The moral emptiness of Canada’s debate on the abortion debate

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The morality, and thus legality, of abortion — which is to say, the intentional destruction of a human fetus to prevent it from achieving its natural destiny as an autonomous person, is the most substantial ethical dilemma of our age.  The Atlantic published a very deep and thoughtful piece the other day describing the changing role science and scientists play in mediating this dilemma; many pro-life activists, author Emma Green noted, now routinely cite studies and experts touting novel concepts like fetal pain in an attempt to shift the debate to their side.  Pro-choice advocates who once leaned heavily on standard assumptions of fetal inhumanity — “lifeless blobs of tissue” as Green summarizes — must now rearm themselves with more scientifically literate rebuttals.

At least in America, that is.  In Canada we have evolved a political culture that has atrophied the seriousness and importance of the abortion debate, turning what should — and deserves to be — a present and ongoing political and moral conversation into something hidden, abstract, and low-stakes.

In Canada, there is no high level debate over abortion, and the moral justness of destroying embryonic humans, there is only debate about the debate, something far more easy and frivolous that allows mainstream right and left to dodge the ethical heaviness of the underlying issue.

Canada has experienced an outbreak of such frivolity in recent weeks, following Prime Minister Trudeau’s decree, delivered with almost Old Testament imperiousness, that any organization or employer who wishes to obtain money from Ottawa’s “Canada Summer Jobs” slush fund must first prostrate themselves with an explicit promise that any grantee’s “core mandate” will respect “reproductive rights” (ie; “legal abortions”).

This is the sort of manufactured crisis Canada’s opinion-having class loves, because it so easily permits self-righteous posturing on the abortion debate without requiring any deep engagement with the abortion issue.  Just the contrary, in fact: posturing on the Summer Jobs story allows those who fully support Canada’s abortion status quo — termination at absolutely any stage of fetal development — an easy moral distraction through which to feign greater intellectual depth on this issue than they actually have.

The Prime Minister is obviously wrong to make grants for “summer jobs” conditional on supporting such a narrow and precise ideological agenda.  But because he’s so obviously wrong that’s also a very easy thing to say.  It’s equally easy to say you support, in the abstract, other people’s freedom to hold opinions different than your own, which is what much of liberal Canada has been saying as they seek to score points for publicly scolding Trudeau.  What’s difficult, however, is saying you support other people’s right to express those contrary opinions in a fashion that’s visible and politically consequential.  Virtually none of the people who have been loud and proud in their revulsion at Trudeau, from Margaret Wente to Andrew Scheer to the Globe and Mail editorial board, have done this.

The Globe was more honest than most.  In their editorial, they only conceded the Prime Minister’s wrongness amid declarations that “anti-abortionists have zero chance of limiting access to the procedure” and “legal access to an abortion in Canada isn’t going anywhere.”  In other words, they framed pro-lifers as delusional weirdos existing at the most irrelevant fringe of Canadian political discourse, then conceded their right to a few bucks from the government in that context.

We go through this national kabuki every so often.

Trudeau bans pro-life candidates; columnists posture and say they should be allowed to run, knowing full well they will have zero influence in caucus.

Some campus club bans a pro-life display; we hear lectures about how it’s important to support freedom of expression “even when we disagree with the message” — like this one, which all good-thinking Canadians obviously should.

A back-bench Tory seeks to introduce a motion that engages with abortion in some exceedingly circuitous way — say, denouncing the forced abortions of cleft-palate babies in rural Laos — and champions of democracy insist the bill must not be vetoed in committee, but rather voted down in the full House of Commons.

In every such episode, smart Canadians walk away feeling they’ve proven themselves critically engaged and open-minded about the abortion issue, without ever having to dirty their beautiful minds with thoughts of fetuses being extracted and mutilated, and the corresponding question of whether a moral society should impose some degree of legal restriction on this practice, as we do with prostitution and euthanasia and human cloning and selling bodily fluids and the slaughter of animals and everything else Ottawa has concluded is too ethically fraught to exist in an anything-goes vacuum.

There is a strain of thought in Canadian culture, encouraged by our political class, that our nation’s greatest virtues can be found in government policies that ask nothing of us.  The classic example is our “free” healthcare system, through which we’ve learned to convince ourselves that there’s something noble and selfless about getting everything for nothing.  But our abortion status quo is much the same.  It’s not a fun subject to think about, so we’ve taught ourself there’s something heroic about never engaging with the issue as anything but a thought exercise on the conscience rights of cranks.

As science marches on, and the abortion debate in America becomes increasingly sophisticated, Canada is in danger of becoming the western world’s cowardly moral outlier on an issue that has proven stubbornly resistant to being ignored.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from J.J. McCullough     @JJ_McCullough

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