In the initial weeks after the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s abortion law, there was tremendous unity of mind and strategy among pro-life Canadians.  All pro-life groups and churches which spoke out on the issue agreed that it was Parliament’s duty to pass legislation protecting all unborn babies without exception.  When Cardinal Carter of Toronto wrote to members of Parliament demanding full protection for the unborn, his statement was endorsed by the pro-life movement across Canada, as well as by the Presidents of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Ontario Bishops, the Pentecostal assemblies of Canada, the Catholic Women’s League and the Knights of Columbus.

This show of unity was sufficiently impressive that, days later, the Conservative caucus voted against proceeding with a gestational abortion law, which would have allowed ready access to abortion.  Today this unity is shattered and many people want to know why.

The following outline centres on two critical points: an old disagreement on the role of the Church vis-à-vis politicians; and a new disagreement on what Parliament can or should do.

The former is the broader of the two.  It goes back some 20 years or more and involves political/pastoral disagreements, though not doctrinal ones.  Everybody continues to agree that abortion is to be condemned, no matter what.  The latter is of recent origin and involves interpretations of the January 1988 Supreme Court decision and the powers of Parliament.

Old disagreement

Crucial to understanding the June CCCB directive to MPs and Senators is the question of freedom of MPs to act as they see fit, and the supposed limitations of the Catholic hierarchy to tell them what to do.  This has been touched upon in earlier articles (see December 1987, January 1988, and especially February 1988), and should now be called to mind again.

Freedom to ignore human rights?

  1. 1. Twenty years ago, in March 1968, a CCCB delegation headed by Bishop Remi De Roo of Victoria, B.C., appeared before the combined Senate-House of Commons Committee holding hearings on legalizing abortion.  Their cogent presentation of why abortion cannot and may not be approved was nullified for all practical purposes when the Bishop began his presentation with “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not here to impose our view…” and when another delegate, Father E. Sheridan, closed it with a similar observation, “we do not believe that our moral principle must be enshrined in Criminal Law.”  Not too surprisingly, it wasn’t.
  2. 2. The attitude of the 1968 CCCB delegates was in part an unconscious reflection of the secular spirit of the times.  This repeated endlessly the astonishing refrain that in cases of family-sexual-moral matters politicians had no right to allow their personal convictions to shape government decisions.

The CCCB delegation was also influenced by the belief that freedom from pressure was what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it called for more autonomy for the laity in matters directly under their responsibility, such as politics.  The hands-off policy of the delegation was facilitated further by a lack of understanding that abortion is a human rights issue.  No one, not even Parliament may take away God-given rights, and any act which does so is intrinsically evil.

  1. 3. Nineteen years later, in February 1987, the two CCCB General Secretaries, Ryan       and Robitaille, sent a letter to all MPs commenting on the Private Member’s (Gus Mitges) Motion.  This motion called for a declaration of intent on the part of the Commons to amend the Charter of Rights on behalf of the unborn.  The Secretaries informed the MPs that “the Bishops” did not necessarily regard the motion as “the most suitable means to implement this right to life of the foetus.”

The motion was defeated in June.  Angry pro-lifers protested.  The Secretaries published a “Clarification” in September.  Their action had been approved by the Executive of the CCCB, they stated, and had been justified, among other reasons, because “there was the matter of freedom of each Member of Parliament to make a personal decision about the motion; and the Bishops wished to safeguard [the MPs] freedom of informed conscience.”

New Disagreement

Parliament and Supreme Court

  1. 4. After the Supreme Court decision on Morgentaler, Campaign Life Coalition took the position, contrary to media propaganda, that a true pro-life bill was still possible.  But a member of Advocates for Human Life troubled the waters.

The Advocates was founded as a group of pro-life lawyers working together to advance the pro-life cause in the courts.  Currently comprised of a handful of active members, its chief worker is Gerry Ferguson of British Columbia.  In February, Mr. Ferguson circulated a petition to be signed by pro-life lawyers and to be presented to the federal cabinet without first discussing it with anyone else in the pro-life movement.  Unlike other pro-life groups, who were asking the federal government to legislate full legal protection for the unborn, the lawyers’ petition spoke of abortion for the life or health of the mother just as Section 251 had done.  Because of multiple copies in circulation, this petition found its way to the Federal Cabinet and other circles.

The Ferguson petition explicitly stated that such was the best law that could be passed by Parliament given the position taken by the Supreme Court in the Morgentaler case.  In essence the lawyers who signed the statement were both petitioning the government and offering a legal opinion.  As a result of Mr. Ferguson’s efforts, over one hundred lawyers quickly signed the petition which was presented to a member of the Federal Cabinet in early spring.  Its impact can well be imagined.

  1. 5. A similar development took place at the CCCB.  The CCCB’s lawyer on staff, Jennifer Leddy, also concluded in an analysis of her own (February 15) that it was not constitutionally possible to return to the pre 1969 law and prohibit all abortions, (except where the mother’s life is clearly endangered).  Any new law would also have to take into account the health of the mother (“J. Leddy,” More background legal notes…April 6, 1988 p. 2).

