On November 1 and 2, 1983, the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews held a Colloquium on “Human Rights and Responsibilities – Canadian Religious Perspectives.” The Ottawa Colloquium, attended by some hundred invited people, was in honour of the 35th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations and covered three subjects: Pluralist Society; Abortion-Euthanasia-Infanticide; and Discrimination. Mr. Gordon Fairweather, Chairman of the Canadian Human Rights Commission addressed the first subject, while Dr. David Roy, Director of a Bioethics Center in Montreal spoke on the second and Rabbi Pearson on the third. This report focuses on the first two speakers, as they specifically addressed the subject of abortion.

What’s legal is moral?

In his keynote speech, Mr. Fairweather expressed concern about harmony in the nation, the protection of the rights of minorities, and the government’s task in balancing rights and duties in order to maintain a true diversity in our society. These concerns, he said, were “quite essentially Canadian,” indicating that in his mind, to disturb this harmony was to be un-Canadian.

Without naming names, Mr. Fairweather attacked the Pro-Life movement in Canada, especially its political activity. He angrily denounced “angry division,” the “nostalgia for the absolute,” the “arrogance of Christians” handing out a checklist of moral virtues, organizing hit lists, instigating a “modern inquisition.”

In short, the Chairman of the Canadian Human Rights Commission projected the view that acceptable moral behaviour is best expressed by current Canadian legal and political custom. (This, of course, includes the legalization and approval of the killing of the unborn.) He was obviously disgusted with those who demand to know the views of their political representatives on the issue of abortion. Thus, he went on to charge that society “was gravely threatened by Christians who impose their views.” His talk received vigorous applause, especially from several delegates of the United Church.

Considers himself a Christian

Mr. Fairweather did not discuss whether there are limits to pluralism, whether or not in his views the powers of parliament are absolute, or whether pluralism and parliament must or should act in conformity with an objective morality outside its own jurisdiction in order to be legitimate. The whole idea of an “objective morality” to whose standards society must conform appeared unknown to him. Equally unknown, apparently, was the idea that Christians have an obligation to transform society and its legal system in harmony with Christian teaching and ethics. Thus, as noted, Christians who do believe in such a morality become enemies of the state, according to Mr. Fairweather. As if to confuse the issue even more, in his talk there were several references indicating that Mr. Fairweather is associated with the Anglican Church and considers himself a Christian.

The second speaker, Dr. David Roy, Director of a Bioethics Center in Montreal, presumably represented the Catholic contribution to this Colloquium organized by the “National Tripartite Liaison Committee” (tripartite because representing Protestants, Catholics and Jews). While speaking briefly on infanticide and euthanasia, Dr. Roy’s main presentation concerned an “Open Letter” on the subject of abortion. He had chosen the literary form of a “letter,” rather than an article, paper or study, he wrote, in the hope that the participants in the Colloquium would be “less occupied with scoring points” and be “more solicitous of seeking understanding.”

The letter has a long introduction about the “role of argument,” of being “trapped in a horizon that permits us  to perceive and act only upon a narrow slice of human reality.” It then proceeds with points on “the nature of Moral Living;” it advances to sketch a “Moral Position on Abortion”, and it then develops a “Moral Policy on Abortion” with some reflections on subsidiary questions such as the relation of law and morality, the meaning of rights, the goals of medicine. The author concludes with a reflection on the need for a Moral Strategy on Abortion.

“Nature of moral living”

Regretfully, a careful reading of this letter shows that Dr. Roy continues to harden his views on abortion as expressed by him over the last five years. David Roy, who is a Catholic priest with a PhD in theology from the University in Munster, Germany, now appears to have arrived at a view directly opposed to that of the Catholic Church. In the sections dealing with the need for a moral “position,” the need for moral “policy,” the need of a moral “strategy,” the one position, the one policy, the one strategy which must be ruled out of the realm of possibilities is that of total opposition to abortion. The necessary preliminary to this rejection of total opposition to abortion as a viable moral choice is to be found in Dr. Roy’s analysis of the “nature of moral living.” Here he indicates his belief that the moral crisis is now such that it is no longer possible to find an ethics on  “divine authority.”

Life as theory

It should be pointed out that Dr. Roy remains opposed to abortion, at least in theory. Abortion, as the expression of tragedy, he writes, “is a mirror of dehumanization.” As for the practical side, his strategy, being based on a complete re-make of society (it will zero in on the social, cultural, economic and philosophical roots of situations that paralyze moral liberty …) requires allowance for abortions as they are done now while hoping for a better day in the future. Thus he has completed his journey of several years from arguing that there is no question of abortion in expelling the fruits of conception in the first fourteen days or so, (his “hypothesis” of individuation) to accepting abortion for specific exceptional reasons, (his theory of a graded curve of moral tolerance); to rejecting “total opposition” as the only intolerable and foolish position.

The latter, of course, is the position of the Catholic Church and all those other Christians and non-Christians who reject abortion by state legislation or who oppose it through pro-life activities.