Why abortion pills have changed the future of pro-life activism in Canada
Mifegymiso is the Canadian brand name for an abortion drug called RU-486, which was brought into Canada in January of 2017 after approval by Health Canada in 2015. Not yet two years since its introduction and it has already begun to alter the entire landscape surrounding abortion practices and attitudes in Canada. The pro-life movement will struggle to keep pace as these changes accelerate, and so I write this as a warning and an injunction to all pro-life individuals and organizations in Canada, who risk greater marginalization and even irrelevance if they don’t reassess their strategy in light of this evolving situation.
Chemical abortions are much less offensive to our sensibilities than surgical abortions such as suction and aspiration, dilation and curettage, saline abortion, and partial birth abortion. Whereas these procedures expose their true murderous nature with the resulting lifeless bodies of butchered or burned babies, Mifegymiso is portrayed as a clean, convenient and easy abortion method, consisting of a two-pill combination ingested by the mother, who then discards her pregnancy at home, concealing her child’s visible humanity under a toilet seat. The first pill, Mifepristone, blocks the flow of progesterone and starves the embryo to death. 24-48 hours later, the second drug, Misoprostol, causes severe muscle contractions in the uterus, relaxation of the cervix, and shedding of the endometrium. Along with much blood and other tissue, the baby is flushed down the toilet, often denied even the dignity of being gazed upon by human eyes. What the mother might see, had she the courage to look, would be her baby’s tiny body in the pregnancy sac, with visible fingers and toes that can be counted at Mifegymiso’s current off-label legal gestational limit of 10 weeks.
It is no less heinous than any other form of abortion of course, but the brutality is more easily ignored, and this is encouraged by the media, who distort the truth, omitting several important facts about Mifegymiso. Leaving aside the obvious – that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being – the first thing everyone should know, but what most women will not be told, is that after the first pill, Mifepristone, has been taken, it is possible to reverse the effects and save the baby’s life should the mother intake progesterone. Second, Mifegymiso can have serious side effects, which include nausea, vomiting, cramping, fever, dizziness, hemorrhaging, loss of consciousness, salpingitis, arrhythmia, bronchospasm, infection, septic shock, future infertility, future ectopic pregnancies, and even death due to infection, blood loss, or future ectopic pregnancy. Third, the media’s claim that the pills cost between $300 and $550 ignores the cost of the initial pregnancy assessment and counselling with a physical exam, infection check, blood test, and ultrasound; any further blood tests; and finally, follow-up appointments, not to mention the on-average one in 20 chemical abortions that will fail and thus be followed up with either a second chemical abortion or a surgical abortion. (Overall success rates for Canadian trials of Mifegymiso were between 92.9 per cent and 97.3 per cent).
The facts are that Mifegymiso is both dangerous to women and expensive, but also that its effects are reversible within a limited window. The media won’t report any of that, however, because chemical abortions are just so convenient. (Also because the concept of “pro-choice” apparently doesn’t extend to a woman’s choice to change her mind.)
RU-486 was invented in the 1980s, since which time its use has become widespread across Europe. This can give us a glimpse of the future of abortion in Canada, where, as recently reported by theNational Post, Mifegymiso has already been prescribed more than 13,000 times. According to a report by the United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Social Care, in Scotland in 1992, one year after RU-486 was introduced, 16.4 per cent of all abortions were chemical. By 2016 that figure had risen to 83 per cent. The numbers are even more startling in Scandinavia. In Norway, 87 per cent of all abortions are chemical abortions; in Sweden, 92 per cent; in Finland, 96 per cent. This is what we have to look forward to in Canada: a future where nearly all abortions take place at home, discreetly, with a couple of pills.
Pro-life goals in light of chemical abortions
But it’s worth considering how an analysis such as this can hinder as well as help the pro-life cause. Focusing on the side-effects and the public cost is ultimately beside the main point. The reduction of both ought no less to be in the interests of the pro-abortion movement; these should be areas of common ground between the pro-life and pro-abortion movements that are ostensibly committed to women’s health and value to the taxpayer. It’s possible that, by highlighting these issues, I could be furthering the pro-abortion cause. If, in five years, the next version of RU-486 is a fraction of the current cost and has no side effects, will these arguments against the drug have helped to save any preborn lives?
This brings me to two long-standing divisions within the pro-life movement. The efficacy (to say nothing of the morality) of gestational laws and graphic images is hotly debated, and although the two disputes don’t directly map onto each other, they do cut across one another. On the one hand, gestational laws and graphic images might help to save lives in certain circumstances, but on the other, they may also play into the abortion industry’s hands simply because the sophisticated pro-abort probably doesn’t like late-term abortions or bloody fetuses either. The introduction of Mifegymiso puts an abrupt end to this whole argument and the nays, as they say, have it. But this point may require further unpacking.
