Do right-to-life arguments receive a fair hearing in the media? No one who follows out daily papers closely could consider that they present a balanced view of abortion.
The Toronto Star, the paper with the largest circulation in Canada, is a case in point. Over a three and a half period, it has carried nine editorials dealing with abortion.
On January 28, the day Mortgentaler decision came down, the Star discussed Constable Packer’s refusal to accept duty at the Mortgentaler clinic. “This was not an issue if conscious,” it said, “it was an issue of an officer disobeying the lawful order.” To keep the peace, it went on, is the duty of any police officer; he cannot pick and choose whom he will protect. So the writer came down heavily against Packer, concluding that “his undoing is entirely of his own making.”
The main editorial the following day, January 29, was headed “Abortion ruling forceful, reasoned.” But the writer soon showed that he had not been able to follow its reasoning at all. The majority on the court, he said, had made it clear that “a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy is private and personal… with this judgement, abortion is now a matter between a woman and her doctor, as many have always argued.”
The Star’s discussion of “The abortion law: the next step” three days later, February 2, assumed that abortion is a personal health decision between a woman and her physician. It outlined the American plan, as set forth in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, whereby abortion is entirely a matter of choice in the first three months of pregnancy, partially regulated in the next three, and nearly prohibited in the last three. But any regulation in Canada, it suggested, ought to be outside the Criminal Code, “which can be crude, harsh and judgemental.” “So long as we trust the judgment of our doctors to determine when abortions can safely performed,” it said, “the need for criminal sanction becomes even less.”
On February 13 the editorial asked “What are the rights of the unborn?” It was responding to a plea by Ontario Health Minister Elinor Caplan for Ottawa to pass a new law. “Clearly, once you go beyond a certain point in pregnancy,” Caplan said “you must be concerned about the fetus.” The paper discussed various opinions about when that concern should manifest itself, and then, like Mme. Justice Wilson, settled for viability as a criterion – even though it conceded that, as a medical technology advances, that starting point may come earlier and earlier.
On February 28, the Star hit out at Premier Vander Zalm by reprinting part of the Vancouver Sun editorial entitled “Abortion Chaos.” His hard-line policy, the Sun said, is based on personal belief, “which samplings of public opinion show is very much in the minority. “It might well put him at war “with many of health professionals and all women who demand the right to make medical decisions for themselves.”
A few days later Prime Minister Mulroney suggested that a free vote could be held in the House of Commons, with every member voting according to his conscience. The Star replied on March 8 that the fundamental moral issue of whether even to allow abortions had been settled years ago, that the Supreme Court decision “makes it perfectly clear that in the first three month of pregnancy, it is a matter between a woman and her doctor.” What remains to be considered, it continued, are policy decisions – whether the criminal law should be used to regulate abortion, at what point another physician besides the woman’s own doctor ought to be consulted, how equal access is to be secured, and so on. It called a free vote in the House of Commons a sheer abdication of the governments responsibility.
On March 17, the day before Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn and his Provincial counterparts were to discuss abortion legislation, the Star brought their attention to a proposal by the Law Reform Commission. There would be no restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortion allowing specific reasons, including rape, incest and fetal defeat, in the next 12 weeks unless the woman’s life was in danger.
This proposal, the paper decided appears to meet the concern social and medical requirements, as well as the spirit of the Supreme Court decision, and it “provides the politicians with a basis for calm, rational debate” on how and whether to invoke the criminal law, “without violating the court-ordered principle of universal access to abortion.”
The headings of the last two editorials – “Mulroney’s non-option” and “PM copes out on abortion” (May 16 and 20) – showed up that the Star was keeping up its attack on Mr. Mulroney for daring to think that a law banning all abortions was indeed an option for the government under the Charter and the pandering to “right-wing” members of his caucus. Again the paper asserted that the Supreme Court declared that women must be permitted to decide on their own in the early stages of pregnancy, and that it invited the government to establish appropriate rules dealing with abortion only in later stages. “By obscuring the Supreme Court decision and not facing the issues at hand,” the paper declared, “Mulroney does a real disservice and reveals a lack of leadership.”
Commentary is almost superfluous. In general, the editorials must have done a great deal to add to confusion about the subject in the popular mind.
The Packer editorial ignored, of course, the question of whether Packer was given a lawful order at all. One of his supervisors made a slip of the tongue and said he was there to protect the clinic – which until abortion law was declared unconstitutional – was an illegal establishment. As Mrs. Packer pointed out on a phone-in show, Klaus Barbie was on trial in Lyon for obeying order – orders to kill people. How could her husband be required to protect the killers of unborn babies?
The editorial of January 29, interpreting the Supreme Court decision and the sentence “Simply put, any attempt to substantially restrict a woman’s right to end her pregnancy will not be possible,” is simply wrong.
Simply put, only Mme. Wilson said that such a right exists. Simply put again, all three majority judgements said that protection of the fetus is a legitimate legislative objective – which implies a limitation on a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. Admittedly, the judgements were confusing, but the paper should not have misinterpreted them in this way. And once it had got them wrong, it continued to repeat the mistakes. Simply put, the Star should have been able to do better.
The other editorials demonstrate that the Star would be satisfied, with an abortion law which really allows abortion on demand – except in the final stages of pregnancy, say after 28 or 24 weeks. But, like Mme. Wilson, they could prove no substantial reason for a child of 24 weeks being protected, but not a child of 23 or 22. The unborn, in the Star’s discussion of the subjects, turn out to have the very minimum of rights.
The Prime Minister accused the opposite of “hypocrisy incarnate” for rejecting a free vote on the abortion issue. The Star in turn accused him of hypocrisy for pretending to give leadership and failing to do so. But the editorial writers were themselves guilty of hypocrisy as well.
It was hypocritical of the Star to say, over and over again, that the Supreme Court had left the decision on abortion in the early stages of pregnancy up to a woman and her doctor. It was hypocritical of it to pretend that giving protection to the unborn child after viability (when few abortions are done anyway) would be a rational response to the Supreme Court’s suggestion that protection of the fetus was a valid legislative objective. It was hypocritical of it to pretend that the morality of abortion is no longer and issue.
What other impressions do these editorials leave with us?
One is that the Star can assert the claims of conscience when it wants to, and ignore them when it wants to. Following Mme. Justice Wilson, it can declare that abortion is a matter of a woman’s own conscience, which must be your respected. Not so in the Constable Parker case, even though a much better case can be made here for the individual’s right or obligation to follow his conscience, since the lawfulness of the order given to him to guard the Mortgentaler clinic was very much in question.
As we have seen, the editors felt free to read the Supreme Court judgement any way they liked. They also forgot about the claims of science and reason why they felt like it. In recommending something like the gestational approach set forth in Roe v. Wade in 1973, they ignored all the fetology has found out about life in the womb since that unfortunate American decision. Of course long before 1973 it was known that the child in the womb was a human being all along. Since conception, it had all the information present in each of its cells to turn it into a mature person, as long as its development is not interfered with. To think that it deserves protection not only at the time of viability, therefore, is simply unreasonable. It does not suddenly change into the human species from some other.
Most of us have little sympathy for Mr. Mulroney, who is trying to avoid responsibility for abortion legislation in the most shocking way. Still the fierceness with which the Star attacked him for even suggesting the possibility of a pro-life option, and option seemingly compatible with the Supreme Court’s declaration that Parliament could pass a law to protect the fetus, was remarkable. Apparently, the paper is prepared to persecute any politician who does not agree with it. The law is whatever the Star says it is. Orthodox thinking on the subject of abortion, as far as this paper and many of the other media are concerned, begins with the assumption that Canada is going to have abortion virtually on demand.