Abortion, Conscience and Democracy

by Mark MacGuigan,

1994, Hounslow Press

165 pp, $16.95

Mark MacGuigan, Judge and Canadian Minister of Justice during the last years of the Trudeau era, has written a dandy compendium for Catholics seeking to assert their pro-life standing while publicly going along with relaxed abortion laws.

In his recently published Abortion, Conscience & Democracy (Hounslow Press), MacGuigan sets out his personal credo that directly induced abortions are always morally wrong, but in a pluralistic democracy in which opinion is divided, the law may not limit abortion before viability.

In MacGuigan’s life there are no martyrs for the cause, only persons he accuses of failing to live up to their moral obligations in a pluralistic democracy to respect the consciences of those who don’t hold the same view.  Good-bye saints; hello sinners.

He gratuitously attacks the late King Baudoin of Belgium for his refusal in 1990 to sign a law legalizing abortion, citing his action as “objectively wrong, morally speaking, because it was a failure to live up to his moral obligation in a pluralistic democracy to respect the consciences of those whose moral views were different from his own.”

Presumably then, Christians are supposed to sit idly by while Vestal Virgins are thrown into Mount Pinatubo to stop it from erupting, because “the consciences of those whose moral views” are different from our own must be respected, which leads to two interesting questions:

Firstly, why should the pro-life position always be subordinated to a position in which death and destruction occurs?  MacGuigan says it is respect for the conscience of the other side.

Secondly, how can MacGuigan justify making viability of the fetus the limit for his respect for the conscience of others?  One would have thought the natural extension of MacGuigan’s philosophy would be acceptance of abortions throughout the pregnancy period because there are those who don’t agree with any limitation on obtaining an abortion.

Yet, despite all that he argues, he stipulates that the state has a right to enact laws affecting abortions from the time of viability, stating that if the child is capable of living outside the mother’s womb then the mere convenience of the mother alone cannot determine the result.

He then goes on to suggest that the state must establish limited grounds to abortion after viability in terms of the life and health of the mother, forgetting Canada’s experience with the word “health” which caused all the problems in the first place by being interpreted so broadly as to permit abortion procedures on demand.

MacGuigan’s proposed compromise is typical of the popular political ploy of trying to keep everyone happy by enacting prohibitions which are negated by exceptions, leaving the prohibitions as simple window-dressing.  Those wanting something prohibited find solace in the prohibition, while those wanting no prohibition find solace in being exempted.  The Liberals used this in the 1969 abortion law which banned abortions and introduced therapeutic abortion which led to abortion on demand.  The Conservatives during their tenure attempted to use the same formula in trying to enact a law banning pornography which was subject to exemptions which permitted pornography to come in through the back door.

For MacGuigan it is essentially a matter of freedom of conscience, as the “most powerful and most fundamental reason for decriminalizing abortion up to the time of viability.”  He says Catholic legislators cannot look only to what they believe in their consciences to be right, but must also consider what others believe in conscience with equal firmness to be right.  Then if no accommodation is possible, since the legalization of abortion would not directly compel Catholics to have them, than legislation permitting abortions do not directly infringe anyone’s conscience.  Those who don’t want them won’t have them and those who want them can have them.  “This is the price democracy exacts for the freedom it offers.”

The Catholic role, he declares, is to live by example only and “leave the rest to Divine Providence.”

MacGuigan, perhaps not surprisingly, denies to the pro-life movement the right to use civil disobedience saying the purpose of civil disobedience is to bring about a change in the law whereas in the case of abortion, “The only permissible Christian goal must be to cause a change, not in the law, but in the attitudes behind it.”

MacGuigan, who asserts in his book he is a practicing Catholic, also wades into euthanasia and suicide.  It is commonly understood that it would be redundant to prohibit suicide through the Criminal Code because the perpetrator is dead and can’t be punished.  MacGuigan however says since suicide is not illegal “it seems entirely illogical to me that aiding and abetting should be an offence.”

At this point, one puts the book down.  This clearly is not vintage MacGuigan.  Nevertheless, for some Christian legislators, this book will be used as a prop for not taking the pro-life position in legislation.

For those who support the pro-life position not on religious grounds but on pure scientific grounds, this book will be found wanting.

Philosophical purists will find the reasoning simplistic and strained.

The tip-off should have come in reading former Prime Minister Joe Clark’s foreword in which he states he and MacGuigan “both believed that Parliament should not use the Criminal Code to deny Canadian women the option of abortion…”  I don’t recall either doing anything toward an alternative during their years in office.

There is an interesting omission of any reference to MacGuigan’s long-standing support of abolition of capital punishment despite vehement public opposition.  It might have been an interesting intellectual exercise in parallelism to see how MacGuigan reacted to both issues as an elected official.  While he was quick to support abolition publicly, he is not so quick to support pro-life publicly.  In the former, promoting the issue had appeal to liberals; in the latter, promoting the issue is to be avoided lest someone be offended.  And there’s MacGuigan’s rub.