Bishops’ Brief


This brief is submitted on behalf of the Permanent Council (1) of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Council would like to thank the Committee for the invitation to present our position on abortion and to address the particular legislative proposal contained in Bill C-43.

Abortion is a complex and sensitive issue. There are scientific, legal, social, philosophical, moral, political and other aspects to be considered. It affects individuals in a very personal and painful manner but also concerns the common good.

Abortion is a controversial issue and divisions run deep. There is, however, wide agreement that it is an individual and collective tragedy and a false solution to social and economic problems.

As legislators, you have the difficult but significant opportunity to decide a matter of profound importance to the human community. The quality of debate in the House of Commons on this Bill has been high. May you continue this thoughtful approach as you listen to the submissions of Canadians and try to discern what is best for those who are already born and those who are yet to be born.

Legislation cannot be considered in isolation from the underlying causes of abortion and its impact on women, or from social and religious values. This brief, therefore, considers the legislative proposal in the more global context of these other aspects.

Abortion is no solution

Numerous social and economic problems have been identified by Members of Parliament and others as contributing to abortions. Those most often cited are: poverty, rape, incest, family violence, and the inequality of women. Abortion, however, is a false solution because it does not and cannot address the underlying causes of why the pregnancy is unwanted.

Abortion may not stop the incest and may even permit it to continue. Rather than eliminating poverty, it eliminates those who might be born poor. Instead of encouraging men to be more responsible, abortion reinforces the notion that pregnancy and childcare are the private concerns of women.

If abortions are readily available, employers might have less incentive to modify their practices so that women are not penalized for having children. Far from attacking the causes, abortion lets society in general and men in particular off the hook.

While there may not be consensus on how best to protect the unborn child, there is some basic agreement on how to protect women and families from social and economic conditions which discourage having children. Every sector of society is implicated.

Governments at all levels must introduce policies and programs that are truly hospitable to life. Obvious places to do more include: child care, parental leaves, shelters and second stage housing for battered women, assistance for parents who wish to be at home with their children, affordable housing, affirmative action and pay equity. These measures cannot be realized, however, without the educational efforts required to motivate such social changes.

Government reforms are not sufficient. They must be accompanied by social changes throughout society.

Communities must be more responsive to families and women in need. Adoption needs to be promoted as a solution to an unwanted pregnancy but with greater compassion for the agony of giving up a child. Educational, cultural, and other institutions, including the Catholic Church, must be more active in promoting the equality of women and respect for them as persons. Some male attitudes and behavior have to change radically if there is to be an end to violence against women, more co-responsibility in parenting and more respectful inter-personal relationships.

Impact on women

Although it is our belief that abortion is a societal issue, it has a profound impact on women’s lives. The experience of women is not uniform but it is clear that they have always paid a disproportionately high price for unexpected pregnancies.

Many women have been left to face unwanted pregnancies without the support of their partners, friends, employers, families or church community. Their anger, bitterness and distrust are real and understandable. Other women have been supported during their pregnancies and enabled to pursue life-giving options. Efforts should be directed to ensuring that there can be similar positive solutions for all women.

Reliance on abortion may impede efforts for personal and social reforms. Moreover, it is giving up on the human spirit and on the capacity of people to transform attitudes and structures.

Pastoral experience has made us aware of the anguish of women faced with an undesired pregnancy, and our own need to be more sensitive to women’s experience and to promote a more inclusive church community. Although we cannot fully share the pain experienced by women in these difficult situations, we can express our solidarity with them. At the same time, we reiterate our commitment to the unborn child who is the weakest and most defenseless member of the human family.

Catholic teaching on abortion

Catholic teaching on abortion is clear and unequivocal.

Abortion is a moral evil because it involves the destruction of human life. Direct killing of an unborn child is never justified.

The induced termination of a pregnancy is permissible, however, if it is the indirect result of efforts to prevent the death of the mother. Examples of these situations are ectopic pregnancies and cancer of the uterus. The death of the unborn child in these cases is not commonly said to be an abortion.

Catholics are not the only Canadians who take this position. Others do so because of the indisputable scientific evidence that life begins at conception; others because they see abortion as an issue of fundamental human rights and justice, or because they value the potential of the unborn human being. While we feel supported by the views of others, our own position is particularly rooted in the unshakable belief that life is a gift from God and that all human beings are created in the image of God. As John Paul II said:

…the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God’s goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness, which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendor of that “Yes,” and “Amen,” who is Christ himself. To the “No” which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living “Yes,” thus defending the human person and the world from all who plot against and harm life. (2)

In discussions about abortion, some people use the words human being and person interchangeably. Others make careful distinctions because, in law, only persons have rights and duties. On the one hand, it is argued that the unborn child is a person because science has established that he or she is a human being. On the one hand, it is said that even though the unborn child is a human being, he or she is only a potential person. The teaching of the Catholic Church is that “the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception.” (3)

Irrespective of the present state of the law, it is our view that all human beings should be treated and respected as persons at all stages of life.

