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Abortion wars: the next front

After 20 years of relative peace, activists on both sides of the abortion debate are mobilizing for a new battle that threatens to reopen bitter ethical divisions

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Singing O Canada and calling for a renewed “culture of life,” 10,000 pro-life demonstrators rallied on Parliament Hill last May. Young people — their faces painted with maple leaves — stood shoulder to shoulder with elders in religious regalia. Many waved placards proclaiming slogans: “Abortion: a Crime Against Humanity.” “Abortion Is Killing Canada’s Future.” “Abortion Is Not the Only Choice.” Most striking was a brilliant banner showing a fetus with the message, “Take My Hand, Not My Life.”

The 13th Annual March for Life drew pro-life campaigners in unprecedented numbers, according to the Canadian Press. Emboldened by the federal government’s refusal to fund abortions in its G8 maternal health initiative, activists in Ottawa urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take further steps against abortion at home. The throng included clergy, students from the capital’s Roman Catholic high schools, and 21 members of Parliament — 18 of them Conservatives with the pro-life caucus.

Dressed conservatively and holding a pitch-black sign that read, “I Regret My Abortion,” pro-life activist Angelina Steenstra addressed the energetic crowd. “I am pleased to see the prime minister of Canada using the resources of Canada to promote women's health by offering real concrete things to women to support and encourage life,” she said.    

Steenstra is the Canadian co-ordinator of Silent No More Awareness, an anti-abortion campaign launched by the U.S.-based Priests for Life. For nearly 20 years, she has been in “post-abortion ministry.”

“In 1972, I was date raped in Ontario when I was 15. I became pregnant but paid $250 for an abortion in Buffalo, [N.Y.],” she says. “I wanted to get involved in the protection of human life because I saw what [abortion] had done to my life. . . . Yes, there really was a baby, and yes, that child had a soul, and yes, that child died along with a part of me. I’ve regretted it every day since.”

Since 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down all legal restrictions on terminating pregnancies, abortion has generally been considered a “settled issue” in Canada. Yet long-standing and hardened divisions lurk just beneath the surface. Pro-lifers, backed by the religious right, focus on the unborn child’s right to life and the value of all humans. They aim to defund abortion and promote policies restricting the procedure or making it harder to access. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, are concerned about a woman’s right to control her own body — the kind of autonomy and self-determination enshrined by the courts.

The growing popularity of a simple, effective and cheap drug threatens to thrust the bitter abortion debate onto the national stage once again. This alternative to surgical abortion involves the use of two pills costing less than $1 each. Formerly known as RU-486 or the French abortion pill, mifepristone is used in combination with misoprostol, a stomach ulcer remedy. Mifepristone terminates the embryo; misoprostol helps to expel it. Used in early pregnancy, the combined drugs produce a miscarriage indistinguishable from a natural one more than 95 percent of the time, according to researchers.  

The two “M” pills are widely used in Europe and are becoming more accessible in the United States. Last year, the World Health Organization deemed them an “essential medicine” in the treatment of incomplete miscarriages and abortions. In Canada, however, mifepristone has yet to be submitted to Health Canada for approval. Meanwhile, Canadian physicians use a less desirable drug called methotrexate.

The technology is revolutionary, according to Dr. Beverly Winikoff, president of Gynuity Health Projects, a non-profit research institution in the United States. “This is a much more precise, elegant way of terminating a pregnancy. It’s a really simple, safe procedure, not to mention a private one. The pills have so much potential for good, but also for creating more controversy.”

An Ekos opinion poll in April found that 52 percent of Canadians described themselves as pro-choice while 27 percent said they are pro-life. Despite the gap, pro-life groups claimed the moral high ground in the wake of the Harper government’s exclusion of abortion from the G8 maternal health package.

In her recent book The Armageddon Factor, author Marci McDonald attributes the pro-life movement’s traction to the growing clout of the Christian right generally on social policy issues. She suggests Canadians who think their country is “liberal, tolerant, and not given to extremes of action or belief” may be deluding themselves.

McDonald writes, “With funding from a handful of conservative Christian philanthropists and a web of grassroots believers . . . organizations [in Canada] are now building sophisticated databases and online networks capable of mobilizing their forces behind specific legislation. . . . They are also training a new generation of activists to be savvier than their secular peers in navigating the corridors of power.”

