Thursday, January 23, 2014

Abortion wars in Canada

Here's is this last week's column from the Kingston Whig-Standard.

One of the reasons for Stephen Harper’s past electoral successes had undoubtedly to do with his promise not to touch the abortion or the marriage equality issues while in office. Canadians are not keen on reopening, in particular, the divisive abortion controversy. Realizing that any other course of action would be politically suicidal, Harper has slapped down backbenchers of his own caucus who tried to do otherwise. One has to give credit to the man where credit is due, whether because of political expediency or because he takes promises seriously, the prime minister stuck to his guns on the abortion issue.
Let me say at the outset that I support the status quo on abortion in the country. It’s up to pregnant women to decide whether they have an abortion or whether they carry a pregnancy to term. There are good moral reasons to do with what I take to be the moral status of embryos and fetuses and what I take to be the moral foundations of what is a woman’s absolute right to control what is happening to her body. This is well-trodded ground, though. These arguments have been going back and forth between pro-choicers and anti-choicers at least since the late 1960s. I am not going to bore you with a rehash of these arguments. Those who disagree will continue to disagree. If you believe that an embryo is a person from the moment of conception, nothing that I can say with regard to the science and morals of what dispositional capacities should be required to call something a person will likely sway you toward my take on the issue.
I am more concerned about patterns of what I take to be strategically motivated campaigning by anti-choice groups. I first noticed it in the context of the euthanasia debates. Anti-choice activists, typically closely aligned with conservative religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, have started repackaging their campaign messaging. In the good old days, they’d have simply told us that their God doesn’t like euthanasia and then they would have expected the rest of us to fall in line. That, of course, doesn’t quite cut it any longer today. So they have started resorting to quite vacuous rhetoric such as that euthanasia violates “human dignity.” When you ask what exactly they’re talking about here, Christian ideology comes to the fore in no time. It’s really just an attempt to sell religious views in secular verbiage. Or they claim that “vulnerable” people would be at gravest risk of abuse. A closer look at the social class makeup and educational background of the vast majority who ask for assistance in dying shows that there’s nothing to this scare campaign, either. Call me a cynic, but I am not just a little bit suspicious that this rhetoric is truly mere expediency. It has probably been road tested with pilot groups and has yielded results considered desirable by these same religious campaign organizations.
I cannot help but wonder whether a similar switch has also occurred in the abortion wars. Knowing that the overwhelming majority of Canadians are perfectly comfortable with where we are at with regard to the legal status of abortion, activists have been looking for wedge issues, that is issues where even your average liberal Canadian would scratch their heads wondering whether that might not be problematic. The objective here is to build coalitions with people who would generally consider themselves pro-choice or “on the fence.” What’s needed, much like in the euthanasia debate, are sensitive issues that would make people second-guess their stance on abortion.
And so it goes. The wedge issue chosen — strangely to my mind — isn’t late-term abortion. They typically do not occur for any frivolous or no reason at all, but because of very serious fetal abnormalities that were not caught earlier during pregnancy. While that is so, late-term abortions have been a popular target for anti-choice activism in the United States and elsewhere. Their Canadian brethren have instead zoomed in on sex selection. You know, women having abortions because of the sex of the fetus. I could be mistaken, but it seems it all started with what I still consider a remarkably disingenuous editorial penned by an interim editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal about two years ago. He suggested that pregnant women should not be provided with information about the sex of their fetus in order to prevent sex-selective abortion among Indo-Canadians. In the editorial, he refers to female fetuses as “girls.” Incredibly, he even referred to “saving” millions of women in India and China, as if the abortion of female fetuses amounted to the murder of either girls or women. It tells you a lot about the Canadian Medical Association Journal that such nonsense should ever have found its way into its editorial pages. There is, in fact, some weak evidence suggesting a slight gender imbalance among newborns of Canadians of East Asian descent, if a report published in the Toronto Star newspaper can be trusted. In the big swing of things, in Canada, this truly is neither here nor there. We must ensure that women are not pressured into having abortions, but ultimately, their motives are irrelevant, for all intent and purposes. We cannot say that women have the right to choose unless we disagree with their motives.
I have had gay friends of mine — happily pro-choice otherwise — who got all agitated when I suggested that at some point down the track, if we had a prenatal test for sexual orientation, some women might choose to abort fetuses testing positive for future homosexuality. They suddenly thought there should be limits on women’s rights to choose. Hello … conservative Christian campaigners, there’s a whole new target group for your material, a new partner in arms so to speak, gays concerned about their future numbers — who would have thought.
Conservative MPs and anti-choice campaigners decided opportunistically to ride this wave, complaining about “female gendercide,” pretending that this is a human rights issue. Of course, this can only be a human rights issue if you already assume that fetuses somehow have sufficient moral standing to grant them human rights. This isn’t actually the case in Canada.
It would be nice if political campaigners were more transparent about their motives. Anti-choice activists have truly refined their campaign techniques with a view to generating empathy among the wider Canadian public. We shouldn’t fall for these tricks.
Udo Schuklenk holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and Public Policy at Queen’s University, he tweets @schuklenk.


  1. Someone who is unconscious isn't a person either and seeing as a fetus isn't a part of a woman's body and a fetus is scientifically speaking a human and meets all seven of the scientific definitions of life it is a human life and seeing as we treat human corpses with more rights than fetuses and so by you're logic if i superglued myself to you and then knocked you unconscious i should have the right to kill you

  2. I appreciate your capacity to copy-paste stuff. Thanks for sharing your insights. Not sure they are relevant to the arguments made in the piece, but hey. Whether a fetus is human are not is not purely a scientific question, it is also always a matter of how we define human. The latter is a normative activity. Perhaps try to rephrase your first sentence into something intelligible and we'd try a discussion of your concerns?


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