Morality and the Law in Canadian Politics: The Abortion Controversy by Fr. Alphonse de Valk (Campaign Life Coalition, $15, 184 pages)

One of the greatest finds in my book-buying adventures was discovering Fr. Alphonse de Valk’s Morality and the Law in Canadian Politics: The Abortion Controversy in a garage sale. For years, I repeatedly borrowed an office copy, unable to find a new or used copy for sale anywhere. The 1974 edition was a book I consulted several times yearly. When I found it at a garage sale, I was elated. I had the same feeling when Campaign Life Coalition announced it was reprinting the book last fall to mark the retirement of Fr. de Valk as editor of Catholic Insight for a testimonial dinner.

Fr. de Valk, a Catholic priest and trained historian, sifted through numerous newspapers, professional journals, and parliamentary debates to provide a copiously footnoted roll call of those who sought changes to Canada’s abortion laws. It is historical scholarship at its finest, and all at the service of having a record of those responsible for what he would later call “the worst law ever,” in order to have a moral book-keeping for those responsible for liberalizing Canada’s abortion law in 1969.

Morality and Law is the story of the agitation to change Canada’s prohibition of abortion leading up to the 1969 Omnibus Bill, starting with media clamouring, the moral back-pedalling of certain denominations, the lobbying of professional associations, and finally the political machinations that resulted in the passing of Pierre Trudeau and John Turner’s Omnibus Bill in 1969.

The chronological presentation is comprised of relentless facts: the series of editorials in the United Church Observer, Chatelaine, and the Globe and Mail; the proceedings and later activism of the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Bar Association; the debate by various MPs and committee witnesses during parliamentary and committee hearings. In classic Fr. de Valk style, authors of articles and the authorizers of particular actions and positions, are named. It is never a column in Chatelaine but a Rev. Ray Goodall’s article in Chatelaine calling for abortion to be legalized because the unborn were not human beings; it is not the CMA, but doctors D.M. Low and M.G. Tompkins who as members of the CMA’s Maternal Welfare Committee agitated for doctors to promote legalization of abortion to protect the rights of doctors (not women).

This is history at its finest. The press and professional organizations are not nebulous or impersonal things, but institutions made of real people who should be held accountable for their actions and ideas. By naming names, Fr. de Valk ensures the moral reckoning for those who are responsible for creating the conditions in which Parliament could permit abortion.

The author describes the committee hearings at length, and in one telling anecdote relates how a doctor from the Hamilton Right to Life Committee testified that while he would not commit an abortion, under certain circumstances in the cases where “the life or life expectancy” of the mother was at risk, abortion could be made available. Fr. de Valk noted the concession “pleased” two NDP members of the committee because “as long as an opponent could be persuaded to admit that abortion was acceptable in principle, even if only for others not for himself, the newly proposed legislation stood justified.” Once that was achieved, the author said, “they felt any discussion about abortion would not be a discussion of conflicting philosophies or ideals, but merely a question of deciding the technical conditions.”

The review and analysis of the testimony and parliamentary debate is thorough but does not get bogged down in details. While dealing with a weighty subject matter, the prose itself does not get weighted down and it reads like a compelling courtroom drama with expert commentary by Fr. de Valk as narrator.

Fr. de Valk says that while the Catholic Church was one of the few institutions to speak out against abortion, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was too politically enfeebled to do anything about it in the public square because it had already acquiesced with the liberalization of divorce laws a year earlier, buying into the secular argument that it could not impose the Church’s moral teaching on the broader public. Having compromised on that dubious principle in 1968 on the break-up of married couples, it was that much harder to insist that Catholic moral teaching on the killing of preborn life spoke to the broader public in 1969.

Much of the history is already known, but the story provides a coherence to the disparate groups seeking liberalization of abortion. There was no conspiracy to legalize abortion. Rather, the author demonstrates the confluence of self-interest and ideological commitment that brought about change.

A generation of pro-lifers informed itself about the beginnings of the battle between life and death in Canada in the 1960s when Palm Publishers published the book in 1974. Campaign Life Coalition has done a new generation of pro-lifers a great service in republishing the book nearly three decades after it first appeared. It is important for the movement to know not only its own history, but the history of the issue and there is no more important story than how Canada moved away from protecting the unborn child in the womb to permitting open season on it through a broad abortion license.

 Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.