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Jean Vanier is shown in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2008.IAN BROWN/The Globe and Mail

Ian Brown writes:

Dear Jean,

Thank you for your last letter; a lot to think about, especially for a faithless bounder like me. I admire the way you find common ground between people, no matter how different.

Life in Toronto has been the usual autumn rush, further complicated by financial collapse and two national elections to watch. Prime Minister Harper defended himself to victory, but he still strikes me as deeply refrigerated.

But it was Sarah Palin who struck me as the most unusual candidate: local in focus, not especially articulate, not a reader or an intellectual, a fundamentalist who doesn't believe in either evolution or abortion. She seemed to have her new baby, Trig, who has Down syndrome, with her wherever she went.

The baby always made me think of Walker, my own 12-year-old disabled son.

Then, a few weeks ago, a geneticist reminded me that it is now possible for researchers to test an embryo for many genetic mutations, and parents can then decide whether they want to carry the fetus to term.

Not all geneticists agree this is a good thing: Testing is expensive, and one doctor suggested the money would be better spent caring in a more effective way for these afflicted children once they are born, rather than leaving them entirely in the arms of their bewildered and isolated parents.

Which of course got me thinking about Walker, and what might have happened had he been "spotted" in embryo. My wife might have had an abortion. Walker might not have been born. The pain and agony that have often been his lot in life - his autism and head-banging, his physical frailties, his awareness of what others can do that he cannot (such as speak) - would never have afflicted him. My wife's life might have been easier.

But I would not have had the chance to know Walker either, and the often-great spirit he is. I might never have learned what he has taught me, unintentionally or otherwise - might never have encountered his deep, unadorned humanity and sadness, which in turn has shown me my own and that of others. I have no desire to romanticize disability, but without Walker the world would not be as rich a place for me.

And yet I do not feel I can oppose abortion. Nothing is that simple. An abortion is a choice; more to the point, it is a choice that affects a woman far more than it affects me. I might want a woman to keep my baby, might believe she will regret it if she doesn't and might believe she will benefit if she does. But in the end I can't get around the argument that it is her choice.

Which in turn got me to thinking about Henry Morgentaler, the Canadian abortion doctor, and the controversy this year over his having received the Order of Canada. Dr. Morgentaler is 85 now, a Pole and a Holocaust survivor who opened his first abortion clinic in 1969, and performed thousands of procedures that were illegal at the time. He felt he was helping women and resisting the oppression of an official culture - a phenomenon had had seen and hated in his homeland.

In 1988, as a result of his challenges to the law, the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law. Last July, in honour of his stand for women, he was awarded the Order of Canada by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean.

Then all hell broke loose. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Catholic Archbishop of Montreal, returned his own Order of Canada. "We are not the masters of human life,' he said, "it rests in the hands of God." Gilbert Finn, New Brunswick's Lieutenant-Governor, did the same and officials at Madonna House sent back the medal that had been granted to founder Catherine Doherty, who, as you may know, is under consideration for sainthood. Nearly 56 per cent of Canadians opposed the decision to grant Dr. Morgentaler the medal.

So why did you not return your Order of Canada? You are a devout Catholic and no friend of abortion - a friend to those born disabled and a man of conviction.

Yet you must have good reasons for keeping the honour.

Can you tell me what they are?

And where do you stand on this thicket of complications known as abortion? How does one reconcile the requirements of modern life and modern morality with the prospect of losing what might have been a light through life, had it been born?

I hope this finds you well as always. Winter is on its way.


Ian Brown

Jean Vanier replies:

Dear Ian,

Thank you for asking me about why I did not return the medal of the Order of Canada. I did not wish to enter into this discussion, which in many ways I found painful. I think most people are quite aware of my belief in the importance and value of all life and particularly the life of people whose disabilities are apparent before birth. By my life - more than by my words - I want to be a witness to this truth.

At the same time, I believe in the value of the Order of Canada. It is not up to me to judge who should be banned from receiving it. In no way can I judge intentions.

We in Canada are fortunate; we have a beautiful country with our maple trees (syrup and fudge), our beavers, our lakes, our forest, our prairies. From ocean to ocean, we are a blessed land, with our three founding cultures - those who were in this land long before and those who came from France or Great Britain.

The history of Canada has been an attempt to bring together these three cultures, sometimes with a lack of success and with mistakes and at other times with a bit more success.

We have tried - sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully - to be ourselves, to find our identity in front of or above (geographically) our powerful neighbour. And we have tried sometimes very successfully, and sometimes less successfully, to find our place in the concert of nations as a peacemaking people.

It is important that we re-find this identity, that we encourage the young of our land (in whom we should have much hope) to discover the beauty of being Canadians with our own specific culture - peacemakers, people who give life, who become a sign that peace is possible in our world; to discover that our land is called to be a place of welcome not just for wealthy and competent people from other lands but also for refugees, for people from war-torn and poverty-stricken lands.

I am proud to have received the Order of Canada. It was not just awarded to me but as a sign of the value of people with disabilities, who for too long have been pushed aside or hidden away in institutions or in their families. I am proud of the way federal and provincial governments and many private groups have fostered the growth of people with disabilities and helped them find their place through communities that welcome them with deep respect. Of course there is still a lot to be done, but we are on a road.

