The last essay in the collection The Issue is Life (edit. D. O’Leary, Hamilton, Welch and Co., 175 pp., 1988, $6.95, paperback) – is the best. In it, George Grant describes the Supreme Court decision in Morgentaler as almost comic – if it did not concern the slaughter of the young. The comedy arises from the fact that the judges used the language of North American liberalism to say “yes” to the core of fascist thought – the triumph of the will. Hence, the title “Abortion and the Triumph of the Will,” taken from Leni Riefenstahls’ documentary about the Nazi rally in Nuremberg also entitled “The Triumph of the Will.”
Riefenstahl saw Hitler as the man who through his own will intended to “liberate” each individual in the nation. Nazi doctrine despised both the presumed impotence of the individual in capitalist democracies and his actual submergence in the collectivism of communism. But the NSDAP saw nothing wrong in each individual surrendering his will to the Nazi Party. Anything which hindered this liberation (such as membership in the cosmopolitan Jewish Communist or Roman Catholic communities, the so-called yellow, red and black internationals) was regarded as an unacceptable limitation on the triumph of the will.
How does this apply to the Canada of the 80s? According to Grant, the Supreme Court said yes to those who claim the right to mastery over their own bodies, even if that mastery includes the killing of other human beings. Advocates of abortion “demand” that the state “must” immediately guarantee access to and payment for all abortions. Their will is paramount and triumphs over all obstacles.
Current scientific knowledge tells us that a separate human life is present from conception, with its own unique genetic pattern. But the resolute will puts such facts aside; the fetus becomes simply a parasite which has attached itself to a woman’s body, a few cells which can easily be clipped away. Why should we care about the life of a fetus when it conflicts with the will of a fully developed woman?
When abortion advocates celebrated the Morgentaler decision in the streets in January 1988, some of their signs said, “Abort God.” They were right to do so, Grant says, since they really meant, “Abort the idea of God since it has held human beings back from liberation.” The word “God” implies goodness and purpose, it implies that our lives can partake in a meaning which should not hinder but enhance. The unborn baby, too, is also called to partake in that meaning, and therefore in the past we have turned away from its destruction with abhorrence. But the will decides otherwise. If the baby is related to the Creator and the baby must go, then so does God. Morgentaler himself has long since drawn this conclusion.
The triumph of the will gives us a taste of what politics may be like if and when groups like the abortion supporters become victorious. The legal system, in its unthinking liberalism, flounders in the face of it.
The framework of ideas which Grant outlines, helps us understand both the American and Canadian landmark decisions on abortion. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the judges seem to have decided that they must give in to the imperious demands of the determined feminists, and then looked for reasons to do so. The decision was referred to by dissenting Justice Bryon White as an example of “raw judicial power,” since it was so shakily grounded in constitutional authority and legal precedent.
Justice Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, discovered a right which no one had noticed before, the right of a woman to have an abortion. He thought it could be located “in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty,” but he also thought that it could be found “in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people.”
Our own Canadian court seems to have worked equally hard to find or invent grounds for declaring that Section 251 of the Criminal Code was unfair to women. The security of the person guaranteed under Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has ordinarily been thought to mean that the authorities have no right to lock you up without good cause; but Chief Justice Dickson widened its import well beyond that: “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of security of the person.”
Mr. Justice Beetz, even though he sided with the majority, recognized the flaws in the Chief Justice’s argument. The legislation passed a hospital abortion committee to carry out one single task – to determine whether a woman’s life or health would be in danger if her pregnancy was allowed to continue. As Beetz saw, it is difficult to understand how the woman’s own priorities and aspirations would have anything to do with the committee’s deliberations. The Chief Justice was bending over backwards to make sure that the woman’s own wishes were what counted.
The kind of keen intellectual analysis of the evidence for which George Grant was looking was provided by Mr. Justice MacIntyre in dissent. “What has happened to your good judgment?” he asked his colleagues in effect. “Why have you let yourselves be swayed by unconvincing evidence?” As to the Chief Justice’s view of the violation of a woman’s own wishes, he said that all laws have the potential for interference with individual priorities and aspiration. In fact their very purpose is to cause such intrusion. (If you say to the tax man that his assessment of your income interferes with your priorities and is bound to cause you anxiety, his reply will undoubtedly be peremptory and probably rude.)
