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

"Also, the voices of the pro-life movement are younger, there are many younger women heading the movement, and their arguments go to both the well-being of the mother and unborn child. By contrast, the abortion-rights movement has been highly visible in opposition to very popular measures, including bans on intact dilation and partial birth abortions, parental involvement, enhanced informed-consent provisions for women seeking abortions, and the like. I think since the late 1990s, pro-lifers have seemed more reasonable in tone and substance."

The proposed health-care reforms were a match dropped on dry kindling.

The U.S. Senate bill, which did not prohibit public funding of abortions, brought the down the wrath of the bishops of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, who called it (and the subsequently Stupak-amended legislation) morally unacceptable. Because of the sharp rise in the country's Hispanic population, the numbers of Catholics are growing substantially.

Economic conservatives opposed to the government's entry into the health insurance market did their utmost to whip up religious anxiety over abortion, said Dennis Doyle of the University of Dayton, a leading scholar on the Catholic Church: "There is a big intersection between economic ideologues and the people who are most vehemently anti-abortion."

Prof. Snead and University of Toronto political scientist Renan Levine both note the significant gap across the American political and ethnic spectrum between those who approve of legal abortion and those who approve of public funding of abortion.

Prof. Levine called it one moral argument - the belief in a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion - encountering another moral argument, "one that says if you're going to pay for people to get abortions, it's going to be like the former Soviet Union where people skipped the whole condom thing and they just went into get an abortion every couple of months."

Prof. Snead called it "a typical American solution to divisive questions; on the one hand, the controversial practice is tolerated in the private sphere; but on the other hand, taxpayers are not to be compelled to support the practice with their own money."

He says the health-care bill that has now been signed subsidizes health-care plans that offer elective abortions, does not restrict directly funded community health centres from providing abortions and pays for abortions on aboriginal lands.

"An executive order cannot alter the plain meaning of a statute, nor can it extend an old law - the Hyde Amendment - to a new law - the health-care bill - to which it is inapplicable."

On both sides of the border, there are politicians with a careful eye on how voters in their electoral districts will respond to issues touching on abortion. Thus, while the federal Conservative caucus may be overwhelmingly anti-abortion, enough Liberal MPs were conscious of significant pockets of multicultural opponents to abortion in their ridings to abstain from voting on their party's motion.

If any "sea change" is taking place in Canadian public opinion on abortion, polls have yet to record it. Most of the published statistics are at least five years old and show either no change or only small declines in support for legal abortion and no change to our non-law - which may be the typical Canadian solution to a divisive issue: Don't do anything about it.

Margaret Somerville of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law says Canadians are showing more concern about the great moral issues of life and death. But the evidence at this point is largely anecdotal or extrapolative - for example, a population whose median age has increased from 26 to 41 in 50 years is likely to be more conservative, and Generation Y is supposed to have more conservative social values than Generation X, so therefore young Canadians may be less approving of abortion, and so on.

But the hard data are missing.

What's fascinating is the Prime Minister.

He is implacably opposed to reopening the abortion issue but has a vehemently pro-life caucus. It tells him that it may keep quiet 364 days of the year, but every so often it will insist on speaking out - as it did when abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler received the Order of Canada and when backbencher Ken Epp introduced his Unborn Victims of Crime private member's bill, and as it was prepared to do on the Liberals' motion.

The motion would have split the caucus if it hadn't been for anti-American references in the wording that the Conservatives found they all could agree to oppose and the media, to everyone's surprise, didn't question.

If the abortion issue now goes back to sleep, no one will be happier than Stephen Harper - with the possible exception of Barack Obama. He could be happier.

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