Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Globe Essay

The abortion issue comes back to life Add to ...

Bart Stupak, having played a key role in the reform of health care for his fellow Americans, received a fax with a drawing of a noose and an anonymous voice mail saying, "You're dead. We know where you live. We'll get you." Abortion politics.

Take no prisoners. Seek no common ground, as the Michigan congressman had done - successfully - by securing enough votes from anti-abortion Democrats like himself to pass the health-care bill in exchange for the President Barack Obama's agreement to issue an executive order barring public funding of abortions.

For his efforts, Mr. Stupak was called a baby-killer in the House of Representatives by Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer, whose office proclaimed him "humbled by the supportive phone calls and e-mails he has received from his constituents and from people all over America." And on Wednesday, Mr. Obama signed the executive order - behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, this week in Ottawa, the federal Liberals tried to fracture the ruling Conservatives with a parliamentary motion slyly committing the government not to exclude abortion from its G8 project on global maternal health.

The motion caused hearts to race with anxiety in the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who does his utmost to avoid entanglement with an issue on which his caucus has strong views. It boomeranged spectacularly, however, by fracturing the Liberals instead of the Conservatives and further undermining Michael Ignatieff's leadership.

Why something deemed a political sleeper issue in both countries can, when poked, so quickly come to life is not the mystery it might seem.

THE POLARIZED DEBATE

The great majority of Americans and Canadians prefer not to think about abortion, because the debate is so polarized.

In an interview, Notre Dame University law professor Carter Snead, former general counsel to the President's Council on Bioethics during George W. Bush's administration, called it "perhaps the most vexed question in all of American politics." But as Mr. Obama acknowledged in one of his first statements on taking office, abortion is a moral question - and moral questions never go away. At best, they put their heads down and nap: fitfully in the United States; somewhat more restfully in Canada, where divisiveness is held to be cultural anathema, to be avoided at all costs.

In spite of strong indications by Americans and Canadians that they are averse to a conspicuous debate about abortion, there is movement on the topic. Recent polls in the two countries have shown a decline - dramatically in the U.S., a barely perceptible erosion on this side of the border - in support for legal termination of pregnancies.

Only a slim majority of Canadians tell poll-takers they find abortion morally acceptable and want no change in the law. (Canada, in fact, has had no abortion law since 1988, when legislation was struck down by the Supreme Court.)

In the U.S., the Gallup organization said in May, 2009, that for the first time since it began polling on abortion in 1995, a majority of Americans are now opposed to legal abortion, and the authoritative Pew Research Center's annual religion and public life survey reported in October that increasing numbers of Americans across most demographic and political groups favour reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain.

The shift in U.S. numbers is more significant and more interesting than what is happening in Canada, and indicates the sensitivity of the American public's view of the issue in relation to the nation's political discourse. It's a factor in economic ideology, voting behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, perception of the President.

The decline in approval of legal abortion and rise in support for more restrictions on abortion parallel precisely the march of Mr. Obama into the presidency, leading the Pew Center to observe that there could be a connection.

There is no such caution in Prof. Snead's assessment. He says that, since taking office, Mr. Obama has undertaken a series of high-profile but fairly unpopular actions promoting abortion rights.

Those include revoking the so-called Mexico City Policy, which required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion services as a method of family planning in other countries - not coincidentally the theme of the Liberal motion introduced into the House of Commons, which would have committed Mr. Harper to follow Mr. Obama's lead.

Mr. Obama indicated during the election, moreover, that he was opposed to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for most abortions covered under Medicaid. And Prof. Snead points out that the President has consistently selected high-profile abortion-rights advocates in all of his executive branch appointments relevant to the abortion question.

A CHANGE IN U.S. OPINION

In addition, he cites what he calls "somewhat of a sea change" in public opinion.

"First, I think the pro-life movement has been focusing on the developments in science and technology that confirm the biological status of the fetus as a living member of the species. New ultrasound technology has literally given a face to the unborn child.

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular