With the recent death of Henry Morgentaler, abortion is again making its way into the public forum. Rationality is often missing from the discussion. The language from both the pro-life and pro-choice camps is frequently highly charged with emotion and vitriol.
In my most recent column, I strive to present an informed and measured approach to abortion.
In the ultrasound images, I thought I recognized the nose
I was excited about being a grandmother from the beginning, but when I saw the ultrasound images of the little one at 19 weeks, I was overcome with emotion. We could clearly see the little feet, only millimeters long, and in the profile of the face, I thought I recognized the nose. I stand in awe before the wondrous miracle of life.
Not everyone shares my wonder. There are some who have no compunction about terminating the life of the little person developing in the womb. For them, abortion is a woman’s reproductive right, a simple procedure as benign as removing a wart. For me, a child developing within the womb is not an exclusive reproductive right, but a gift entrusted to the care of both sexes.
With the death of Henry Morgentaler, the famous abortion activist whose determination to provide safe abortions for women changed Canada’s abortion law, the highly divisive issue of abortion is once again attracting public attention in both traditional and online media formats. Despite the public discussion, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to allow any debate on abortion in Parliament, and a January 2013 Angus Reid poll concluded that although “Canadians have continued mixed personal feelings on abortion…the appetite for true legislative action is lacking.” Two-thirds of Canadians polled are unwilling to re-open the debate on abortion.
The reluctance to formally debate abortion is puzzling given the interest in the topic and the findings of recent polls. Could a lack of awareness about the absence of abortion laws in Canada explain, in part, our hesitation?
The Angus Reid poll notes “45 percent of respondents mistakenly assume that a woman can have an abortion only during the first three months of her pregnancy”. Thirty-five percent support no restrictions on abortion, 5 percent would ban abortion, and 60 percent “express a preference to regulate abortion in different ways”: during the first trimester, in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus has serious defects.
A 2012 Ipsos Reid poll had similar, albeit confusing, findings: 49 percent of respondents said that there should be no restrictions on abortion, while 45 percent felt that abortion should be permitted only in “special circumstances”. Yet, in the same poll, 60 percent of respondents favored gestational limits on abortion.
Coercion is a factor in many abortions
The Angus Reid poll reported that 43 percent of men and only 27 percent of women favor the status quo. This last finding hints at a problem with abortion that does not often make its way into the public discussion: coercion is a factor in a high percentage of abortions.
While it is not always men who force a woman to have an abortion, the male partner plays a critical role in the decision. Others who may exert pressure on a woman to abort include her mother, her father, a doctor or another medical professional.
A 2004 study, reported in the “Medical Science Monitor”, found that 64 percent of women who had an abortion in the United States did so because of pressure from others. This was despite the woman’s desire to have the child. Coercion is something to bear in mind when extolling abortion as a woman’s prerogative over her reproductive rights.
Coercion may also play a role in female feticide, which is becoming a cause of concern in Canada. Sex selective abortion is another area where the majority (60 percent of Canadians overall and 66 percent of women) believes there should be laws to “outline whether a woman can have an abortion based solely on the gender of the fetus” (Angus Reid poll on gender based abortion).
Not a rare procedure
Abortion in Canada is not a rare procedure. In 2012, the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported 64, 641 documented abortions in Canada, excluding Quebec. Since 1979, there have been an estimated 3.5-4 million abortions in Canada.
Still, we remain ambivalent. Harper has read the mood of Canadians correctly. Collectively, we lack the political will to address the legislative vacuum created when the Supreme Court reversed Morgentaler’s conviction and struck down the abortion law in 1988.
Legal, safe and rare: its time to work on the latter
While I would prefer that we treasured and protected the miracle of life at every stage, Canada cannot go back to the days when the criminalization of abortion forced women into back alleys. Abortion, to paraphrase Hilary Clinton, should be legal, safe, and rare. Canada has the first two covered; it’s time to work on the third.