The opinion served as the basis for the discussion among Bishops in mid-March who by this time had also been advised of the Ferguson opinion.  Leddy confirmed her views in early April.

  1. 6. In the meantime, Dr. Morris Shumiatcher, Mr. Joe Borowski’s counsel in the case now before the Supreme Court, had joined the Campaign Life Coalition side of the argument and has defended the constitutionality of his own proposal which does not allow abortion for health reasons at all.

In early May, the very author of the compromising legal opinion, Gerry Ferguson, himself abandoned it.  On May 10, Dr. Bernard Nathanson had been in Ottawa to address Members of Parliament during a luncheon organized by Campaign Life Coalition and Alliance for Life. Having reconsidered the matter, and following discussions with Dr. Nathanson and Campaign Life Coalition President Jim Hughes, Ferguson decided that his legal opinion, and, therefore, his message to Members of Parliament, had been wrong.

He set to work meeting again with those MPs he had lobbied before.  He explained to them that he now believed that they had the power and responsibility to pass a law giving full legal protection to the unborn.  But, eleven days later, the Conservative government introduced its three-pronged proposals for the legalization of abortion.  The Interim published an article by lawyer Paul Dodds entitled: “Parliament can pass a pro-life law” (May issue, front page).

Old and new merge

  1. 7. By early March the old reluctance to face media and politicians squarely and press for nothing but the best, had reared up again.  Bishop Remi De Roo, now president of the regional Episcopal assembly of Western Canada, whose 25 or so bishops had met in Edmonton at the end of February, gave an interview to the weekly The Western Catholic Reporter (March 7).  He spoke at some length about abortion as a human rights issue.  He preferred the current American legislation over the British, he said, because the Americans had based theirs on the right of the fetus.  (In reality, U.S. legislation is based on the so-called right to privacy and not that of the unborn.)

In Canada, he stated, the politicians must enact legislation that will stand up in the courts and be acceptable to the people.  The bishops, he thought, may have to tolerate a less than perfect law, which allows for abortion in cases of rape and incest, adding “but that doesn’t mean we will condone abortion.”

A week or so later, in an interview with the Catholic Register of Toronto, the same bishop, never friendly to pro-life, fired of a broadside: “We have to remain calm, however.  We can’t push the panic button.  This is a time for rational discussion, not a time for emotions.  We don’t want extremist dividing the country and having politicians running scared, looking over their shoulders.”  (C.R., March 26, 1988, p. 2, emphasis ours)

  1. 8. On March 17, the CCCB signaled a retreat from its earlier position.  Instead of speed, the top priority should be carefully thought-out policy which should include other questions – such as experimentation on fetal tissue, they said.  An eventual law, they thought, should deal with the rights of the mother as well as the child.  Abortion, they now said, was a complex issue to which there is no quick fix.  Finally, they offered the opinion that in a pluralistic society one might well have to live with a defective law.  (Notes on Canadian Bishops’ position on abortion. For text, see below).

In passing, the Bishops noted the importance of dialogue with pro-life groups.  No such dialogue was ever requested or took place.  However, a lot Mr. Gerald VanderZande, a member of the Christian Reformed Church and Director of the Toronto Committee for Justice and Liberty (an economic/political educational and lobbying group) was brought in as consultant.  VanderZande accepts abortion, though not abortion on demand.  He has never belonged to any pro-life group, though apparently he has felt for some time that he should be a natural choice to lead inexperienced pro-lifers to battle.

  1. 9. Instead of dialoguing with real pro-life leaders, CCCB staff met secretly with government officials in mid-March, followed immediately to another meeting between staff and Bishops on the one hand, and Ministers Epp, Hnatyshyn, Mazankowski, McDougall and Senator Lowell Murray on the other.

What exactly was said to the Cabinet Ministers by the CCCB representatives is not known.  But on May 14, Deputy Prime Minister, don Mazankowski met with a group of pro-life constituents, including Campaign Life Coalition representatives in his riding in Vegreville, Alberta.  In defending his government’s failure to bring forward pro-life legislation, Mazankowski used the views of “the Bishops” to brush aside the Coalition’s demand for full legal protection for the unborn.  James Albers, President of the Alberta wing of the group said that Mazankowski’s attitude towards them was nasty and hostile (see June Interim, p. 3).  In 1981, while in the opposition, Mazankowski made a glorious statement for full legal protection for the unborn.

  1. 10. MPs are bound to think that CCCB personnel speak for “the Catholic Church” and its 11 million Canadian adherents.  That the CCCB has no authority to speak for the laity in partisan politics, may not have occurred to them.

As soon as news of the CCCB’s latest stand trickled down to the lower ranks, MPs began to return to party positions and abandon the solid pro-life stand a number of them had adopted.

The June 15-16 letter from CCCB President Archbishop James Hayes has furthered the process of disintegration.  At last report, MPs seem ready to legalize the killing of unborn babies all over again with the idea that voting for Amendment A will absolve them from any guilt about attacking the rights of unborn babies.

Despite all the foregoing, there is complete unanimity in the pro-life movement over this issue.  This was demonstrated at the annual convention of the two national pro-life organizations in Charlottetown, P.E.I.