Answering to anti-life English in contemporary conversation
For its report on the Canadian Medical Association survey of its member’s attitudes, the Toronto Globe & Mail used the heading “Abortion Question Divides Doctors.” In a letter published in the paper on August 27, that redoubtable McMaster University campaigner for abortion, Wendell Watters, contended that the headline did not reflect the body of the article. The doctors’ stand, he said, was clear enough. A mere 5 percent of those polled were totally opposed to abortion. 49.5 percent were in favour of abortion on request during the first trimester. The remainder (presumably the other 45.5 percent) would allow a first-trimester abortion only if a patient was a victim of rape or incest or if the life, health or economic well-being of the mother and child was threatened. So Canadian MDs were clearly stating that they wish to be able to participate in the decision-making of unwilling pregnant women. “They wish to be able to discuss
a full range of options for these women, including the option of therapeutic abortion.”
In spite of Dr. Watters’ contention, there must have been something wrong with the CMA survey, since criticism of its methodology came from two opposing directions — from Norma Scarborough, president of CARAL, and from Laura McArthur, president of Toronto Right to Life. For a more accurate sampling of medical opinion, we have to go back to the unjustly neglected Badgley Committee Report of 1977. It sent questionnaires to all obstetricians and gynaecologists in Canada, and to twenty-five percent of family physicians; though only 57.6 percent of the latter responded, an astonishingly high 77.6 percent of the former submitted replies.
From a pro-life point of view, the results were depressing enough, though not as depressing as the figures which drive Dr. Watters into ecstasy. One out of six physicians, a much higher percentage than the recent survey gave, said that abortions should never be done. Four out of five said that abortions could be carried out up to twelve weeks of gestation; three out of five up to sixteen weeks; and two out of five up to twenty weeks.
It is apparent, in any case, that the code of ethics of a once honourable profession was very quickly, if not completely, eroded. Father de Valk describes part of the process in his Morality and Law in Canadian Politics. At its annual meeting in Edmonton in 1966, the CMA passed a resolution asking that abortion be made lawful if performed by a licensed medical practitioner, after approval by a hospital-appointed therapeutic abortion committee, in an active treatment hospital, with the written consent of the woman involved and her husband or guardian, and when the pregnancy might endanger her life or physical or mental health. The CMA’s delegation to the special House of Commons committee to consider abortion legislation, which met in the fall of 1967, was called by one M.P. “distinguished lawbreakers” and by another “the biggest gathering of criminal abortionists ever held in Canada”; in other words, the delegation consisted of men who advocated and performed abortions and who had long been convinced of the need for a change in the abortion law. Nevertheless, the stance taken by some of the provincial medical associations especially was that they did not want to liberalize the abortion procedures, but make them legal and provide better standards of treatment for the public and the profession.
We are all sick
One of the questions facing the House of Commons Standing Committee was whether to accept the World Health Organization’s definition of health – “a state of complete physical, mental, emotional and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and physical well-being.” When the United Church delegation indicated its willingness to accept this extraordinary definition, one member of the committee remarked, “I guess on that definition we are all sick.” And no wonder. No person is ever completely free from anxiety; this is not a definition of health but of eternal felicity. In its report to the House of Commons in March 1968, the committee recommended that an abortion be permitted when the pregnancy “will endanger the life or seriously and directly impair the health of the mother…” Insisting that a clear and direct threat had to be present, it was sane enough to add that it “intended health to mean physical and mental health and not the wider definition given to it by the World Health Organization.”
In the debate in Parliament the following spring, Gaston Clermont noted that, while it was the government’s intention that the term health not be given the wide interpretation of the W.H.O., the word did not have a clear meaning. So he introduced an amendment, in line with the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, that a clear, direct, and serious threat to the mother’s health must be present. Justice Minister John Turner insisted, however, that this would mean that a doctor needed absolute certainty that such a threat existed, and that such certainty could never be achieved. “Health,” he said, “is incapable of definition and this will be left to the good professional judgment of medical practitioners to decide.” He also rejected an Amendment by Warren Allmand to strengthen the terms of the bill, declaring that it was strong enough as it stood.
Abortions would be few
“The bill has rejected the eugenic, sociological or criminal offence reasons. The bill limits the possibility of therapeutic abortion to these circumstances: it is to be performed by a medical practitioner who is supported by a therapeutic abortion committee of medical practitioners in a certified or approved hospital, and the abortion is to be performed only where the health or life of the mother is in danger.” The word endanger, he concluded, “imports or connotes the elements of hazard, peril or risk.”