Many pro-life campaigns use graphic images of dead babies, post-abortion, to show the grisly, gory reality of surgical abortion. It’s an obvious and bold tactic. Abortion is sickening, bloody and shocking. Surely, by exposing this in public it will change minds. Indeed it does. But that’s not all it does. The pro-abortion movement, conceivably, also might be opposed to the gore. It is not impossible that there are some pro-abortion activists who may find surgical abortion methods unpalatable and see such images as motivation to “clean up” the procedures. Supposing Canada responded by doing away with the gruesome surgical abortion methods and then introduced what abortion activists would bill as a clean, bloodless procedure that left no dead baby’s body behind – a method that somehow vaporized or disintegrated the child, painlessly and quickly? With Mifegymiso, we aren’t far away from this reality, in which gruesome images are far less powerful because abortion is no longer visibly gruesome. And the abortion activists would say, problem solved.
In the short term, if graphic images have helped a woman to rethink her decision and choose to carry her child to term, they have done an unquantifiable good. But in the long run, such images may also provoke abortion activists to clean up the business of killing preborn babies so as to take away the firepower of this useful pro-life tool.
Gestational laws: a trap
Canada’s lack of a law on abortion is staggering and leaves our nation with fewer legal restrictions on abortion than any other developed country in the world. The obvious response to some is that we need a gestational law of some kind. But supposing we got one? What if the government merely legislated what is already common practice and introduced a law that makes abortions legal until 24 weeks? Assuming Canada takes its lead from Scandinavia, and Mifegymiso becomes the abortion method of choice for over 90 per cent of abortions, will a gestational law make any difference at all?
Consider the situation in Denmark. Denmark’s abortion law is quite restrictive, relative to other Western countries. Abortions are legal only up to 12 weeks; however, this is not an example of some mysterious social conservatism, since Denmark is certainly one of the most leftist countries in the world. (It was, for example, the first to allow same-sex “marriage,” and the first to legalize pornography.) And where Denmark goes, Canada tends to follow not far behind. I believe that such an early gestational law is, in fact, the situation Canada would eventually reach, even if we all were to abandon the pro-life agenda entirely right now. It’s tempting to think that a 12-week limit would be so much better than no law at all, that it would be a sort of stepping stone, that the logical sequence of events will inevitably have to go from no restrictions to some restrictions before a full ban can be even contemplated. But this is a fallacious argument, as Mifegymiso proves. For as we attempt to reduce legal limits, the abortion industry is simultaneously working to provide abortions earlier. These two efforts prove to go hand-in-hand.
Reducing the legal gestation limit for abortion doesn’t protect any preborn children at all. Think about that for a moment. The only hope is that some lucky fetuses might slip through the cracks by becoming too old to be aborted; a gestational law still targets all preborn children because all babies pass through the same stages of gestation. It merely narrows the scope to target them when they’re young enough so that it’s easier not to think of them as human beings. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews in order to make it easier to kill them. A gestational law does the same. A preborn child old enough to kick and to resemble a newborn baby has the advantage of eliciting an emotional reaction, hence why ultrasounds have been so effective in counseling women to choose life. A younger baby doesn’t have this advantage. A first-trimester fetus is tiny. It doesn’t look “human.” It doesn’t feel pain. The abortion that kills it appears less violent. It is, therefore, more vulnerable than an older preborn child. But hasn’t this always been the challenge for the pro-life movement? That it’s more difficult to defend preborn babies than born babies because their human appearance is less obvious? The same applies at each stage of gestation. The younger the fetus, the easier it is to deny its humanity. And some in the pro-life movement are in danger of unwittingly contributing to this trend, which, in the long run, will lead to little progress and possibly much damage.
Sure, Danish law requires women to make the decision at an earlier stage, as does Mifegymiso, but with enough propaganda and encouragement, that won’t prevent many women in such an affluent and educated country from carrying out their decision to have their child killed, especially if it involves nothing more than a couple of pills. (A further effect is that many women rush into the decision to have the abortion, only to regret it later.) And once the law has entrenched itself, and passed itself off as an acceptable and civilized alternative to the laws of other countries, what chance is there of ever reforming it?
If, in our zeal to restrict abortion access, we are able to arrive at the same kind of law that Denmark has, we will have done a great disservice to the preborn, in strengthening the legal status quo by bestowing upon it a perceived but false level of modesty and reasonableness. If the pro-abortion movement were to start pushing for a 12-week limit, we might think they’d taken leave of their senses, and begin celebrating such a remarkable development, but the ultimate result would be a law that appears so eminently reasonable, and which would carry such widespread support, that it would be all but impossible to change. We would have replaced an unacceptable situation where all preborn babies are under threat, with an equally unacceptable situation where only younger preborn babies are under threat (and therefore, still all babies until they grow old enough), which merely marginalizes them further and moves the issue further from people’s minds. Our new law would then, effectively, be targeting only the most helpless, minimizing the emotional tug on many of those who might come to their defence. It is a fact that of those countries with gestational laws, almost none has budged from its original parameters; there is very little evidence to support the claim that a gestational law can lead to greater protection of preborn life. A gestational law prunes the weed of abortion while nourishing its roots. It’s not a stepping stone. It’s a trap.