Another telling point made by MacIntyre was that the women who had suffered delays in getting abortions were all hypothetical. Though the Powell Report stressed the difficulties Ontario women faced, an astonishingly high number of abortions had actually been performed there – 31,379 in 1982. Furthermore, “No women testified that she personally had applied for an abortion anywhere in Canada and had been refused, and no physician testified to his participation in such an application.” Where is the justification? MacIntyre kept asking in his extensive rebuttal of the majority decisions, for the claim that Section 251 is unfair to women?
When George Grant said that he was not impressed by the justices’ ability to deal with philosophical and religious questions, he might have had Mme. Wilson in mind. She argued for a gestational approach to abortion without providing any substantial reasons for it. A woman’s power of choice, she maintained, is part of her essential humanity, and it cannot be taken from her.
In the abortion debate in the House of Commons at the end of July 1988, a number of women made strong speeches expressing a similar view to that of Mme. Wilson. Mary Collins, for example, argued that “Any law which takes away my right to make a decision about my body and my future, I can’t comprehend. It’s not right.”
The pro-abortion speech which attracted the most attention, however, was that by Barbara McDougall, Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues. It deserved attention; it avoided slogans, made frank admissions and recognized the possibility of conflicts between the wishes of the individual woman and the public good. Still it expressed the conviction that the woman’s wishes must be decisive.
Mr. McDougall dismissed the usual contention of feminists like Laura Sabia and abortionists like Henry Morgentaler that it is only a collection of cells which is in question. She called abortion the “killing of an unborn child – let us not be afraid of the vocabulary.” She also said that such killing is a moral issue. The question she put is, “Who is to make the moral judgment?” Is it the court in its red robes? The church in its silk robes? The politicians in their green chamber? Surely, she argued, the person carrying the child is the one who can make the judgment best.
To Ms. McDougall, pro-abortion slogans like “No unwanted child” needed to be analyzed rather than accepted. “Women know that there are people who want to adopt a child. Women know that a handicapped child has the same rights as others. Women know that a child born in less than perfect circumstances can still have a happy and successful life.” Still it is their choice, she affirmed, and we must not meddle in other’s ability to judge.” It is the mother who bears the ultimate responsibility,” said Ms. McDougall, “and therefore, ultimately must have the choice. And make no mistake, women make the right choice.”
House of Commons
The House listened to the women’s arguments, applauded them, and then voted the other way. Mary Collins’ amendment to make early abortion a matter between a woman and her doctor and late abortion permissible with the consent of only one doctor was defeated overwhelmingly, 191-29. Former Speaker John Bosley’s simply requiring abortion to be performed by qualified medical personnel failed even more decisively, 198-20. And the only amendment which came close to passing, the one sponsored by Gus Mitges which failed of acceptance by only 13 votes (118-105), was a highly restrictive one.
Shuddering at the thought that this amendment might have passed, Carol Goar of the Toronto Star wrote that the women saved Parliament form a big mistake, not a single woman MP voted for the Mitges motion. The fact that more than 47 per cent of MPs wanted a system even more restrictive than the one which the Supreme Court struck down, she attributed to a gender gap; a parliament of 253 men and 29 women did not speak for the people of Canada.
Carol Goar neglected the obvious fact that most of the male MPs are married men who are accountable not just to their constituents but to their wives: it is safe to say that many of these wives have views close to those of their husbands. They do not agree that a woman’s wishes are all that matter.
The position taken by Mme. Justice Wilson, Barbara McDougall and Mary Collins fits the “ conservative” interpretation of a particular “liberal” social philosophy. This philosophy sees the needs and desires of the individual as self-validating; no person or institution may restrict them.
The pragmatic arguments for abortion, including the frequent reference to “hard cases” resulting from rape or incest, were never intended to be final. They were necessary preludes to the assault on two of the most deeply rooted of human sentiments, the impulse to protect defenseless life and the bond between mother and child. Attack tradition in its decisively. Abortion is the crucial test case to demonstrate that traditional moral values, especially those rooted in religion, will not prevail.
The decisive defeat of the two feminist motions in the House of Commons showed that there is a stronger residue of respect for these traditional values than had been thought. Apparently, MPs are not prepared to view the triumph of the will in the way the Supreme Court did. Instead they took seriously the statement of principle made by another front-bench Conservative, Jake Epp:
“I plead with my colleagues to determine to reinforce first principles that life itself is paramount because it is a precious gift to humanity. Only as we go so far as to protect the right of the most defenseless of us, will we have the assurance that there exists a strong foundation to protect the rights of all of us.”
The individual’s triumphant will can never be the basis for a just and civilized society. Respect for life, on the other hand, must be its foundation and the source of its strength.