Watching a Canadian TV panel attempt to discuss Alabama’s new abortion restrictions recently, I was reminded how debate is like exercise: Skills atrophy from disuse.
The panelists identified as supporting abortion rights recited only the blandest of cliches in abortion’s favor, implying that their position was so morally uncomplicated and self-evident, it was hardly worth mustering much intellectual effort to defend it. The push-back from their lone opponent, by contrast, was entirely procedural, arguing that abortion-rights supporters should have more empathy and awareness of the existence of their critics.
This, alas, is about as good as a conversation about the issue gets in Canada, a country in which the political, legal and media establishments have spent three decades attempting to stigmatize this important debate into an offensive taboo. The consequence has been a deeply sheltered society embarrassingly ignorant of even the most basic facts of the issue, and thus largely incapable of discussing one of the defining ethical challenges of our time in a substantial, adult manner. The vigor of the U.S. abortion debate brings pains of its own, but Canadians should clearly understand the thoroughly unimpressive set of circumstances protecting them from, as they so often sneer, “what’s going on in the States.”
Abortion in Canada is not analogous to Canadian health care or gun control, issues for which it’s possible to draw conclusions about the moral character of the country by pointing to a suite of public policies. There exists no Canadian Abortion Act, nor indeed any law, passed by any level of legislature, creating a legal abortion regime in the country. There is only the outdated Section 287 of the criminal code (previously known as Section 251), passed by the Liberal administration of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969 and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988.
The Section 251 ruling --which declared government-mandated abortion-approval committees to be an unjust burden on the rights of women-- was narrow and technical. It certainly did not rise to the level of Roe v. Wade, which offered a comprehensive theory of abortion as a constitutionally protected right. The 1988 ruling in Canada, R. v. Morgentaler, actively concedes the possibility of constitutional abortion regulation. Yet, unlike similar rulings overturning laws dealing with assisted suicide or prostitution, the 1969 abortion law was never replaced with anything else. Ottawa’s sole attempt occurred in 1990, when a moderate abortion bill drafted by the more conservative Brian Mulroney administration was defeated by a tie vote in Canada’s unelected Senate.
Since then, abortion has only been regulated by the ethics of Canadian doctors. Lacking prescribed legal boundaries, any sort of abortion can be performed in Canada so long as a willing medical professional can be found. This has made Canada a wild outlier in global abortion policy, far more permissive than even the most liberal states in Europe.
Most Canadians are only dimly aware this is the case. A 2013 Angus Reid poll found that 45 percent of Canadians believed the country’s law forbade abortion after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, which it absolutely does not. Such legislation would likely be popular, however. A 2018 poll by the same firm found 49 percent of Canadians agreeing “there should be some laws on abortion in Canada, especially in areas such as late term pregnancies,” with an additional 12 percent agreeing “we should have abortion laws in Canada which severely restrict availability of abortion except in cases of sexual assault.”
Such opinions are essentially banned from mainstream politics, however. Conservative politicians are now expected to recite with clockwork regularity that they have “no intention of reopening the abortion debate,” as Tory leader Andrew Scheer did earlier this month, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had implied otherwise. Trudeau, for his part, has prohibited antiabortion politicians from even running for office as a member of his party.
Very few ethical debates are ever completely closed. Unwanted children and pregnancies are one of the great constants of human existence, and virtually every civilization in history has had some process or custom for eliminating them. Yet such procedures have always offended many, given one of the other ongoing projects of civilization is seeking to restrain and moderate our impulse to eliminate what we consider less than fully human.
What Canada’s see-nothing-say-nothing status quo on abortion has done is enshrine a moral cowardice as part of the country’s civic culture. It has allowed abortion-rights supporters to feel righteous about protecting a right whose boundaries they’ve never been forced to define through legislation. The prime minister recently announced plans to sanctimoniously scold Vice President Pence for the recent raft of abortion restrictions in U.S. states, despite the fact that Trudeau lacks the courage to emulate states such as New York, and pass any progressive abortion laws of his own.
But so, too, has the country’s abortion status quo allowed antiabortion Canadians — including the many “personally pro-life” individuals of high rank in the federal and provincial Conservative parties — the empty righteousness of private dissent without any obligation of action. Through this abdication of political leadership, the rest of Canada is given permission to never trouble their minds with the issue one way or another. No thoughts of the unsettling procedure of abortion itself; no dilemmas over the logistical and philosophical difficulties of defining the start of life, or what a functional, enforceable abortion ban would look like in practice.
The United States continues to debate abortion, and activists on both sides deserve credit for tirelessly reminding Americans of abortion’s delicate, contested presence in American life. Given how eagerly the Canadian media covers U.S. politics, and how enthusiastically Canadians follow and participate in American political arguments, renewed U.S. activism will ensure abortion will not fade from the Canadian consciousness any time soon. This will make the contrasting spinelessness of Canada’s political class increasingly apparent — and ultimately, one hopes, unsustainable.