel elsewhere and in many cases have to pay for the procedure and travel on their own. The group wants the provincial government to provide access to abortion for Island women.

The central argument in my piece was that the language of rights being used by the group is inappropriate, since the right to an abortion does not exist in Canadian law. The R v. Morgentaler decision at the Canadian Supreme Court in 1988 struck down criminal code provisions against abortion as unconstitutional, but did not mandate either the federal or provincial governments to provide access to the operation. This gap has allowed P.E.I.’s government to maintain its anti-abortion policy and also protects it from legal challenges.

Since Friday, I’ve received several very nice comments from like-minded students and faculty members at the university, which is encouraging. However, I was rather alarmed to hear that my father had been met by a reader who commended me for my “deep religious convictions.” I am not a Christian and have never made a secret of that, but I have always been puzzled as to why the pro-life stance is so readily associated with religious belief, since the arguments against abortion are fundamentally secular once the religious rhetoric is peeled off.

This religious rhetoric can be disturbingly thick, as evidenced by a poster from the counter demonstration on Saturday, which listed 10 steps for impregnated women who are looking for support but do not want to abort their unwanted children. Unfortunately, every second step was “pray,” which means that there were really only five steps — six if you count praying, which I don’t. The impulse of abortion opponents to use such base language is pitiful because it reveals a sense of desperation. Remember that the battle ground for this contentious debate has been wholly usurped from the national democratic stage by Canada’s activist judiciary; remember also that opponents of abortion have been thoroughly and unfairly profaned as misogynistic bullies, illiberal hooligans, vile extremists and Christian whackjobs. You get the point.

What worries me even more is that the faith factor is obscuring any meaningful dialogue on the subject and has allowed people on both sides to reject the opposition’s viewpoint without actually engaging in any arguments. Both pro- and anti-abortionists can cling to their generalized opinion of the other side as a means of feeling more self-assured, but this does not help progress the debate and only lends further legitimacy to the antidemocratic Supreme Court, whose power to shape social policy has sharply increased since the repatriation of the constitution in 1982.

I would not dream of suggesting that all pro-abortionists arrive at their conclusions hastily or fail to engage in debate. I do think they are severely misguided, but I would expect that they think the same of me. What I am certain of, though, is that many atheists, agnostics and otherwise non-believing people are inclined to support the legalization and funding of abortion out of apathy and are willing to use the debate’s religious fault line as an excuse to avoid thinking about the issue. Their first instinct is to oppose religious identity politics, so they identify with the pro-abortion left, which is at least aclerical, if not anticlerical.

In some ways, this reminds me of how many non-believing types would behave during the presidency of George W. Bush. They hated his piety and Texas swagger for good reason but would seemingly take their skeptic’s glasses off when it came to evaluating the wider American political scene during that period. This provided a ripe field for comedians like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who needed only crack a joke about Bush’s IQ to get a resounding and cheap laugh. This kind of unthinking skepticism quickly transitions into blind faith, which is supposedly what atheism is fighting against.

The abortion debate is a great example of how skepticism cannot stop merely with the God hypothesis. What an atheist should consider is not whether opponents of abortion are themselves religious, but whether their arguments are rooted in purely theological concepts. I contend that there is nothing faith-based in the belief that the unborn child is a real concept and not a propaganda term, and that the occupant of the womb is an entity that deserves legal protection. Only when this controversy is properly understood as a conflict of rights between the expectant mother and the unborn child, and not between the religious and non-religious or women and oppressive male society, will we come closer to resolving it.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com