Pluralism

We recognize that there are strongly held views, which differ from ours. This is understandable because the basic values of life and freedom are at stake. It is also part of the reality of living in a pluralistic society.

Authentic pluralism is enriching and challenging. On the one hand, it means that no one group has the right to impose its particular point of view. On the other hand, there is the freedom to inform and persuade public opinion and room for both religious and secular values. Tensions between individual and social rights and competing values are inevitable and part of the creative process of living in a pluralistic society.

Authentic pluralism is enriching and challenging. On the one hand, t means that no one group has the right to impose its particular point of view. On the other hand, there is the freedom to inform and persuade public opinion and room for both religious and secular values. Tensions between individual and social rights and competing values are inevitable and part of the creative process of living in a pluralistic society.

The state has a key role to play in the formation of a collective conscience within the framework of a climate of social peace and respect for people who hold differing views.

Recent legislation on smoking and drinking are good examples of how the law shapes as well as reflects consensus.

The diversity of views on abortion and the commitment of those who hold them, make your task more difficult. It would be tempting to act simply as an arbitrator and select the lowest common denominator as the basis for legislation. But genuine pluralism does not relieve you of your duty to legislate for the common good. The Second Vatican Council in speaking of the common good said:

“Because of the closer bonds of human interdependence and their spread over the whole world, we are today witnessing a widening of the role of the common good, which is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. The whole human race is consequently involved with regard to the rights and obligations, which result. Every group must take into account the needs and legitimate aspirations of every other group, and still more of the human family as a whole…The social order requires constant improvement: it must be founded in truth, built on justice, and enlivened by love: it should grow in freedom towards a more humane equilibrium. If these objectives are to be attained there will first have to be a renewal of attitudes and far-reaching social changes.” (4)

The Legislative proposal – Bill C-43

Prior to examining the bill in detail, we would like to thank the government for responding to the numerous requests form all over the country that there be a law. The fact of legislation confirms that abortion is a matter of public morality and not solely a private concern.

Positive elements

1)      We are particularly relieved that the gestational approach has been rejected. The concept is offensive and unprincipled because it presumes that human life is more worthy of protection at one stage than at another. This bill accepts that human life has intrinsic value from the beginning.

2)      The requirement that there be grounds is significant because it affirms that abortion is more than a matter of choice and reinforces the state’s interest in protecting the unborn child.

As Canadians, we value freedom because it enhances human dignity and autonomy. Yet, freedom is more than individualism or unfettered choice. It is also relational and as such limited by the demands of social responsibility.

Sometimes it is necessary to restrict freedom to avoid doing harm or to benefit others. Laws directed at violent degrading pornography or affirmative action are other examples of moral choices and freedom being curtailed in favor of the common good.

3)      The use of the criminal law power is welcome because of its powerful message. As Law Reform Commissioner Joseph Maingot said:

The criminal law can make a significant contribution by addressing the issue of abortion. Criminal prohibitions on abortions are desirable for both functional and symbolic reasons. Functional, because criminal prohibitions will reduce, although not eliminate, abortions. Since fetal life deserves legal protection, it follows that a reduction in abortions is a net social benefit. The symbolic function of the criminal law is no less important. The criminal law is our nation’s fundamental statement of public policy. It is the instrument by which the community draws a line between the tolerable and the intolerable. Criminal law defines those whose interests are worthy of respect and protection, and in my view this should include all members of the human family.

Ultimately, the criminal law is a mirror of what we are; it reflects our commitment, or lack of commitment, to human dignity and equality. (5)

Negative elements

At the level of principle, then, the bill is encouraging. It is seriously flawed, however, in practical application it will not sufficiently protect the unborn child.

The major deficiencies are the weak definition of health and the failure to provide any means for confirming that the health standard has been met.

Proposed amendments

Amendments are required to protect the unborn child not only in principle but also in fact. The following proposals are offered to strengthen the bill.

1)      Definition of health:

A more restrictive definition of health is needed because for some doctors abortion is a first response rather than a last resort.

