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Pro-Life Prohibition

The disappearance of the abortion debate in Canada.

by
Janice Fiamengo

Bio

January 26, 2013 - 12:28 am

He had to threaten a lawsuit to do it, but 18-year-old student Oliver Capko was finally able to convince the Student Association at Kwantlen Universtiy in Greater Vancouver to grant club status to Protectores Vitae, a pro-life group he had formed. He learned of the student association’s about-face in early December of last year. Student leaders had denied his original request because his club contravened their pro-choice policy, and it was only when Capko retained constitutional lawyer John Carpay that they thought better of their heavy-handedness.

Capko is not the first Canadian student to have discovered that his desire to promote the protection of unborn children put him in his student association’s line of fire. Students at many other Canadian universities have faced sanctions either from their representatives on council — who have frequently denied funding to pro-life associations — or, even more shockingly, from their university administration.

In 2010, for example, a group of five students at Carleton University in Ottawa was arrested by the police and removed from campus for displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses as part of their Genocide Awareness Project. While it is true that their posters were disturbing, the students themselves were quiet and unobtrusive. They did not harass anyone, shout, obstruct a speaker, or prevent other students from going about their business; they merely sought a prominent place to show images of abortion. Other student protesters — such as those who forced the cancellation of pundit Ann Coulter’s planned talk at the University of Ottawa in 2010, or those who tried to do the same to men’s rights advocate Warren Farrell at the University of Toronto last November — have been far more abusive and disruptive, and been treated by university officials with far greater leniency.

Universities’ willingness to impose harsh measures and student councils’ consistent animus against pro-life clubs highlight the unique vilification of this small but committed group of students. They advocate nothing violent or illegal or immoral; they merely speak about what has been deemed unspeakable in Canadian society.

A tacit agreement has made abortion a political no-go area in this once-conservative country. The present Conservative government under Stephen Harper — though continually accused by detractors of harboring a “hidden agenda” (supposedly dedicated to returning women barefoot and pregnant to the kitchens of the nation) — has shown itself averse to addressing the matter, leaving Canada the only country in the Western world without any abortion law. It has been that way since 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down the existing law, and no government since then has been able to draft a new one. Although statistics on late-term abortions are very difficult — in some cases impossible — to attain in Canada, it is acknowledged that a significant number occur after 21 weeks gestation, the point at which the Canadian Medical Association declares the fetus viable outside the womb.

When a Conservative backbencher sponsored a motion last September to study the Criminal Code’s definition of human life’s beginnings, his initiative was vociferously denounced by members of the opposition New Democratic Party as an attack on “women’s rights.” Purportedly the beginning of the hidden agenda’s implementation — and likely indeed an attempt to pursue a workable compromise on abortion — the motion also prompted major players in the Conservative government, including the prime minister, to distance themselves from a pro-life position, stating their conviction that Canadians preferred to leave the matter alone. The motion was defeated by a large majority.

What is one to make of the marked determination, not only on the part of pro-abortion advocates but also on the part of all but a few stalwart pro-life supporters, to accept a de facto ban on abortion debate? Certainly there is less and less place for pro-life advocacy on either side of the political spectrum.

Under different circumstances, the political Left in Canada might have been a natural home for the pro-life movement, especially that part of the Left with social gospel underpinnings. The leftist New Democratic Party, after all, has always drawn a significant number of its leading members from the mainline churches. With an emphasis on group rights, state-supported compassion, and special compensations for the weak, the progressive movement is at least theoretically a good fit for a principled commitment to the most vulnerable of human beings. The Left’s championing of women’s sexual freedom and self-determination, however, seems to have made protection of unborn children a political non-starter.

The conservative side of politics used to uphold the sanctity of life, with religious and social conservatives favoring humane limitations on the abortion license. But in the last twenty years or more, the emphasis in the modern conservative movement has been on freedom: free market competition, freedom from state interference in personal affairs, and freedom to express unpopular ideas. In that context, abortion law looks less like the protection of life than like the state meddling in private conduct, and therefore like an unjustifiable impingement on freedom of conscience. Avowedly pro-life politicians frequently declare their unwillingness to limit others’ “choice,” and both the libertarian wing of the political right and secular fiscal conservatives seem to find the pro-life position irrelevant or harmful.

For these reasons, legal restrictions on abortion are now nearly impossible to contemplate in Canada, a fact that pro-lifers, through their silence, implicitly acknowledge. In a prosperous, sexually liberated culture such as ours, it seems we can no longer imagine a law restraining a woman’s unfettered right to abortion: everything we have become — career-oriented, pleasure-seeking, committed to ideals of self-fulfillment and free choice — militates against it. And yet, even abortion’s staunchest defenders must recognize at some level that a culture that kills its unborn children in such numbers (reportedly about 30 abortions for every 100 live births) and with such indifference is an unhealthy one, both demographically and spiritually. The pro-choice determination to keep pro-lifers silent betrays that knowledge.

The Oliver Capkos of the country reveal a contradiction at the heart of our professed values — defense of the weak, the pursuit of justice, and the right to life — that few Canadians have the honesty or courage to confront.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).
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