Whether he really believed it or not, he gave the impression in the House that abortions in Canada would be few, and done for extraordinarily good reasons.
He and the other members of the House of Commons might as well have saved their breath, instead or worrying about the dots and crosses and about whether endanger was a strong enough word. The doctors settled affairs very quickly – opting, many of them, for the broad WHO definition of health which Parliament had rejected. The law can be interpreted strictly. For instance, of the six Salvation Army hospitals in the country, only one has an abortion committee, and it never meets, presumably because the doctors at the hospital feel that the conditions laid down in the legislation are rarely if ever met. At least some of the obstetricians and gynaecologists in Canada must share the honest view expressed by one of their number: “I believe that few pregnancies endanger the health of the mother and that each time I do one I could be breaking the laws of the land.”
Such scruples, obviously, are rarely found. A majority of the diagnoses associated with therapeutic abortion reported by Statistics Canada, the Badgley Committee found, were for reasons of mental health, mostly listed as reactive depression. “Few physical indications were reported in these national statistics,” the Report states. “What these findings may indicated is that in terms of their physical health, most women who had abortions in Canadian hospitals were considered by their physicians to be in good physical health, but as a result of their unwanted pregnancy, some aspect of their mental health had been affected.” As a member of the board of governors of Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington has persistently asked, how could it be determined that the mental health of a prospective mother was in danger when she had not had a physical examination? Badgley viewed the information about the mental health of women who had abortions as unreliable: many physicians gave their abortion patients these diagnostic labels to facilitate their applications. One doctor was quoted as saying, “To obtain a therapeutic abortion legally, it is necessary for the doctors concerned to state the pregnancy is a danger to the patient’s physical and mental health…. In the majority of cases this is nonsense as there is no real threat to the patient’s health if the pregnancy goes on.”
The Badgley Report establishes that this is definitely so: “Many physicians whom the Committee met on its visits to hospitals across Canada openly acknowledge that their diagnoses for mental health were given for purposes of expediency and they could not be considered as a valid assessment of an abortion patient’s state of mental health.”
The medical profession not only flouts or violates what Parliament intended, but it does not even know what the Canadian abortion legislation says. The Badgley Committee established this by putting a trick question about the length of gestation in its questionnaire. Nine out of ten physicians – about as impressive a percentage as any of Dr. Watters’ – reported the number of weeks which they said the abortion law stipulated about the length of a pregnancy when an induced abortion could be performed. 55% of family doctors and 22% of obstetricians and gynaecologists said that the length of gestation was under 16 weeks. A third of the family doctors and two-thirds of the obstetricians set the upper limit at 20 weeks. Less than one percent of all the physicians gave the correct answer, namely that in Canada the law sets no time limit at all. It is absolutely astonishing that the doctors who interpret the law, and so often complain about it being too restrictive, do not even know what it is.
“To the untrue man, the whole universe is untrue,” writes Hawthorne. Why should it be different in the case of doctors? If a very large segment of the profession has been fabricating mental illnesses in order to provide grounds for abortions, the integrity of the whole profession is in question. There are many other questions which are puzzling and not easy of answer, such as why the medical profession was so quick to abandon the Hippocratic oath, after holding to it for centuries, and why the doctors do not employ the same conservative understanding of health regarding abortion that they would with the illnesses they encounter in their ordinary practice.
The unwanting parent
Still another issue is suggested by one doctor’s formulation of the reasons for abortion: “If a patient requests an abortion, following a frivolous or other sexual encounter, the antithesis of which intent was procreation, it can readily be assumed that the impending potential child is unwanted. The omnipresent argument that the obliteration of potential human life represents devaluation of human life, is philosophical and without definite resolution, and is not practicably applicable to our society’s present situation.”
The sophisticated polysyllabic language of this statement masks a poverty of thought. The speaker is very confident of his ability to prescribe limits, to declare what is applicable in the present situation and what is not. He sneers, not once but twice, at the child in the womb. Life in the womb is not potential life but actual life: if it is not human life, what is it – animal or vegetable? The point which is especially noteworthy, however, is the contemptuous dismissal of an argument as “philosophical” and consequently without merit. This man is trying to hide his unwillingness to think under a cloud of verbosity. To alter a familiar maxim, truly a thinking doctor (and many of them still exist) is the worst enemy of the Prince of Darkness. But an unthinking one is His Satanic Majesty’s best ally.