During the recent election campaign, Stephen Harper said his views on abortion were “complex. … I don’t fall into any of the neat polar extremes on this issue,” he told Kevin Newman of Global news.
Abortion on demand is said to be either a fundamental Charter right or a massive violation of the fundamental right to life. Those are the “neat polar extremes” Harper describes. It would appear that a moderate position would be somewhere in between.
Except in Canada. Our public policy – no restriction on taxpayer-funded abortion at any time during gestation – is unmatched by any other democracy. Save for Chinese-style mandatory abortions, it would not be possible for Canada to be more extreme in its abortion licence. So extreme, in fact, that even our polar neighbours, Sweden and Norway, would blanch at our permissiveness. Both countries prohibit abortion in most cases after 18 weeks’ gestation. In Britain, it is 24 weeks. In Italy, 13 weeks. In France, Germany and Belgium, it is 12 weeks.
Only the United States matches our abortion on demand policy. Even so, Americans have parental notification statutes, a prohibition on federal funding and a federal ban on partial-birth abortion – soon to be under review by the Supreme Court. The moderate Canadian position is, in fact, American-style absolutism taken to the extreme.
On Feb. 26, the Calgary Herald pointed to the European examples and declared its editorial position to be in favour of “reasonable limitations” on access to abortion. The editorial represented a departure from the paper’s own extremist abortion position of the late 1980s, which favoured no abortion law at all and called for more robust support of abortion by tax dollars.
“We have been talking about the issue of abortion for several years and discussing whether we should adopt a more moderate position, one that is more reflective of our citizenry,” says Doug Firby, Herald editorial page editor. “Also, there have many medical advances – on viability and on fetal pain – since the position we took in the 1980s.”
Editorialists at the Herald report no great outcry at the change of position – which is not surprising, given that the editorial itself pointed to polling data that showed about half of all Canadians favour legal abortion “only under certain circumstances.”
I support policies that would ensure that all Canadians, including those unborn, are protected in law and welcomed in life. In a democracy, we are entitled to have arguments about that, but heretofore that position has been declared as intolerably extreme – while the opposite extreme has been declared moderate. That’s not a debate, it’s a ruthlessly effective propaganda exercise.
The media has been largely responsible for this classification and the move of the Herald toward moderation and balance is welcome, indeed. Other major newspapers should follow suit, not only for the cause of life, but for the health of our democracy, in which public policy debates should actually mirror the actual shape of public opinion.
All of which brings us back to the opinion of the chief public official, Mr. Harper, who told Maclean’s that he has “no intention of getting into the abortion issue.”
It is implausible that his views on abortion are so “complex” as to be beyond explanation. More likely, he means by “complex” that he belongs to the 52 per cent of Canadians who, polls tell us, want “some restrictions.” It is also likely that he finds the whole subject too controversial and distasteful. But a prime ministerial weak stomach is not an excuse for bad public policy.
Harper’s commitment to inaction is de facto support for the “polar extreme” he says he does not favour. His “moderate” position is therefore to do nothing to challenge the status quo that the majority of Canadians oppose.
Given that Harper is not shy about challenging the status quo on other issues – the gun registry, Kyoto, daycare, marriage – his position on abortion invites only two conclusions, neither of them flattering. Either he supports abortion on demand, but thinks there is political gain in dissembling, or he simply thinks the whole matter not important enough to do something about. The latter conclusion should offend both sides of the abortion debate.
Harper came to Ottawa, left and returned, not because he thinks it is his job to explain the Ottawa elite consensus to the country, but because he wants to challenge it. He now has the capacity to do just that. Let’s hope he still reads his hometown paper.
Fr. Raymond de Souza, chaplain to Newman House (the Roman Catholic mission at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.), is a columnist with the Western Standard and the National Post, where this article first appeared March 2. It is reprinted here with his permission.