by Mark Penninga
In “Why abortion pills have changed the future of pro-life activism in Canada” Marie-Claire Bissonnette challenges the pro-life movement to take stock of changes in how abortions are being done. I heartily thank Marie-Claire for asking hard questions about current pro-life strategies. We all benefit from respectful and honest analysis, and the lives of the pre-born depend on our effectiveness.
Chemical abortions (via abortion drugs) are making abortion seem much less messy and unpalatable, Marie-Claire says. So, she argues, prolife strategies that rely on graphic images of aborted children are increasingly out-of-touch with reality. She also criticizes efforts to advance a gestational abortion law for the same reason. Were we to succeed in passing such a law, “We would have replaced an unacceptable situation where all pre-born babies are under threat, with an equally unacceptable situation where only younger pre-born babies are under threat (and therefore, still all babies until they grow old enough), which merely marginalizes them further and moves the issue further from people’s minds.” She goes on to argue that “a gestational law prunes the weed of abortion while nourishing its roots. It’s not a stepping stone. It’s a trap.”
These are serious words that deserve consideration and an adequate response. They represent the views of a small but vocal group of leaders in the pro-life community who have ardently opposed the work that our organization is doing to advance an abortion law in Canada.
There is no doubt that if Marie-Claire’s statistics are correct (her article lacks citations), and Canada will follow the direction of the Scandinavian countries which have fewer surgical abortions and more chemical abortions, we would be wise to take this into consideration when we look at where our time is invested and how our strategies are crafted. Policy needs to reflect reality. What it means to be “pro-life” in practice depends in part on historical context. For example, early Christians rescued abandoned children and raised them in loving homes, and over time the practice of infanticide has become reprehensible, even in our secular culture.
Our context in Canada today, and for more than 30 years, is a complete lack of legal protections for pre-born children at any gestational age.
I first need to address an underlying problematic understanding of the law that is present in Marie-Claire’s article. We see this misunderstanding in many of the arguments advanced by those who oppose gestational limit abortion laws.
Let’s assume for a moment that the author’s arguments are correct, and no support should be given for anything other than a full ban on abortion. Let’s follow this logic for a moment. If a bill that banned abortions after 10 weeks, 6 weeks, or even 2 weeks was introduced, they would have to oppose those as well. And if our society were to become so disturbed by the gruesome reality of surgical abortion that it was prepared to ban the practice altogether, these same people wouldn’t be able to support that either because chemical abortions would still be legal. As Marie-Claire boldly asserts, any law banning only some abortions would strengthen “the legal status quo by bestowing upon it a perceived but false level of modesty and reasonableness.”
But in reality, such a law would drastically change the status quo, saving many lives, and so be well worth supporting!
With her logic, what kind of abortion law could she, and those who agree with her, support? Marie-Claire gives two examples of strategies she says we should all be able to support: defunding abortion and protecting conscience rights of health care providers. But, as worthy as these goals may be, they don’t actually address the practice of abortion itself. They aren’t abortion laws.
It seems strong and principled to say we can only support a law that protects every human life with no exceptions. There are, however, at least two serious problems with this. First, even if such a law could be passed (ignoring the society we live in), such a law will still not be able to prevent all abortions. Abortion drugs can be ordered online, delivered to your door, and used without anyone knowing. Doctors passionate about giving women the option to abort will continue to provide abortions. That does not mean that the law should not be put in place.But it does mean that the law is not, and never will be, a complete answer. That is as true of an absolute ban as it is of a 12-week gestational law. Many of the arguments that Marie-Claire raises against a 12-week law could also be raised against a law that banned abortion altogether.
If we are unable to support legislation that isn’t perfect, we will find that we are unable to participate in politics. In this sin-filled world, the law is a means to limit evil. It won’t eradicate it. If we are unwilling to “only” limit evil, we are precluding ourselves from political engagement on this side of eternity. Our pro-life efforts are then restricted to witnessing. Don’t misunderstand me – there is huge value in witnessing. But this is distinct from and different than the necessary activity of creating just laws.
