Top 10 Things Not to Say about Abortion

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who insist on dividing the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” That old joke rings with fresh relevance now that our American cousins, and a few on this side of the border as well, have put abortion back into public consciousness.

While scholars continue to debate just what drove, and drives, so many white evangelicals to support Donald Trump, the prospect of his appointing prolife judges to the Supreme Court continues to loom large among their motives. Such right-wing voters have been excoriated for being narrow-minded single-issue voters, even by some of us who share their prolife views but see being “prolife” as embracing a much larger agenda than anti-abortion.

Now, however, my Facebook feed is lighting up with friends who are so afraid of Canada moving in a prolife direction (yes, they’re looking at you, Sam Oosterhoff) that they’re announcing already that they will not support any candidate who does not share their prochoice conviction.

But is “prolife versus prochoice” so very simple? Here’s a checklist of common fatuities to be avoided in the months of controversy ahead. (This column is a little longer than usual, but the underlying point is that the issues involved here are not resolvable at bumper-sticker length.)

#1: “The issue is already decided.” Federal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef said so recently in a public letterto Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer. But this is a very odd thing to say, especially by a politician, and even more especially by a female politician whose portfolio is, indeed, “Women and Gender Equality.”

Not long ago, women were not persons in the eyes of Canadian law. Remember the Famous Five? The status of women was once decided. But then it was decided again. And then it was decided once more. One would like to think that Minister Monsef would be glad that her political predecessors did not think that once something is decided in a democracy, no one can evermore revisit the issue.

The issue of abortion is not, furthermore, decided. Again, it’s embarrassing for a federal cabinet minister to say otherwise, but Canada in fact has no abortion law, not since Henry Morgentaler pressed the Supreme Court into invalidating what law there was in 1988, and Kim Campbell’s government failed to pass a new law in 1991.

So when Minister Monsef says “it’s decided,” all she means is what so many people seem to mean by such phrases—namely, “We, and everyone like us and who likes us, have agreed.” But that’s not quite the same as actual law.

#2. “A woman has sole rights over her own body.” This feminist slogan seems to have come down from Sinai. But as a feminist myself, I confess to being ashamed of it because no one really thinks that. No one really thinks a woman can do whatever she likes with her body when another body is involved.

You know the old adage: Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. (We may need such adages in the arguments to come.) So, yes, a woman can act as she pleases so long as she doesn’t use her body in a way that harms others. And when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, there are harms-to-others involved.

Here’s where the dark logic of bioethicists such as Michael Tooleyand Peter Singercuts both ways. If a woman is entitled to terminate her offspring when within her body, why not later once emerged?

Her body is implicated in both circumstances. In fact, any mother who enjoyed a healthy pregnancy and who is now chasing a young one all day and facing ever-mounting expenses will say how much easier it was on her body to be pregnant. If one is not, however, prepared to countenance infanticide, then why tolerate abortion?  As Tooley and Singer argue, the rationale for both actions is the same.

There is also a point to be made here about men. How nice for (certain kinds of) men if women insist that the outcomes of sex are entirely the woman’s responsibility—or how terrible, if men instead want to share responsibility and indeed share in the new life resulting from their union. It takes two to tango, and while the ability to get pregnant falls on the woman, why should she be (alone) responsible for that new life ever after?

#3. “It’s just a clump of cells.” Well, so are you.

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