Gestational limits are the wrong approach
For decades, the pro-life movement has experienced division; sometimes over strategy, sometimes over principles. It is of no use to assign blame or rehash old arguments. People of goodwill can differ over tactics and strategy, but on principles it becomes more difficult to countenance disagreement. On the (once again) difficult issue of gestational limits to abortion, as a way of reducing abortion, The Interim will offer its two cents as something for all pro-lifers of goodwill to consider.
First, we acknowledge that everyone in the pro-life movement shares the same goal: total legal protection for the unborn child from the time of conception or fertilization. The question then becomes: what is the best way to achieve that?
According to polls, most Canadians want abortion legal but restricted, and the latest Ipsos-Reid poll for PostMedia indicates about two-thirds of Canadians support abortion being limited to the first two trimesters. This seems to represent a sensible compromise for most of the public that is uncomfortable with abortion but has qualms about telling women who do not want to continue with their pregnancy and have a child that abortion is not an option for them. As we said, this seems sensible. However, the decision to protect a child at six months into pregnancy but not six months minus a day or minus a week is entirely arbitrary and adds the insult of age discrimination to the deadly reality of abortion.
A gestational limit on abortion in Canada would also introduce the positive right to abortion by acknowledging its legality up to the point that it is prohibited. This might sound like semantics, but we are uncomfortable changing the status of abortion from something that is tolerated in the absence of a law permitting or prohibiting it to something recognized in law.
Other than being of dubious principle – how to decide which babies to save and which to sacrifice on the altar of abortion convenience – we question exactly how much abortion will be reduced through such a ban. Unscrupulous doctors can lie about the age of the child in the womb or the reason for the abortion; most jurisdictions that ban abortions after a certain time in pregnancy, permit them in cases of genetic defects or the health of the mother, and if the British experience teaches us anything, will do nothing to cut the number of abortion; in fact, the number of late-term abortions has increased since the 24-week limit has been introduced. Pro-life activist Linda Gibbons told The Interim that she had her abortion in 1970 at 14 weeks when the ostensible limit was 12 weeks
The question becomes, then, why do pro-lifers support such a compromise? The two most cited rationales are that we need to do whatever we can to save preborn children, and practical politics prevents a more comprehensive ban at this time. We are not unsympathetic to these arguments but upon careful consideration find them unpersuasive.
Of course, we should do whatever we can to save as many unborn babies as possible; we do not think a gestational limit suffices. There are better ways to reduce abortion on the way to a full ban, such as defunding abortion, informed consent laws, outlawing specific procedures, and extending typical hygiene and health regulations on the abortion industry as the government does on all clinics and hospitals. As we noted above, it is easy to circumvent gestational limits. But having women or couples pay for abortions out of their pocket and requiring abortion-minded women to think about fetal development or the possible medical consequences of abortion, does reduce abortion.
Proponents of gestational limits say that the country is not ready for a full ban so that curbing the abortion license through a third-trimester ban (or a 24-week limit, such as in the United Kingdom) is a necessary first step. They also imply that it is “doable.” But this ignores the fact that while the public may support a third trimester ban, very few politicians are interested in re-opening the debate on abortion. While pro-lifers who oppose gestational limits are criticized for not taking practical politics into consideration – “politics is the art of the possible,” and all that – practically speaking, it is unlikely that a bill limiting abortion to the first six months of pregnancy has any more chance of passing at this time as a bill that would ban all abortions. For evidence of the difficulty of re-opening the abortion debate at all, consider only this Spring when Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged his caucus to oppose Stephen Woodworth’s motion to examine the medical evidence as to the humanity of the unborn child. It takes the same amount of political capital to re-open the abortion issue a little as it does to re-open it a lot. In other words, proponents of gestational limits may not be as practical as they like to think.
We have another concern with the political practicality of a gestational approach; despite being promoted as the best possible compromise, how do we know that? Would it not be better to go into the negotiations for an abortion ban asking for as much as possible? Is it wise to go in with our bare minimum acceptable level of compromise? Usually it is best to avoid entering into talks with the compromise position as a starting point. That’s not smart politics.
We look at the gestational approach as a short cut. We do not need a flawed law that will not save many unborn children but which would give the country the feeling that we’ve significantly and meaningfully limited abortion. What we need is to do the hard work of identifying pro-life candidates, getting them nominated in their parties, help them get elected, and when we have a majority of pro-life MPs, get a pro-life law passed.
Supporters of gestational limits say that their goal is a total ban, but that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Of course it does. But it must be a step forward, not backward. A few of these steps have already been taken with the election of numerous pro-life MPs, but more are necessary. It will probably be necessary to also elect a pro-life party leader, so that all pro-life MPs can vote their conscience without undue pressure from the leadership. Other steps will include the election of pro-life provincial representatives to get initiatives passed at the provincial level to restrict abortion and curb the 100,000 surgical abortions carried out each and every year in Canada. These are steps forward and they are hard work. We would welcome a shortcut if there was one that was effective.
Unfortunately, the gestational limit approach does not seem to be such a shortcut. It’s time we worked together not for an immediate total ban on abortion, but to create the political conditions in which such a ban would be possible. That is the political realism the pro-life movement must work with. It will take a great deal of work by the educational and political branches of the pro-life movement, as well as a renewed spiritual awakening in the country led by religious leaders of all faith traditions. The task sounds daunting, but the work is necessary and worth it for the lives of the vulnerable unborn are at stake; they deserve our greatest efforts for real and meaningful change.