The health risk must be substantial, serious, and permanent. Moreover it should be such that it cannot be treated by any other commonly accepted medical procedure.

This amendment is critical to ensure that all therapeutic alternatives are explored and that abortion is not used to remedy other problems or the stress or anxiety which may ordinarily accompany an unexpected or undesired pregnancy.

For all of these reasons, social and economic considerations should be explicitly excluded from the definition of health and the word “psychological” dropped.

2) Accountability

In order to prevent abuses, procedures are needed to ensure that the health standard is respected. Sanctions play a role but they apply only after the death of the child.

There is reason to believe that there will be greater compliance if a second independent medical opinion is required and both doctors are obliged to furnish written reasons for their opinions. Mr. Justice Beetz and Mr. Justice Estey in the Morgentaler case held that a second medical opinion was justified given the state’s interest in the unborn child. In particular, they stated: “Parliament is justified in requiring a reliable, independent and medically sound opinion in order to protect the state interest in the fetus” (6) and later “I do not believe it to be reasonable to seek independent medical confirmation of the threat to the woman’s life or health when such an important and distinct interest hangs in the balance.” (7)

3) Informed consent

Some women have said that they felt pressured into having an abortion without time for adequate reflection. Others have indicated that they might have made a different decision had they been provided with more information as to fetal development or existing support systems for pregnant women. In addition, the psychological effects and physical complications of abortions are beginning to be documented.

In light of these factors, your Committee may wish to consider including a waiting period and mandatory counseling.

4) Sanctions

The Committee should give some thought to differentiating between the sanctions for the persons who perform abortions and those for the pregnant woman involved.

While women are moral agents and responsible for their actions, women faced with an unexpected or undesired pregnancy are under much more pressure than those who do the abortions. We recommend that penalties other than jail terms (e.g. community service) be considered for women. As has been observed, “The legal system should reflect both the justice and mercy of God – God who is just, because we have the capacity to be responsible, God who is merciful because we are weak.” (8)

5) Conscience clause

It is shocking that some health care workers are required to participate in abortion procedures when this is contrary to their personal consciences. Since the Bill does not impose a positive duty to perform abortion, we are unsure if a conscience clause can be included. We wish to indicate, however, our strong support for legislation which would prohibit anyone from being compelled to assist at an abortion contrary to his or her religious or moral views.

The best possible law

We urge your Committee to draft a law which will protect the unborn child to the maximum degree possible. It is understood, however, that as bishops, it is not our role to suggest in detail the best possible legislative solution. As we wrote to your predecessors in 1966, Christian legislators must make their own decisions. The norm of their actions as legislators is not chiefly the god of any religious group but the good of society.

Religious and moral values are certainly of great importance for good government. But these values enter into political decisions only in so far as they affect the common good. Members of Parliament are charged with a temporal task. They may, and in fact often will, vote in line with what the Church forbids or approves because what the Church forbids or approves may be closely connected with the common good. Their standard always lies in this question: Is it for or against the common good? (9)

During the difficult debate of the last two years around legislative options, some have said that Catholics can support only a law which completely accords with Church teaching. This opinion may have been occasioned by failure to distinguish between the moral law and the civil law or to appreciate the special problems of balancing conflicting claims in a pluralistic society.

While Catholics may not favor abortion or any proposal which seeks to weaken existing legal protection of the unborn child. Nor may they advocate that there be no legal protection. However, when it is the only available or feasible political option, support may be given to legislation which attempts, if only imperfectly, to restore protection or strengthen existing protection. In this case, they must continue to work for complete protection and to express publicly their opposition to abortion.

Questions as to the feasibility and whether the legislation improves or worsens the legal position of the unborn child, are always matters of prudential judgment where certitude is not possible.

In a country as diversified as ours, in matters of religion and ideology, Catholic politicians must assess the legal and political realities they face and work for the law which will provide the maximum possible protection for unborn children.

Conclusion

In closing, we again thank members of the Committee for the opportunity to participate in this debate in the public forum.

You have the responsibility of drafting legislation which will profoundly affect future generations. Your recommendations will be a statement about the value Canadians place on human life. Yours is not an easy task but we are confident that you have the ability, humanity and integrity to make a difference.

For our part, the Canadian Catholic Bishops shall continue to teach reverence for human life from conception to natural death and to work for greater social and economic justice. We shall also renew our efforts to educate about positive life-giving solutions to unwanted pregnancies, and increase our support for those individuals and agencies who are providing much needed services (e.g. adoption, support for young mothers, parenting classes, affordable housing and child care).

