The witness of history
“The Last Judgment,” according to Kafka, “is a court that is always in session.” At first glace, these words may seem menacing and obscure, but, in fact, Kafka confirms an attitude towards history, which we all share. We believe in “last judgements,” in final, irreversible indictments, which no revisionist can recuperate and no apologist can rescind. Our estimation of the evils of slavery and genocide are examples of such “last judgments” which cannot be qualified or commuted. In such cases, an unbroken continuum of condemnation emerges, and each generation renews its obligation to the past by reaffirming its anathema to these evils.
A part of this duty is the preservation of the names of protagonists and antagonists alike – of the good who deserve to be remembered and the evil who should not be forgotten. The proponents of moral progress, those who had the courage to defend the untimely opinions that we ratify with gratitude, should be honored for their bravery – men like Stephen Woodworth, whose motion seeks to initiate a debate on the definition of personhood in Canadian law.
But, alongside men like Stephen Woodworth, who hunger and thirst for justice, history will remember those who, in the words of the poet, “did not specially want it to happen.” Even now, we harbour a special contempt for the complacent and the incurious: the 19th-century American who accepted slavery as a fact of life, the German villager living near Auschwitz who never wondered why the full trains left empty or whence the constant smoke came. History reserves its abhorrence, however, not for these, but for those who actively worked in opposition to moral progress.
Debating Woodworth’s motion, the Conservative whip, Gordon O’Connor, took to the floor of the House to give a speech which invited such infamous remembrance: an ugly catalogue of anti-intellectual clichés, this odious address was rife with the very paradoxes which Woodworth’s motion would remedy. O’Connor argued that the topic of personhood should not even be broached before the House, and averred to the laws that, in his mind, make such a debate unnecessary: “According to section 238 of the Criminal Code, when an injury is inflicted on a child in the act of birth and that injury prevents the child from becoming a human being, it is an indictable offence and is punishable by a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.”
O’Connor seemed unaware of the glaring contradiction which this defence contains: what “prevents the child from becoming a human being” is not the brutality of the late-term abortion he describes. No, what truly “prevents the child from becoming a human being” is the ludicrous legal situation which makes such a perverse phrase possible. It is precisely the which O’Connor defends that “prevents the child from becoming a human being” in Canadian law.
O’Connor also cited the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision which struck down the last provisions in the Criminal Code concerning abortion as a reason not to revisit this issue. Leaving aside, for the moment, the Court’s explicit invitation to Parliament, in that very decision, to fill the legal vacuum its decision created with a new law, one is struck by O’Connor’s detestable deference to the Supreme Court. For O’Connor, the Court’s decision conveniently settles the question of legal personhood just as the Dred Scott decision settled another such debate in America in the 19th century. According to O’Connor, “the law does not recognize a fetus or unborn child as a legal person, possessing rights separate from its mother, until it is born alive” with as much authority as Chief Justice Taney’s 1857 decision found that “any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States.” History reminds us that Supreme Court decisions are not infallible, that the burden of personal judgment cannot be delegated to jurists.
But the most amazing moment in O’Connor’s speech comes when, after acknowledging that “abortion is and always will be part of society” and “is part of the human condition” – a tragic fact which no pro-life activist would contest – he wonders aloud: “I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code.” One wonders with what spirit O’Connor reads the high aspirations of Martin Luther King, of his inspiring dreams of justice. We who oppose abortion do so because we, too, dream of a country, more perfect and more just, of a country where unborn life – which differs from our own only in its vulnerability and its posture of complete dependence – is protected by the law.
Perhaps abortion will always be with us, but if this is so, it is because human nature has been felled by a primordial fault. This fact does not weaken our dream of justice in the least; indeed, it makes it all the more urgent. So when O’Connor pedantically reminds us: “There is no law that says that a woman must have an abortion. No one is forcing those who oppose abortion to have one,” we can only reply to such staggering moral poverty with the words of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is tempting, perhaps, to dismiss O’Connor’s diatribe as one feckless Parliamentary address among so many others, regrettable but forgettable in history’s grand scheme. However, as the venerable English legal maxim has it: “to write is to act.” Canadian society is corrupted by the sophistry of just such sentences as O’Connor’s speech contains. Indeed, in two Conservative MPs – Stephen Woodworth and Gordon O’Connor – we see our own historical drama played out in little. One politician challenges in the name of a noble ideal; the other toes his party’s cowardly line.
Public opinion and political pressure are ephemeral things which later generations will not respect. Indeed, posterity will struggle to understand the unpopularity of Woodworth’s position, and will certainly not defer to the Conservative’s political agenda as an excuse for O’Connor’s complicity. Indeed, Dante’s is crowded with souls who suffer for just such misplaced loyalty to temporal powers. The damned, of course, offer eloquent excuses for their commitment to such political agendas, making excuses for themselves to any listening ears. But their pathetic apologies do not diminish their guilt by any degree.
Similarly, no one will remember O’Connor as the party whip who, like a good soldier, simply performed his duty. Instead, history will record for posterity the fact that on Thursday, April 26, 2012, Gordon James O’Connor, retired Brigadier-General, businessman, lobbyist, and public servant, rose in the House of Commons to argue for the continuation of legal infanticide in Canada; in the court of history’s Last Judgment, O’Connor’s own words will bear witness against him.