This month, we begin a series reviewing the reasons why the three largest national political parties in Canada should be staunch and unapologetic defenders of the pro-life cause. Currently, of course, only one of the big three national political parties is even hospitable to pro-lifers, and the other two parties have adopted pro-abortion policies at the level of their platform. But there is no reason why an opposition to legal infanticide should fall on one side of the political spectrum. With this series, then, we wish to place the pro-life cause within reach of sincere and ardent Canadians citizens of every political stripe, and to remind our readers that the current configuration which is a daily reality of political life in this country could be otherwise—and has.
The Liberal Party, for instance, boasts a long and proud history of pro-life members. For readers of a certain age, one need only mention the names of former Members of Parliament such as Tom Wappel, Paul Szabo, Dan McTeague and the late senator Stanely Haidacz, to bring to mind a previous age where one could be both a pro-life activist and a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party. That time has, of course, passed—at least for Liberal MPs and senators. But the political power plays and ideological crystallization that has enshrined abortion at the centre of Liberal—and liberal—politics is, if not an accident of history, then at least its artifact.
To unfold this contingent history, one can begin with the progressive era of the early 20th-century to which many modern liberal political movements can be traced. This period saw the combination of a curious set of novel ideas: as “scientific socialism” was taking root in Russia, English and American thinkers and activists were busy working out an equally inhuman vision of society which could be implemented in the West. Looking to figures such as Marx and Darwin, progressives found, in the notion of biological and social struggle, the basis for an evolutionary model of human life. In the same way that the physical environment furthered the process of “natural selection,” expert knowledge could facilitate a similar ascent of the human species.
This was, in other words, a decidedly biological version of progress. On this view, the raw material of the human species was ripe for the same kind of improvement that the social sciences were promising—a view that was explicitly discredited, not by the Soviet regime’s brutal implementation of a similar vision at the level of social organization, but by the Nazi’s nearly identical eugenic plans. Adolph Hitler and Margaret Sanger may have had different ideas about what constituted “fit” and “unfit” human life—but the distance between the former’s mad dream of Aryan perfection and that of the foundress of Planned Parenthood was only one of degrees. Each one espoused a racist, dystopian ideology—and each one required totalitarian control (via annihilation or forced sterilization) to make it a reality.
The Second World War brought the dark side of the progressive era’s ideology into view, and put beyond the pale the eugenic ideas which were an explicit dimension of their vision. And yet, as the Covid pandemic illustrated so vividly, a deference (not to say reverence) for expert knowledge still informs the liberal worldview: there remains, at the level of instinct, a powerful impulse to be ruled by a wise, credentialed bureaucrat-king instead of discerning, in the messy processes of deliberative politics, a path informed by legal precedent or moral principle.
Principle, in fact, is precisely what emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War as the touchstone for liberal politics and liberal political philosophy. Michael Ignatieff—a figure who was both a Liberal politician and remains a prominent liberal political theorist—popularized the phrase “the Rights Revolution” to describe the discursive turn that followed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948. What should have followed, in the wake of the war, was a moral renaissance; what occurred, instead, was a subversion of this discourse which ultimately undermined the protections that liberal political movements sought to ensure.
Nothing illustrates this sad turn more clearly than what are euphemistically referred to as “reproductive rights.” The preliminary configuration of abortion and human rights appeared in the feminist movement of the 1960s. Although “women’s rights,” as they were characterized in this tumultuous decade, seemed congruent with the Cold War era affirmation of Western freedoms in contrast to Soviet constraints, the left-wing “women’s liberation” movement furthered the same social vision that reigned in the Soviet Union, one that actually marginalized the individual—its context, its traditions, and its protections.
Thus did the discourse of human rights become the vehicle through which the rights of unborn children were systematically menaced in the Western world. But, as the history sketched above makes clear, it could be otherwise. The Marches for Life, first in the U.S., then Canada, and now around the world, show how the notion of human rights can—and should—provide the basis for the legal protection of unborn life. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, this alignment of liberal theory and actual practice can become a reality in a way that remains, for the moment, impossible in our own country. However, even though self-described “liberals” continue to lament the American Supreme Court’s recent decision, the legal revolution that the overturning of this atrocious law represents has created the conditions for a more perfect realization of that country’s founding insight into the universality of inalienable human rights.
We can only hope that Canada becomes truer to this liberal vision—one which takes the truth of human dignity to be self-evident, and which sees the protection of the unborn as central to its conception of a just world. In the meantime, we call on liberals (and Liberals) to work with us to this end, and to remind their philosophical and political colleagues that another truer, and more beautiful version of their own project awaits them once the illiberal abrogation of the rights of the unborn has been repudiated. Their own ideals demand nothing more—and the unborn bearers of human rights deserve no less.