In 1729, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, anonymously published a satirical pamphlet entitled, “A Modest Proposal,” arguing that Ireland’s food shortage – and many other social ills – could be assuaged with a simple, two-pronged solution: the murder of infants and the cannibalism of their corpses. Cunningly clothed in the language of moderation, Swift offered infanticide to the public as a solution to another evil besides the famine – one which has, unfortunately, endured: “it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes… which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.”
When the 41st Canadian Parliament returns from its winter recess, Stephen Woodworth, MP for Kitchener Centre, will initiate a debate on the very subject which Swift thought self-evident enough to withstand his satire: the question of young life’s status in law. Woodworth will immodestly propose that legal protection of unborn life – which currently relies on an antiquated definition of personhood, old even in the days of Swift – be expanded in light of modern science and Canada’s long-standing commitment to human rights. But, although his is an eminently reasonable suggestion, if history offers any
hint, Woodworth’s proposal will elicit spluttering outrage from defenders of our country’s shameful status quo.
Indeed, with a predictability which would be poignant if it were not so perverse, advocates of abortion have, on cue, hissed their hysterical hyperventilations against Woodworth’s mere mention that it is time to begin a measured, mature
debate on this subject. For vocal social liberals, the trauma of abortion’s past prohibition will be revisited through their counterfactual fantasies of totalitarian theocracy. Repressions unprecedented in Canada’s proud history will be pictured for the public by these pundits in curiously lurid detail.
Why do such extreme phantasmagorias of fascism appear whenever anything even obliquely relating to the issue of abortion enters the public arena? Perhaps these unhinged imagining of extremes – which undermine the very sobriety that Woodworth would create – are invoked to obscure the fact that Canada is actually at another extreme. In other words, social liberals conjure despotic dystopias because, in this county, the advocates of abortion have no battles left to win; since there is no protection for the unborn in law whatsoever, such nightmares are necessary, lest we wake to a reality more frightening than their dark and dubious dreams.
Thus, while the improbable oppressions imagined by abortion’s apologists might appear to be desperate the fear-mongering of an intellectually bankrupt, but amazingly successful, social movement, their rhetorical excesses actually offer a subtle substitute for the even more terrible topic of abortion itself. To prolong the unrestricted extinction of nascent human life, these apologists cannot actually mention the pernicious procedure they would keep legal; instead, they must change the subject, at all costs, filibustering mature debate with frivolous fantasies.
Such evasions betray a profound distrust of the democratic process – a distrust appropriate for a movement whose victories have been almost entirely confined to the courtroom. The myth of “social peace” is a fig-leaf placed over the undemocratic victories which abortion extremists have enjoyed for too long. Indeed, in R. v. Morgentaler, the very decision which struck down the abortion law in 1988, the Supreme Court affirmed that a balance between societal license and fetal life was constitutional, that the protection of the unborn child was “a perfectly valid legislative objective.” If ideological activists have made even the recommendation of the highest court seem beyond the pale, Woodworth’s call for a civil debate is not only sorely needed but long overdue.
We could not be more supportive of Woodworth’s initiative, but to overcome the imaginative impasse that the opponents of an open, democratic debate have created, we hope that Woodworth will be articulate about the alternatives which are available to our nation. Slanders about concealed “hidden agendas” are quite ridiculous, but these smears will gain traction if the ultimate aim of the Woodworth’s defense of nascent life is downplayed.
To dispel the delirium that the opponents of debate will attempt to produce, Woodworth should state his goals and his ideals quite plainly: the defenders of personhood have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being forthright about the evils of – and their unflinching opposition to – abortion. A Canada which prohibits prenatal infanticide is our dream; it is the end we ardently desire, the ideal for which we strive without ceasing. To borrow the preposterous rhetoric of our political opponents, the “hidden agenda” we habour is justice.
That not all Canadians share our vision of justice is a fact we readily acknowledge and seek to change. Unlike our opponents, however, we have no fear of a democratic debate. Indeed, we welcome the opportunity to convince our countrymen of the decency and reasonableness of our cause. The anxious and irrational rhetoric of the small minority who insist on imputing dictatorial intentions to those who would protect unborn human life should not impede a deliberative, mature dialogue about this, the defining human rights issue of our time.
Let us hope, then, that Woodworth’s clarion call for civil debate will be a bracing encounter with sanity and will deliver us from our current state of untenable and unjust legal contradictions. Perhaps, in another age, Swiftian hyperbole could have done Woodworth’s work and brought us to our senses. Ours, however, is a situation beyond satire.