Building a culture of life in the academic world
By David Curtin
It's said that great minds think alike; but at a conference at the University of Toronto June 5-6, it was clear the greatest minds also think of life.
The conference was the annual gathering of University Faculty for Life, an association of pro-life academics from across North America. It was co-sponsored by Toronto's deVeber Institute, a leading pro-life research centre.
Rabbi David Novak, who holds the Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, gave a spellbinding opening address. Asking "What is a right to life?" he showed the absurdity of the modern notion of rights, while insisting there is a proper understanding of rights which must be recovered.
Rabbi Novak explained that to have a right is to have a claim, and that a person's very presence in the world makes a claim on everyone else. In negative terms, that claim is, "Don't kill me"; in positive terms, it's "Help me in life."
In our culture, however, "to be a rights holder, I have to have will, and be capable of exercising it." And the greatest right today, Rabbi Novak said, is "the right of refusal—if I have a right to something, I also have a right to give it up."
The implications of basing rights on will are clear in the abortion issue: because children in the womb cannot exercise their will, they can be treated in whatever way we see fit. The implications of the "right of refusal" for the euthanasia issue are also clear: the choice to commit suicide is as valid as the natural instinct of self-preservation.
The conference also heard two excellent talks surveying life issues in Canadian law. Dr David Dooley, emeritus professor of English at the University of Toronto, and a longtime contributor to The Interim, spoke on "The Supreme Court and abortion: Legal logic and legal fictions," exposing the absurdities rampant in the Supreme Court's various abortion rulings.
He referred, for example, to the majority opinion in the recent Ms G case, in which Madam Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote, "The pregnant woman and her child are one," referring to the child's lack of "personhood" in Canadian law.
Turning women into freaks
"McLachlin's view ... would turn the woman into a freak, a creature with two heads, four arms, four legs, a large number of fingers and toes, and two hearts pumping different types of blood, one of which would be fatal to the mother if it got into her bloodstream .... Why did the majority insist on what is a palpable falsehood?"
Constitutional lawyer David Brown, a partner in the Toronto law firm Stikeman, Elliott, presented a brilliant overview of abortion and euthanasia in Canadian law since 1969. Among his many pro-life activities, Mr Brown defended Ontario's "Pro-Life 18" against the provincial government's injunction against pro-life witnessing at abortion centres.
In his paper, Mr Brown concluded that "Canadian courts have rejected any principle of the absolute sanctity of life, and increasingly look for direction and guidance towards the "consensus" or "norm" on life issues as reflected by popular opinion within Canada and the legislative practice in other countries."
He also argued that Canadian courts "increasingly appear prepared to institutionalize a category of ‘compassionate murder' by creating constitutional exemptions to penalties prescribed in the Criminal Code."
The keynote address, "Mercy killing: History and medicine," was a personal account of euthanasia in the twentieth century, delivered by Dr Barry deVeber, professor emeritus of pediatrics and oncology at the University of Western Ontario.
Dr deVeber has served as president of Alliance for Life Canada. His outstanding pro-life record includes pioneering work in palliative care for children, in addition to his founding of the pro-life research institute which bears his name.
Examining the problem of euthanasia in Holland, Dr deVeber said "one important factor was the lack of any palliative- or hospice-care movement, (and) a severe lack of knowledge about pain control on the part of Dutch physicians."
He argued that "many if not most terminal cancer patients do not have access to proper palliative care, and education of MDs and RNs is improving but not ideal in most areas of North America."
As a fitting conclusion to the conference, Dr deVeber remarked, "Having naively entered academic life with the concept that truth had no boundaries or editors, I am still amazed how the facts concerning life issues, such as post-abortion problems, can be diverted by the bias of editors, official scientific societies, research-granting bodies, university administrators, etc. However, we have a unique, and, I believe, a God-given role to play, and meetings such as this are critical to our further development and knowledge."
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