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, several private members’ bills have attempted to withdraw a woman’s legal right to end a pregnancy. Tory backbencher Ken Epp introduced Bill C-484, the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, which would have made it criminal to “cause injury to or the death of a fetus” in the course of committing a crime against a woman. The bill failed to pass partly because it granted personhood to a fetus. More recently, pro-life Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge proposed legislation that would make it a criminal offence to “coerce” a woman into having an abortion. Bill C-510 passed first reading before the House of Commons adjourned last summer.

The prospect of women being denied reproductive rights troubles United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal. “Many Canadians have said, ‘Oh, that couldn’t happen here; that’s just un-Canadian.’ And I was in the same frame of mind until now,” she says, referring to the resurgent March for Life.

In 1971, the 24th General Council called abortion “the lesser of two evils” and resolved that it is “a private matter between a woman and her doctor,” justifiable in certain medical, social and economic circumstances. Says Tindal, “The United Church’s statements on abortion — about the importance of sexual responsibility and the sanctity of life — have been quite clear. . . . As well, Canadians — women in particular — have been well served by the decriminalization of abortion.”

She continues, drawing a comparison: “How often has a person with a decided opinion on the subject of homosexuality undergone a swift reversal of opinion after discovering that a son or daughter is a homosexual? Similarly, unqualified opposition to abortion sometimes alters rapidly when a teenage daughter becomes pregnant and cannot cope with the consequences. . . . I stand with The United Church of Canada in acknowledging the extremely difficult circumstances in which a woman must decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy. I would find it very deeply disturbing if we moved in any direction that would limit a woman’s decision.”

At times, abortion feels like an outdated topic — something from the Dark Ages, says Joyce Arthur, director of the Abortion Rights Coalition. “Because we’ve won the legal battle [on abortions], people think that the struggle is over. But it’s not.” Pro-lifers are more confident and defiant now, Arthur adds. “That’s the big change. Being associated with power has given them legitimacy.

“But there’s no reason we should single out abortion. . . . We’re one of the very few countries in the world that has no abortion restrictions, and I think we’ve proven that we don’t need any because women and doctors behave responsibly. Abortions are like any other medical treatment that’s covered by policy.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, asserts that the pro-choice arguments for funding abortion are just as ideological as the pro-life ones against funding it. “Obviously, each of us must choose one or the other position. I propose that in doing so, we try to place abortion in a moral context and always see it as a major ethical decision, whether it involves ourselves or our co-operation.”

Somerville continues: “I think we could get most Canadians to say, ‘Okay, well let’s have some formal recognition that abortion is a serious ethical issue.’ That forms a value that most of us can share. And it’s a value that informs our society. It doesn’t just govern an individual and their situation; it sets up a principle that informs us about what we think about unborn human life.”

The “a-word” has never left his lips, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises that he won’t reopen the debate in Canada. Still, pro-life activists like Silent No More’s Angelina Steenstra are roused by what they’re hearing from Ottawa.

During the March for Life last May, Steenstra observed the kilometre-long security barrier around Parliament Hill. If someone were to suddenly remove the metal posts and panels, she mused, people would wander off into harm’s way. “That’s really what’s happened to society since they dismantled the law prohibiting abortion — since they took away that protection,” says Steenstra. “If a woman or a man ends a life, whether it’s at the moment of conception or 10 days after, six months or even nine months later, they are following this moral relativism right down the road into absolute chaos.”

Mardi Tindal doesn’t see much invitation to dialogue in the “simplistic slogans” of the March for Life. “I don’t see in that kind of an event an openness to sit down and look at all the complexities of this matter. There’s an absence of willingness to listen, particularly to women who have to make these difficult decisions. This certainly reinforces the notion that there are two sides, and it’s a matter of winning or losing. What it doesn’t do is bring us together in conversation.”

One thing is certain, says Tindal: if and when the two M pills are approved in Canada, abortions will increase and the church’s work will become even more important.

“We need to show up, as United Church people, and continue being a resource to women and those they choose to include in their reproductive decision-making. And although we’re being called to uncomfortable discussion and debate, we must step up and speak courageously on their behalf.”

Tindal poses a question at the heart of the abortion debate: “How do we prevent the kind of polarization seen south of the border while not at all absenting ourselves from the responsibility of carrying these moral and ethical principles that have contributed to the Canadian reality?” 


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