Summary of Positions

The politics of abortion had advanced to what some believed to be its final stage: the debate in parliament and its enactment into law. Positions had been stated and solidified; yet, a certain uneasiness remained, perhaps because few people really understood exactly what had been set in motion. After 1969, of course, an increased radicalization and polarization would occur as each side began to understand its position better.

As late as 1968 there was no answer to the basic question why abortions were wanted. Indeed, that question had hardly been asked. Just as there was no reliable data available about the number of abortions, so there had been no scientific investigations about the reasons for abortions. Those who preferred to find their causes on the social-economic level looked for their explanation to such possibilities as inadequate housing. Those who diagnosed cause and effect primarily on the level of ideals found their explanation in the belief that decaying civilizations are always characterized by the evidence of increased selfishness. But neither the one nor the other had contributed any findings of researched investigations or presented a plausible and convincing explanation. Still, it was not necessary to understand why abortions were wanted in order to take a stand on how the law should read, even though the individual answer would probably bear some relationship to that understanding, however vague it might be.

The legal profession, speaking through the Canadian Bar Association, was convinced that revision of the law would prove the only way to avoid the dangers of continued illegal abortions as well as clarify the law for therapeutic abortions. It eventually presented three reasons for widening the grounds for abortions: life or health, rape, and deformity. The last reason was accepted despite strong objections. Health, the Association felt, should include both physical and mental health. The Canadian Medical Association had taken the stand from the beginning that it did not want to encourage ‘wide’ liberalization of abortions, but ‘rather to make them legal,’ and to provide better protection of both the public and the profession. Consequently, it had accepted life and health as grounds for terminating a pregnancy, but had rejected deformity and criminal assault. Having turned down these two grounds as late as 1966, it approved them at the general council meeting of June 1967. Throughout, however, doctors insisted that what they were proposing could be described simply as making permissible what was already being done in hospitals.

Among the general public, the views of a substantial number of people were represented, no doubt, by the executive of the National Council of Women and the Member of Parliament, Mrs. Grace Macinnis. Mrs. Macinnis favoured the British law with its socio-economic clause, but restricted herself to a narrower concept for fear of losing the entire project. She believed that abortion should be removed from the Criminal Code and that, in the desire to improve life, the individual should have the right to prevent unwanted children from being born. The purpose of new abortion laws, said the resolution of the National Council of Women, was to “bring these laws into conformity with the realities of Canadian life.” Furthermore, the views of some members of the general public were also represented by the Toronto Globe and Mail which had made itself the spokesman of the concept that abortion was a question of private morality and that in a pluralistic society law ought not to be concerned with such questions.

Among the Churches, the Presbyterian Church accepted legalization of therapeutic abortion only for serious threats to life or health. It rejected such reasons as ‘the expediency of reducing illegal abortions’, or abortions as a measure of population control. The Anglican Church appeared to be of two minds at once. In one report the Church in Great Britain rejected abortion on demand, and even rape and deformity, as legitimate reasons. The same report, however, wanted the law to be worded in such a way that “the patient’s total environment, actual or foreseeable” could be taken into account. A similar duality was present in the brief by the Canadian Church to the House of Commons Committee. It suggested that abortion should not be done for social reasons; yet, it gave the broadest possible interpretation to health.

The United Church had cautiously approved legal abortions for physical or mental reasons in 1960. At that time it rejected abortion as a means of family planning or as relief to the unmarried mother. In 1966 it re-confirmed the legality of abortions for reasons of life and health, but the spirit of the resolution was now much different from that in 1960. Little doubt was left that health was to be interpreted widely. In the spring of 1968 the official position still appeared to be that socio-economic reasons were unacceptable, but the delegates to the hearings of the Commons Committee were already prepared to go beyond that restriction. To explain why a choice could be made between the welfare of the mother on the one hand, and the life of the unborn on the other, the delegation presented the theory of “the accruing value of life.” Delegates did not expect that legalization would greatly increase the number of abortions.

Members of other Protestant Churches such as Lutherans, Mennonites, Pentecostals and Evangelicals appeared mainly opposed to abortion, as were other religious groups like the Mormons and the Witnesses of Jehovah. Also opposed were the Greek Orthodox and the Jewish Orthodox. Yet, none of these bodies had taken the effort to issue a detailed refutation. Only the Latin and Greek-Byzantine rite Catholics had done so. After hesitating on how to re-assert the traditional condemnation of abortion, the Catholic Bishops had finally taken a stand on a threefold principle: in spite of appearances, human life before birth is not intrinsically different from human life after birth; theology does not provide grounds by which one life may be esteemed of higher value than another; in the absence of scientific proof to the contrary, the date of conception must be taken as indicating the beginning of a new and distinct human life. The best law, their delegation said at the House of Commons Committee hearings, is the one that permits the least number of abortions. The position of the Canadian Government on abortion was first made clear with the introduction of the Omnibus bill in December 1967. It was further clarified by Justice Minister Turner during the parliamentary debates in the early half of 1969. These debates started with the second reading of the Omnibus bill on January 23, 1969, and concluded with the third and final reading of the bill in mid-April. Third reading did not finish until a month later due to a three week long filibuster by the Ralliement Creditiste directed against the bill’s clause on abortion. As for the motivation of the Government’s attitude, it could be traced directly to the 1957 British report on homosexuality, better known as the Wolfenden Report.

Excerpted with permission from chapter 9 of Fr. Alphonse de Valk’s Morality and the Law in Canadian Politics: The Abortion Controversy, reprinted by Campaign Life Coalition in 2012.