Borowski: the paradox of martyrdom

Borowski: A Canadian Paradox by Lianne Laurence, (Interim Publishing, 415 pages, $24.95 softcover, $39.95 hardcover)

Review by
Stephen Tardiff
The Interim

The true legacy of a movement that defends life is not the victories it enjoys, but the heroes it employs. Joe Borowski, who lived on a farm and worked in a mine, took up the extraordinary task of defending the unborn child. For this, he was castigated as a radical and derided as an extremist – even though his most “controversial” belief was that prenatal infanticide was wrong.

Borowski: A Canadian Paradox recounts the life of a man who was, by all accounts, larger than life. His story explores every extreme: from the domestic bliss of family life, to the turmoil of politics, from his humble beginnings in a small town to arguing a case before the highest court in the land. Borowski did it all.

Born in Wishart Saskatchewan in 1932, Borowski was industrious and independent from his early youth. He struck out at 14 to make his way in life and by the age of 19, he was married to his beloved wife, Jean. By 32, he had embarked upon his political career. He entered politics on behalf of his disenfranchised workers and neighbours, but his career was defined by the defence of his unborn brothers and sisters. A determined advocate, devoted husband, and loving father of three, Borowski was pro-life in the deepest sense of the word.

A lesser biographer would have been overwhelmed by the task but, time and again, Laurence shows that she is up to the rare challenge that this book presents; only the biography of an ordinary man could be told in an ordinary way. Lianne Laurence must not be merely a biographer, but also a journalist, political historian, narrator and legal clerk, if she is only to cover the facts of the story.

Laurence’s narrative unfolds not only naturally, but sympathetically as well. For Borowski’s story is unsuited for scholarly distance and Laurence is both reticent and empathetic on precisely the right occasions. In fact, there is even the odd phrase of purple prose (which, no doubt, Borowski would have loved).

The book maintains a certain double vision throughout; Borowski’s situation is always placed in relation to the pro-life movement as a whole. In this, Laurence shows a keen understanding of her subject. The biography of Joe Borowski becomes the history of the pro-life movement of the time. The story of his life becomes the story of his work, precisely because the two were indistinguishable. Thus, the “Trial for Life” commands six chapters in Borowski, because his personal investment in the trial is almost impossible to overestimate.

Borowski’s personal commitment to the pro-life movement remains a sterling example to citizens and statesmen alike. And yet, we miss the most remarkable aspect of his achievements if we dismiss him as merely a paradox: a great man who accomplished things beyond our own abilities. Laurence does not shirk from this, the most troubling aspect of the book: for all of Borowski’s colourful characteristics, one must be struck by the absence of paradoxes which he allowed himself. Unorthodox, polemical and, as one colleague described him, “a man of a stubbornness that is beyond all description,” he was, nonetheless, all too reasonable; his greatest eccentricity was his sanity.

His government funded abortions, so he didn’t pay his taxes; the law did not protect the unborn, so he challenged the law; abortions continued, so he went on a hunger strike to call attention to the plight of the unborn. Borowski appears to have been the last sane man in a world gone mad. He was animated by the haunting concern: “Have I done enough?” If this does not bother us, it is not because we have an answer, but rather, because we do not have the courage to ask the same question.

Because the pro-life movement would not be where it is today without Borowski, every pro-life person should be familiar with his story. To that end, Laurence does a masterful job in portraying his life and times.

In sum, the highest compliment one can give to this book is that it is worthy of its subject: the pro-life champion, Joe Borowski.

Stephen Tardiff, a frequent contributor to The Interim, is studying literature and philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the Univerity of Toronto.