by Margaret Somerville
After years of debate, Canada has no law on abortion. Is is possible to find an acceptable compromise to rein it in?
A recent editorial, “The abortion debate is over, so shut up” in the Vancouver newspaper, The Province, very bluntly expresses pro-choice wishful thinking on their part. This debate is not going away. It’s gaining strength.
The editorial does, however, accurately reflect a belief of many Canadians that there seems to be no way for us to reach any consensus on the law that should govern abortion, as recent votes in Parliament have consistently demonstrated. I don’t agree, but note I’ve qualified the word consensus with the adjective “any”.
I believe a majority of Canadians can find some “common ground” regarding legal regulation of abortion, but this must be distinguished from finding unanimous agreement – that’s impossible.
For many of us, whether we are pro-choice or pro-life, this common ground will not be a “perfect” stance. That’s unavoidable because we live in a pluralistic society where people have vastly divergent worldviews; we don’t all share the same convictions about the intrinsic dignity and value of all human beings, from their conception to their natural death; and we disagree whether the value of respect for life or that of individual autonomy should take priority when they conflict.
The present legal situation, in Canada, defended to the death by some pro-choice advocates, is that there are and should be no legal restrictions on abortion. In stark contrast, some pro-life advocates believe that any law short of the total prohibition of abortion is unacceptable, because, agreeing to a law which still allows some abortions would constitute complicity in the evil of abortion.
Many pro-life advocates now recognize, however, that a total prohibition is not achievable, that the virtue of prudence requires them to implement the protection that is presently feasible, and protecting some unborn children is better than protecting none. Consequently, they would welcome some legal restrictions on abortion short of a complete prohibition. They rightly argue that government has an essential role to play in restricting certain activities, whereby unborn children’s human rights are violated.