The all-or-nothing attitude is ultimately dismissive of opportunities for progress, and explains why Members of Parliament frequently express their frustration at the lack of support they have received from within the political arm of the pro-life movement in Canada. It also explains why they are very vocal about their appreciation for what We Need a Law is doing differently, seeking to actually assist them in the political process.
The second serious problem with this thinking is that it ignores reality and consequently ignores our God-given opportunities to promote justice. It ignores reality because a large majority of Canadians have a worldview which opposes a complete ban on abortion. The fact that we don’t agree with them doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to promote justice for the pre-born. A consistent majority of Canadians, when polled, express support for a law restricting some abortions. Approximately 14-15% of abortions that are reported with gestational ages occur after 12 weeks gestation. Extrapolated to the approximate 100,000 surgical abortions annually that means as many as 15,000 children are killed after the first trimester, every single year. If the pro-life movement works together to advance a law that criminalizes abortion after the first trimester, thousands of lives could be saved annually. We are well aware that this leaves a whole lot of work to do to protect pre-born children. But it is still significant.
I can understand that not everyone who is prolife will be enthusiastic about a law that doesn’t protect all pre-born children. But I’m continually astounded that the opposition to such a law by some in the pro-life movement is so great that they would prefer no laws at all.
Marie-Claire acknowledges that both the use of graphic images and efforts to pass a gestational law have an impact on the public’s support of the status-quo. Pro-abortion forces are on the defensive and are changing their tactics. Instead of being encouraged by this, Marie-Claire strangely tries to make the case that decreased support for surgical abortion is something to lament. She says, “The younger the fetus, the easier it is to deny its humanity. And some in the pro-life movement are in danger of unwittingly contributing to this trend, which, in the long run, will lead to little progress and possibly much damage.”
What exactly is she saying here?
I, for one, hope and pray that my pro-life work has contributed to the trend of decreasing support for abortion. The fact that this has not translated to complete and absolute opposition to all abortion doesn’t make it meaningless. If that is the only standard of success, we will continue to fail.
How can a continual chipping away of support for abortion lead to much damage? I can see this being the case if, in our efforts, we compromise the value of human life at any stage. If we say, “Yes, we will be completely satisfied with a law where children are protected after 12 weeks,” then we do risk entrenching support for abortions that occur before then. But this is a red-herring argument. Those who support a gestational law repeat over and over again that we must never compromise. A compromise involves giving something up. We won’t give up anything. Preborn children currently have no legal protection. If some preborn children gain legal protection, that is not compromise. It is a big step forward! We must never suggest in word or deed that some abortions are okay. We must instead work to save those that we can, without ever condoning abortion. And if we succeed with a step in the right direction, then the next day we must work to save more.
Even though abortion has been legal for 50 years in Canada, opposition continues, including among young people. Although Canadians seem to like to turn up our noses to the progress in the United States, Canadian pro-lifers can learn from our counterparts in the US, which pass dozens of laws every year and never seem to slow down. Their pro-abortion opponents are running in fear, lamenting the success of the pro-life movement.
Marie-Claire’s article also wrongly implies that a gestational limit is the sole component of an abortion law. The International Standards Law that our organization has proposed includes a requirement for counselling, as well as a waiting period, both of which are incredibly important and necessary to protect women who opt for either surgical or chemical abortion. Germany and Belgium, which have these two components alongside a gestational limit on abortion, have abortion rates of 163 and 152 per 1,000 live births, considerably lower than Canada’s 241. Of course, if there are other measures that could be added to legislation to make it more effective but still able to be passed into law, we would welcome these.
When we know from polls that close to 80% of Canadians don’t know what the law is on abortion, and that a solid majority would support some restrictions on abortion, we have to ask ourselves why Canada is the only country in the world without an abortion law.
The answer is that the law doesn’t change by itself. Behind every successful legal reform stands men and women who championed a cause. It can take decades for a cause to move from radical, to acceptable, to popular, to policy. But it has been done time and time again when courageous individuals work consistently and persistently, and move forward one step at a time. We see abortion laws passed, and strengthened, in country after country, state after state (45 pro-life laws passed in the US in 2018 alone).
My fellow pro-life Canadians, let us move forward together, advancing preborn human rights to the greatest extent possible.