My hope and my prayer is that the Order of Canada will continue to be awarded to those who struggle for justice and for peace and for a culture of beauty and truth, for a Canada not closed up in fear but open to all in our families, in our land, in our churches and in different religions so that all may grow in a love which is wisdom, compassion, understanding and comprehension.

Then we can become known as a country where all are encouraged to open their hearts, minds and spirits to those whose hearts have been broken, whose bodies have been hurt, but whose spirits are waiting to be awoken.

But let me move away from the Canada medal and come back to the painful question of abortion, which is somewhere at the heart of your letter. Sexuality can be such a beautiful reality - a bonding between a man and a woman founded upon a passion, a passion of love which can find its fulfilment in the bonding of a relationship which gives life and security, a friendship, a covenant.

But as we all know, this sexuality which can give life can also bring death. Sexual abuse of all sorts, pedophiles, prostitution, rape, all can deeply hurt people and even kill their hearts. It is not easy to keep the sexual urge contained and integrated into friendship - and a real relationship, where the other person is deeply respected in his or her needs and growth.

So quickly the sexual urge can become an addiction; it can get out of control, and be used for one's own excitement and pleasure and desire to possess and to control people without respect for them. Pornography can stimulate this sexual urge and make it wild and uncontrollable.

This urge also flows from a deep cry of loneliness. So many people have no place of belonging. They are terribly lonely.

Who can blame so many young people who are lost in this society that has lost its reference points? They are floating along on choppy seas. They and many others with them see those who speak of morality as old fogies that come from some Victorian and puritanical past, or from a closed and dogmatic religion.

Love, seen in the movies, advertised with things to be sold - or love seen as a gentle urge coming from a distant cry of loneliness - seems so beautiful and attractive. So babies can be conceived, even though people are aware of contraception.

And then too often we see the shame, anger and despair of a woman who finds she is becoming a mother. An incredible movement of life has risen up in her, but she is not ready to become a mother. Her anguish makes her seek an abortion.

I do not want to say such a person in anguish is a "killer." I would like to walk with her - maybe cry with her.

One can understand that in this world of ours that has lost its bearings, people can conceive a child and yet not want this child.

So we are not in front of something which is either "abortion" or "not abortion," "pro-life" or "pro-choice." We are in front of something so much more complex.

Our society is so often oriented toward the sexual as fun and not toward stability in relationships. And behind all that is fear. Fear of authority, fear of power, fear of not being someone. Where is freedom? Where is sacredness?

I can understand those who act and react against abortion. I do believe that the child conceived is a human being, a sacred reality. Human beings are not its, they are a thou. In a world where so many human beings are seen as "its," I can understand the cry, "save life" or "protect life".

As there appears no moment in the growth of the child in the womb that shows that the fetus has been transformed into a baby, it does seem that human life begins with conception.

I can understand also those who have conceived a child (a fetus) and don't want to be a father or a mother for a variety of reasons. They do not believe the fetus is their little baby who will grow to become fully a human being.

What to do in a society where the seas are choppy, the winds too powerful? Where movies and TV show so much violence, so many killings, where life seems expendable and not sacred - and yet where people are yearning to escape from loneliness but fall into the hands of an unwanted motherhood?

Of course, I would love to see young (and less-young) people growing up into deep and lasting friendships. And glowing with happiness as new life appears on our earth. There is however such a hiatus between principles and reality.

Who then can decide that a fetus is a baby or when a fetus becomes a baby? Most people do believe that infanticide is a crime. But who decides about when abortion is legal or not and until what month? So the question is not easy and particularly not easy for those who have no fixed principles about such matters.

Maybe the real question is: What is the meaning of our life? What does it mean to be human? In a society that extols individualism, personal freedom and competition, the commitment to belonging - to responsibility for the common good and to those who are weak and vulnerable - is weakened.

People can then feel lonely and lost and put aside. They have no desire to transmit life; for them, life is not sacred.

How to help people discover who they really are, their value, their interior beauty and their gift, their sacredness - as well as their weakness - and how to accept others as they are?

L'Arche has shown me that we become fully human as we open up to others who are in need, who are different, who are vulnerable and weak.

So life flows from within us. We give life and are given life. A new and deeper happiness unfolds within us. We discover a new meaning to our lives - that life is not meant just to build up our strengths and power but also to be in relationships of love and kindness with others, where we give life to each other.

Our lives are a journey. We grow into meaning as we grow into life. None of us chose our parents, our bodies, our genes. Our life is a growth to a greater acceptance of who we are, of where we have come from and so to better choose where we are going, to move forward to find a greater fullness of life as we become more responsible for ourselves and for others.

Some of us have received a lot of love and help along our journey. I am one of those and I feel thankful to all those who have given birth to my being and called me to who I am.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, speaks of a young man who leaves his Dad and his culture with a part of his heritage. Maybe he is seeking who he is. He leads a loose life with wine and women. But eventually, at a particular moment, having spent all his money, he comes face to face with the reality of who he is - a poor mortal human being, lonely and lost. He decides to return to his Dad, who welcomes him with immense tenderness - no scolding, no words of reproach, no punishment, only love.

Dad celebrates his return with a huge party. And then, the young man discovers who he really is, his sacredness, his dignity, his value and beauty.

My hope is that we all seek to create a world where every life is seen as precious and where those who feel lost and lonely find themselves because they have been found.

My hope is that we continue to award the Order of Canada to those who are growing in freedom and who give and foster life.

Jean Vanier