Long-held code of silence broken to mark Supreme Court decision

In the past two months, there have been a number of pro-life articles appearing in national and local newspapers, particularly the National Post. Generally no friend to the pro-life movement, the media have generally skirted the issue. Last spring, the National Post ran a gingerly worded article called, “The A-word” that touched on the issue of media reticence when it comes to abortion. But in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the 1988 Supreme Court Morgentaler decision, editorialists and columnists were seemingly allowed to express their views on this otherwise muzzled issue.

The Sun papers in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto were the first out of the starting block with their week-long series in December by columnist Ann Marie McQueen. TheOttawa Sun’s front page came replete with an image of a large pregnant belly and the words “abortion” written across.

The reporting was extensive, with interviews from both sides of the issue, as well as columns including one from Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes. McQueen did not shy away from reporting the facts, such as the number of abortions committed in Canada, the legal vacuum that allows for full-gestation abortions and an admission that “most media outlets” downplay the size of the annual March for Life in Ottawa. Yet, in an article about access to abortion in Canada, there was not one pro-life source to balance several pro-abortion advocates worrying about the lack of abortion services in rural communities and some provinces.

Her last column, however, was revealing. McQueen admitted that she had expected to be “bombarded” with responses from pro-lifers. Instead she was “taken aback” that most of the letters were “from people who have deeply suffered from their abortions.” She wrote, “From women, yes, but men, too … I didn’t expect to have people pour out their hearts full of pain to me, a stranger reminding them of the very procedure which scarred them so.”

Yet, her conclusion was disappointing and non-committal. Attempting to square the circle, she acknowledged that pro-lifers “believe a person is a person from the moment he or she is conceived” and have the right to hold that opinion in a free and democratic society, but that a woman “should be able to decide – freely, without restrictions or hurdles or much in the way of limits – what to do with one growing in her belly.”

The National Post series ran Jan. 22-Feb. 7. This was a no-holds-barred, all-out abortion debate, beginning with a solid performance by David Frum entitled, “The day humanity became cheap.” He railed against the hypocrisy of a medical establishment that condones full-term abortions while passing “guidelines” on the use of human embryos. “If a 24-week fetus with a head, heart, eyes and hands is not a person deserving of protection, then how much less human is an eight-day-old embryo?

The Morgentaler case opened the door to radical scientific experiments with early human beings – and Canadian scientists have availed themselves of the opportunity.” The piece was followed a few days later with a sample of online comments criticizing him, under the heading, “The silencing of David Frum.”

Barbara Kay’s contribution the next day discussed the two things that she thought the public ought to be aware of, but were not, because “there is no public forum to discuss them.” The first is that women have become more careless using abortion as a form of birth control. She said, “In 1988, 16 per cent of pregnancies in Quebec, Canada’s most abortion-friendly province, resulted in abortion. Today, 30 per cent do.”

Her second point was about sex-selection abortions, where the preference in some cultures is to have male children. She caught Morgentaler in an ungainly moment, “It seems a bit awkward to eliminate a fetus on the basis of gender,” he said in an interview – “there can’t be many who would support it …”

Lorne Gunter gave a synopsis of the censorship occurring on Canadian university campuses. He described pro-lifers as “victims of political or ideological discrimination” and noted how “speech codes are applied selectively. Shout-downs and boycotts are tolerated only against politically incorrect speakers, not against those from favoured special interests.”

He also had a word for pro-life students across Canada, though it may not have been encouraging. “I have read scores of anti-abortion pamphlets of the kind given out by campus pro-lifers and, while I passionately defend their right to distribute them, I have a friendly word of advice: get new tactics.”

Jonathan Kay’s article covered the Morgentaler Symposium put on by the University of Toronto’s International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program. He noted what he called “a strain of underlying tension” beneath “the veneer of unity” exhibited by the conference speakers. “It came out on those few occasions when a speaker alluded, however obliquely, to that taboo question in the pro-choice camp: how late is too late?”

Finally, Michael Coren wrote an opinion piece entitled, “An anniversary of death” – a straightforward analysis of the rationale behind the pro-life position. What was notable was that this piece looked like it could have been ripped from the pages of The Interim.

Though the publicity was exceptional, in that it has not been covered quite so extensively before, the columnists were in most respects cautious and avoided the subject of complete protection for unborn human life, with the exception of Coren. Allusions to the “extremes” in the abortion debate were made, such as the one in Kay’s column where he made a comment on “anyone who’s managed to escape the tribal polarization of the abortion debate,” as if just a little bit of abortion in early pregnancy would be the tolerable mean between the two sides.

Pro-abortion pieces were also published. Post columnist Colby Cosh claimed that “most Canadians are perfectly comfortable without an abortion law.” The paper published the transcript of the talk given at the Morgentaler symposium by Vancouver’s Garson Romalis called, “Why I’m an Aasbortionist.” Dr. Paul Ranalli’s retort, “Why I’m not an abortionist” appeared two days later.

The National Post deserves kudos for allowing an almost-unprecedented open and frank discussion about a subject on which barely a word has been spoken.

Other papers and journals have also of late been reporting on the issue commemorating the 1988 decision. A Calgary Herald editorial defended a woman’s “right to choose,” but questioned whether “reasonable limits” could be placed on the procedure. It stated that it is “naïve to believe that every one of the more than 100,000 abortion each year in Canada are done because of medical reasons” and said the government “cannot tolerate a situation in which there is literally open season on its unborn citizens.”

The Globe and Mail ran a column by Margaret Sommerville, who supports early term abortions, in which the McGill University ethicist said it was time for a debate about abortion. She said limits on late-term abortions seemed in order and questioned the normalcy of abortion as a common-place (one-in-three) result of a pregnancy. Pro-life advocates seemed pleased with the increased media coverage and they hope it will allow for a more enlightened and informed public.