Now civil law will alter our moral teaching on abortion or affect our commitment to a comprehensive and respectful attitude to life at all stages.

(1)   The members of the Permanent Council are:

Most Rev. A. Ambrozic (Toronto)

Most Rev. B. Blanchet (Gaspe)

His Em. G. Emmett Cardinal Carter (Toronto)

Most Rev. N. Delaquis (Gravelbourg)

Most Rev. G. Drainville (Amos)

Most Rev. R. Ebacher (Gatineau-Hull)

Most Rev. A. Exner (Winnipeg)

Most Rev. T. Fulton (St. Catharines)

His Em. Paul Cardinal Gregoire (Montreal)

Most Rev. C.A. Halpin (Regina)

Most Rev. J-G Hamelin (Rouyn-Noranda)

Most Rev. M. Hermaniuk (Metropolitan for Ukrainian Catholics of Canada)

Most Rev. Robert Lebel (Valleyfield)

Most Rev. J. H. MacDonald (Charlottetown)

Most Rev. J. A. O’Mara (Thunder Bay)

His Em. Louis-Albert Cardinal Vachon (Quebec)

(2)   John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio – Article 30.

(3)   Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican City, 1987.

(4)   Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, No. 26.

(5)   Law Reform Commission of Canada, Crimes Against the Fetus, Working Paper 58. (Ottawa, LRC 1989).

(6)   R v Morgentaler [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30 at page 100.

(7)   R v Morgentaler Ibid, at page 112.

(8)   Catholic New Times, editorial of October 8, 1989.

(9)   Canadian Catholic Conference Statement on Proposed Change of Canadian Law on Contraceptives, September 9, 1966.

Nature of Bill C-43

At this point it is worthwhile, for the record if for no other reason, to sum up the pro-life view of Bill C-43 as set for by Campaign Life Coalition/Alliance for Life and reported in The Interim (December 1989, January 1990).

In general, access under Bill C-43 will be even easier and quicker than under the 1969 law, which permitted the killing of a million and a half pre-born babies. Why? Because the few restrictions of that bill have been removed:

–          instead of approval from a TAC (“therapeutic” abortion committee) the opinion of only one doctor suffices; while abortions may be committed by anyone under his supervision

–          instead of being restricted to hospitals, abortions may be carried out anywhere (doctor’s office, “clinics,” at home).

Even the pretense of needing a “reason” or “indication” for requesting an abortion has now been removed by permitting it for physical, mental and psychological “health” reasons including, as the government stated in November 1989 (repeated on April 3, 1990) for economic and social factors.

This Bill places abortion in the Criminal Code but this is only a political ploy, which will never lead to the prosecution of doctors. After all, any “medical” opinion suffices for validity. (This interpretation was confirmed on March 30, 1990, when Mrs. Kim Campbell, the new Minister of Justice, publicly reassured Canadian doctors that they had nothing whatsoever to fear.) The real reason for putting it in the Criminal Code may well have been to preclude individual provinces from banning it by refusing to fund, for example, something which is not a “health’ issue. Placing abortion under the Criminal Code prevents them doing so.

Finally, Bill C-43 sets no time restrictions on “terminating pregnancies” and is, therefore, worse than a Bill which would have restricted abortions to 12 or 16 or 20 weeks of gestation. In fact, Bill C-43 is the worst gestational law possible.

In view of these facts, the pro-life groups said, it is better to continue without a law while working for a pro-life one, with government help, or otherwise by means of private member bills, or through elections. In the meanwhile pro-lifers can maintain a conscience untarnished by surrender or submission to evil. And from the point of view of political tactics, supporting this bill is equivalent to ending pro-life legislation for the next 10-20 years or more, because every politician in the country will claim that it was the best attainable and refuse to do anything more.

Conclusion

As a final observation, we quote the last sentence from the 1974 book Morality and Law in Canadian Politics, The abortion controversy, which today is more valid than ever:

“For a society to have many illegal abortions is no doubt a very serious situation. It will be very difficult to stop them. But to legalize abortions is to corrupt the law and, thereby, ultimately to corrupt society. It will prove far more difficult to stop that corruption than it will be to stop illegal abortions.”

As mentioned in the introduction, we invite you to send in your comments. Please keep them brief.

Joseph Thompson is a retired high school teacher of religion. He lives in Sarnia, Ontario. Father Alphonse de Valk, C.S.B., is a Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of St. Basil. He is a former professor of modern European and modern Church history. From 1978-1983 he was Principal of St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta. Presently he lives in Toronto and is Associate Editor of this newspaper.

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