Pro-life tools becoming obsolete
But my chief point here is that Mifegymiso makes this whole argument a waste of our time. Already in Canada, over 90 per cent of abortions take place within the first trimester. In Finland, 96 per cent of all abortions (not including the abortions from contraceptive use) not only take place within the first trimester, but are carried out with RU-486. When Mifegymiso takes off, there won’t be any need for a legal gestational limit because unwanted preborn babies won’t survive to the age of protection. And there won’t be a need for the most graphic of images because abortion will be carried out with chemicals and household plumbing instead of knives and forceps.
The remaining 10 per cent of Canadian abortions that occur after the first-trimester likely consist mostly of terminations of once-wanted children due to later-revealed health conditions, and of abortions for women who may not have had ready access to abortion in their first trimester. Mifegymiso will solve the problem of access and, even if passed, any potential gestational legislation in Canada would almost certainly grant exceptions for fetal abnormalities and disabilities, as is the case in other states with gestational laws, ensuring the continued legality of these abortions. Even in Denmark, late-term abortions are legal in cases of low income, rape or incest, expected birth defects, and physical or mental health risks to the mother, essentially covering nearly all reasons for late-term abortions.
Let’s remember that the situation that’s existed in Canada for 30 years is the result of political cowardice surrounding a hot-button issue as much as anything else. Denmark’s situation is the result of an actualized and considered anti-life ideology. Abortion isn’t a hot-button issue there. It’s no wonder that such a liberal country has greater restrictions on abortion. They know what they’re doing. If Canada were fully to embrace that ideology, we’d certainly have a law. The fact that we don’t indicates that we’re not that far gone. With no law, those of us in the pro-life movement have more weapons at our disposal to make a rational as well as an emotional case to the reasonable citizens of this country. These weapons have included showing that certain abortion methods are harmful to women, that abortion is gruesome and bloody, that an absence of legal protection for the preborn is a national travesty. I’m not arguing that these facts are unimportant. Insofar as they are truths, they ought to be exposed. But we must not forget that they’re peripheral to a more important truth, and only useful insofar as they support that truth. With Mifegymiso, however, all these tools are fast becoming obsolete.
Campaigning for an end to messy abortions will result in a no less barbaric practice and campaigning for women’s health and safety will result in a practice that merely hurts women in a subtler way, perhaps only psychologically. Campaigning for a gestational law will result in an accompanying erroneous moral defensibility. In all cases, the slaughter of the innocents continues. Mifegymiso is a much more formidable enemy than abortion methods of the past and whatever comes next will be even more so. We don’t have the luxury to deviate from our core purpose in order to make short-term gains. But perhaps arguing solely for a complete abortion ban remains too grand an objective and some kind of incremental strategy is needed. If gestational laws are irrelevant and graphic images no longer efficacious, what smaller, more achievable goals are there that don’t play into the abortion industry’s hands? No doubt those in the pro-life movement in Canada have many ideas of where to direct our efforts. Here I will suggest two.
First, defund all abortions. The Canadian health care system is increasingly expensive and public money must be directed towards necessary health care. Canadian taxpayers ought not to be funding elective procedures at all, especially those that constitute destruction of human life. Even believers in the right to abortion don’t necessarily believe that abortion should be publicly funded. Second, protect the conscience rights of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists who refuse to perform, prescribe or sell abortions and who won’t refer patients to abortion providers. Is it unrealistic to set as a goal the establishment of a chain of pro-life pharmacies or a public database of pro-life doctors across the country once these conscience rights have been secured and are respected?
These are achievable, reasonable, though by no means easy, goals, which can be pursued alongside political advocacy and public education. There are many others. There is nothing (adequate funding and inter-organizational drama notwithstanding) stopping all Canadian pro-life organizations from collaborating in order to accomplish them, building public support and persuading courageous politicians to take them on as policy objectives.
But whatever strategies in defense of the preborn are conceived, let them take shape with a recognition of the new predicament facing the preborn in Canada: a chemical holocaust administered from a prescription pad and a final resting place in a mess of blood and excrement – better known as Mifegymiso, “the World Health Organization’s gold standard of medical abortion.”
Marie-Claire Bissonnette is Youth Coordinator for Campaign Life Coalition. This article originally appeared on the CLC website Jan. 16 and is reprinted with permission.