In order to grasp at once the seriousness with which the question of pluralism and secularism today must be treated, let us recall the issue which has become its most controversial sign: the legalization of abortion.
Part of an article I wrote in 1971 summarizes this contradiction:
In our democratic society people believe that political problems, whatever their nature, can always be “worked out”. All that is needed is a little give and take and a sense of compromise. This attitude is reasonable as long as it is understood that compromise in daily life presupposes that we can agree on basic principles such as the nature and ultimate destiny of man. When this presupposed agreement disintegrates, the much lauded ability to compromise disappears. Society becomes divided into mutually opposed groups whose views cannot be reconciled. Needless to say, under such circumstances government becomes increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. The legalization of abortion is significant precisely because it seems to indicate that this necessary agreement on basic principles is breaking down. Government is frequently faced with a variety of groups which challenge traditional views on one point or another. Bur only in recent years has it been confronted by demands for change in principles which the majority of the nation and the government itself have traditionally considered basic and unalterable. Two such principles are that life is to be preserved and that acts of violence are to be condemned and suppressed.
If acts of violence directed against unborn life become so numerous that the government despairs of stopping them, the situation becomes critical. But when the government decides to change the nomenclature and makes these acts of violence “legal” in order to pacify the discontented who commit the violence, it undermines the intelligent use of language, it alienates those who cannot compromise, and it pursues the illusion of pacifying the discontented groups. When a new view of man and his destiny directly attacks the traditional view, it ultimately forces every person into one camp or another. Under such circumstances, voluntary compromise becomes surrender or betrayal or both.
The meaning of the above statement should be clear. Pluralism requires political compromise. Throughout history, people have maintained that certain beliefs and values are not subject to compromise or change because either human reason, or divine authority, or both indicate that they are necessary for the common good. Many Canadians are convinced that society’s duty to preserve the lives of the innocent is one of these beliefs. For them, to legalize abortion is intolerable because it subjects what ought to remain inviolable to the vagaries of human motivation and utilitarian manipulation. The better they understand the consequences of this change, the more alienated they will become from those who defend it.
On the other hand, the utilitarians, having savoured a major victory in the name of the autonomy and self-sufficiency of man, will be anxious to pursue the removal of other religious influences from public life insofar as these continue to deny this autonomy. As a well-known editorial entitled “A New Ethic for Medicine and Society” in the September 1970 issue of California Medicine put it:
It will become necessary and acceptable to place relative rather than absolute values on such things as human lives, the use of scarce resources and the various elements which are to make up the quality of life or of living which is to be sought. This is quite distinctly at variance with the Judeo-Christian ethic and carries serious philosophical, social, economic and political implications for Western society and perhaps for world society.
Morgentaler the humanist
In Canada, in 1972, Dr. Henry Morgentaler in his function as Chairman of the Committee to study Law Reform, a Committee of the Humanist Association of Canada, put the same idea more concretely when he proposed in The Humanist 1972, NR22 that the law should:
Stop enforcing a particular kind of religious morality on all the people of our country… that an individual has a right to do anything to himself in private without interference from the law … (that we seek) the repeal of all laws in the Criminal Code which relate to abortion, prostitution, pornography, gambling and suicide… (that) marijuana and hashish (be) legalized… (that) such proposals… would eliminate enormous injustices… (and that) they would be a step forward toward creating a more enlightened society.
The presuppositions of the earlier statement (quoted above) should be clear as well. Among opposing views about various aspects of family morality, abortion is the most important because it concerns a separate human life. This human life begins at conception, as was demonstrated once again most recently by the expert medical witnesses at Mr. Borowski’s Regina trial in May 1983. It is for this reason that so many people find the legalization of it so abhorrent.
Separate abortion and killing
The medical journal already quoted put it this way. After explaining that the process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new had already begun, it said:
Since the old ethic has not yet been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death.
Let us also add that opposition to abortion is not, in the first instance, based on a religious view and certainly not on a denominational or “sectarian” view. It may be held, indeed is held, by people of no religious affiliation, and it finds its strength first in human reason. After all, it is biology and not faith that tells us that a fertilized ovum is the earliest form of life.
The above provides a context which must be borne in mind when approaching the question of what it means when people today speak of the pluralist state. In other words, there are people who now fear, with the issue of abortion as an illustration, that the pluralist society (if it ever existed) is in the process of self-destruction.
To be continued….