Jackson Doughart
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Why is the Left afraid of the abortion debate?

C2C Journal, 19 March 2013

The attitude of the Canadian political left toward the subject of abortion can be best described as petulant, informed as it is by an insatiable annoyance with dissent on this perennial issue. For pro-choicers, the prospect of discussing the ethical status of unborn human beings is sufficiently suppressed by circular reasoning and a false claim: “First, the abortion debate is over because ‘we’ say it is over; and second, there is nothing new in the science to warrant reopening the debate.” A brief deconstruction of abortion politics from the last year should reveal this position to be not only inaccurate, but also a telling exhibition of intellectual hypocrisy from a faction allegedly committed to reason.

The current abortion controversy on Prince Edward Island demonstrates the pervasiveness and uniformity of pro-choice petulance. PEI is the only Canadian jurisdiction in which abortions are not performed in either clinics or hospitals — a fully-constitutional policy that accords with decades of support from PEI residents, as evidenced by a consistent lack of related political action by the public. Nevertheless, the local CBC affiliate, which produces the province’s only talk radio and television news programs, openly favours policy change by giving significant air time to the psychologist Colleen MacQuarrie and the medieval historian Richard Raiswell; these committed pro-abortionists are misrepresented as impartial observers and are never challenged by opponents of a similar intellectual caliber. This bias has benefitted the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization, a feminist group that accuses the government of defaulting on a legal obligation to provide access to abortion. At the University of Prince Edward Island last spring, I was part of a student organization that facilitated a public debate on the subject — a perfect occasion for MacQuarrie & Co. to engage with a live audience. Yet representatives from the pro-choice lobby and numerous academics on campus flatly refused to participate. They cited a principled aversion to discussing a woman’s right to choose, and thereby denied members of the public a chance to consider all sides of the question for themselves.

In federal politics, the attempt by parliamentarian Stephen Woodworth to create a tri-partisan committee to investigate the legal and scientific definitions of human life sparked a similar reaction. Contrary to the accusation that he was advancing a militant pro-life agenda by stealth, Woodworth’s motion was consistent with both the demands of free inquiry and the facts about Canadian law: The constitution does not insulate a right to abortion from the law-making province of Parliament, as court decisions that struck down previous restrictions left open the possibility of future statutory limits. The inevitable judicial review of any new legislation would require fresh jurisprudence, since there is nothing in the constitutional canon that would self-evidently limit a new law. And the current legal definition of human life is based not on independent judicial reasoning but on 17th-century case law, which defines human life as beginning at birth — reasoning that conflicts with even the most radical interpretation of contemporary embryology and bioethical philosophy. In light of incontrovertible evidence that a fetus can experience pain and is viable well before birth, academic defenders of abortion such as Peter Singer and Judith Jarvis Thomson do not argue that terminating a pregnancy at six months is a morally-neutral act; this view is reflected in the abortion laws of every Western country in the world except the Criminal Code of Canada, which absurdly makes no restriction whatsoever. Given these considerations, there is no reason why intellectually-courageous liberals should resist further discussion.

It therefore remains something of a mystery why many on the political left “borked” Woodworth’s initiative. Would it not be progressive to consider scientific findings, whatever those might be? The NDP’s Status of Women Critic Nicki Ashton exclaimed on the House floor that, “A woman’s right to choose . . . is not up to negotiation!” The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada saw the proposal as nothing less than an attack on gender equality, and pro-abortion journalists such as Heather Mallick and Warren Kinsella denounced the idea of reopening the debate. But it is not clear when the debate that we are not supposed to reopen ever happened in the first place. There has never been a formal plebiscite on the question, and the last attempt to pass a new law followed the 1988 election campaign, when neither of the main parties took a clear position, leaving voters who cared about the issue with no practical influence. The lid on the abortion debate has remained firmly fastened ever since, despite persistent and reasonable disagreement among Canadians. (Ironically, at least for New Democrats, one of those who wanted a debate and was persistently pro-life was the late Joseph Borowski, a Saskatchewan NDP cabinet minister in the early 1970s who spent the next two decades trying to curb abortion.)

So what explains the Left’s refusal to discuss this issue? One possibility is simple egotism from members of the political class, who feel that they are above people who do not share their view. This includes the pro-choice wing of the Conservative Party, which is as contemptuous of troublesome anti-abortionists as the other parties. A more likely explanation, though, is that the liberal bluster is actually a mask for what knowledgeable leftists know all too well: that the pro-abortion status quo is a house of cards, which could be felled by even the slightest disturbance, including a proposal as sensible as Woodworth’s. This sheds light on their refusal to consider legal limitations on even late-term abortions, which are merely assumed to be unproblematic. And the unwillingness to entertain scientific arguments for the early viability of unborn humans reveals that the Left’s attachment to “following the facts” is a matter of convenience, not principle.

One should entertain no illusions that this question can be conclusively determined by scientific inquiry alone, as both the pro- and anti-abortion sides of the argument involve normative assertions that can be neither disproved nor supported by facts alone. Nor should those with anti-abortion convictions think that their ideals would be actualized if only the Left were less dogmatic; clearly there is wide support for some legal access, which leaves room for compromise among the varying positions held on this question. The House of Commons erred in its rejection of Woodworth’s motion, which would have been an excellent starting point in a real discussion about abortion laws in Canada. Aside from the legal outcome, what is ultimately at stake here is the right of citizens with reservations about abortion to not be slandered and screamed at for articulating a legitimate point of view. This behaviour tells much about the ill-health of Canadian civic discourse, which well deserves to be recuperated — beginning with thorough, public arguments about abortion.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com