National Post 'Women deserve better than abortion' (National Post February 4, 2009)

National Post - Wednesday February 4th, 2009

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The following article was adapted from a speech delivered to the "Live for Life" club at King's College, University of Western Ontario, in December, 2008.


Thank you for the honour of the invitation that has brought us together. I applaud your willingness to pay respect to views on abortion that diverge from your own in the interest of finding common ground on this thorny subject.

Although I am a staunch supporter of your right to advocate against abortion, and deplore all attempts to suppress your freedom of speech on certain campuses, I am not opposed in principle to legal abortion.

Rather, I am here to offer the prospect of an alliance between pro-lifers and those, like myself, I would call cultural reformists. Abortion should be a serious moral decision, and undertaken with a heavy heart, with all options carefully weighed beforehand, rather than the rushed, banalized service of convenience it has become. Cultural reformists do not oppose legal abortion, but hope to see Canada become a more life-respectful society.

I think I represent the broad spectrum of Canadians who aren't happy about our lack of an abortion law, but aren't quite sure what such a law should look like if we had one -- and certainly can't agree that the subject is closed to further discussion or debate.

The ideal of a more life-respectful society is common ground between us, and could be a bridge across the philosophical gap that divides us. But if we are to help each other, we need to share a communications template for promoting our common values in the national forum that is acceptable to both of us.

Up to now, your message has been: "Abortion is morally wrong. Stop doing it." You haven't made much headway. You haven't engaged the attention, let alone the sympathy, of the vast majority of Canadians who don't believe, as you do, that abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances."

Two cliches spring to mind here. The first is that politics is the art of the possible. Outlawing abortion altogether is impossible in this country for the foreseeable future. And the other cliche is that perfection -- which you define as no abortion, ever -- is the enemy of the good. The good in this case is what can be achieved politically.

Here's my position, and perhaps those of many other Canadians.

It is a natural instinct to think first of ourselves, then of the wellbeing of those whom we love and who love us back, before we consider our allegiance to those we can only imagine as future intimates, but who cannot imagine us back.

It is also humanly natural to act according to a hierarchy of virtue that takes its ethical cue from the circumstances in which we find ourselves at the moment of decision. And as human history constantly reminds us, desperate circumstances prompt desperate choices:

In their nomadic days, the Inuit abandoned the frail and aged in order that the others could go on without encumbrances that might endanger the entire group.

During the Holocaust, some babies were suffocated by their mothers' hands so their cries would not reveal a hiding place to the Nazis and expose all therein to certain death.

A mortally wounded soldier asks his buddy to kill him so he won't be tortured as he is dying by the enemy. His buddy, who can rescue himself, but not his comrade, complies in a mercy killing.

Dare we call the soldier, the hunted mother or the traditional Inuit people immoral?

These examples tell us that the principle of the sanctity of life may be absolute in theory, but that life is messy. To ensure that citizens deal with the resultant bioethical quandaries in a serious way, we need an abortion law that promotes reflexion, assures informed consent, includes the commitment of material and psychological resources to support continued pregnancy and valorizes the choice of life-affirming options like adoption.

My line of thinking leads to moral distinctions you doubtless disagree with and are possibly repulsed by. But if you are not prepared to close political ranks with those of us who have in conscience and through honest deliberation arrived at a hierarchy in the sanctity of human life -- the point of view of most Canadians -- you will remain outliers in the national discussion.

Given that it is impossible to recriminalize abortion, what are the best -- and worst -- uses of the pro-life movement's time and resources as an advocacy group?

Beginning with the worst, I cannot think of anything more damaging amongst educated observers to the pro-life cause than the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) campaign, which draws a moral equivalence between abortion and the Holocaust.

You cannot build an argument on an analogy alone. In any debate, emotional arousal must be subordinated to rational persuasion.

You have, or should have, the political right to turn people off through shocking images (for that is largely the effect of this campaign). But you don't have the ethical right to exploit for mere rhetorical advantage a human tragedy with no logical, moral or historical relevance to abortion.

The GAP campaign is intellectually flawed because it extrapolates one detail from the Holocaust -- numbers killed -- and on that basis alone proclaims a moral equivalence.

But the point of the Holocaust is not the number of lives extinguished. Genocides aren't about numbers. They are about ideology-based hatred -- unchecked hatred for an identifiable minority group that serves to unite the persecuting majority group, and paves the way for its horrible consequences.

Unborn children are not a minority identity group, nor are abortions performed by political fiat for the purpose of furthering solidarity amongst some dominant group. Every abortion is an individual choice made by an individual woman. None of these women "hates" the potential child she aborts; they hate their situation. Most women who have abortions in fact go on to have children that they love. Nazis did not kill some Jews, and cultivate friendships with others; they hated and considered subhuman all Jews.

Moreover, you are not only describing the action of abortion as evil in this comparison, you are implying that women who abort, like Nazis, are evil people. There is neither truth nor dignity in accusing women of such moral turpitude.

Choose any factual perspective, you won't find a single moral parallel between the situations. And that is why it is not in your interest to pursue the campaign. Or in our mutual interest, because it stands in the way of an alliance between us.

I wonder if those who think the GAP campaign is defensible have really assessed the damaging image it creates in intelligent observers' minds. It brands you as people who feel passionately, but who do not think clearly. High emotion and the absence of reason are the marks of extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Your cause deserves better than the GAP campaign. Because the result -- and I think this is a very grave consequence for any movement -- is that thoughtful, educated people do not take you seriously. They do not respect your strategies for persuasion. You must consider whether the emotional impact of your message is so important to you that it is worth burning the narrow but sturdy bridge you could be using to reach people like me.

By contrast, if you made the analogy of a genocide to abortions done in the name of sex selection, you would be on firmer ground, because sex selection is a form of bias -- arguably even a form of hatred -- against an identifiable group. Here is one area where most Canadians would happily sign on to legislative constraints.

The best use of your advocacy time? I would advise moving away from the rights of the fetus, which arouses defensiveness and hostility, and toward the rights of women, an area staked out as the moral high ground of the pro-choicers.

Pro-choicers are fixated on "a woman's right to choose." As the debate is currently framed, to be against unlimited abortion is to be against women's rights.

"Rights" is a charged word. But the pro-choicers don't own it. In any case, the slogan is corrupt, because women's so-called "choice" presently is compromised by their ignorance: There are physical and psychological risks to abortion that pro-choicers and abortion clinics wilfully suppress, such as the irrefutable link between induced abortion and a risk of pre-term delivery in future pregnancies. An uninformed choice is not a real choice.

These risks should be known. You should end the so-called pro-choicers' monopoly on women's "rights" with "A Woman's Right to Informed Consent" and "A Woman's Right to Optimal Reproductive Health."

Focusing the debate on women's health, you would then occupy the moral high ground feminists claim as their particular precinct. What campus union could in conscience refuse an information session on women's health?

The pro-choice movement has stereotyped you. Don't let the media and student unions pigeonhole the pro-life movement as Christian evangelists and stay-at-home moms with 10 children (not that there's anything wrong with that). There are many secular career women who sympathize with or actively support your cause. The motto of an American group called Feminists for Life is: "Women deserve better than abortion." I like that positive message, and so will many other Canadians.

Canada is never going to outlaw abortion, but an abortion law with benign, sensible constraints that line up with those of all civilized countries except ours, should be the goal of our mutual endeavours. Abortion is the single most pressing moral issue of our time. It's time for a little less emotionalism and a lot more reasonable dialogue on both sides of the debate. Will pro-lifers and cultural reformists form an advocacy alliance in 2009? I hope so.