Monday, January 28, 2008

Dumbing Down the Abortion "Debate"

Jonathon Kay takes us inside the pro-abortion camp

In an op/ed article published on the National Post's Full Comment website, Jonathon Kay takes his readers on a journey to the University of Toronto's "Symposium to Mark the 20th Anniversary of R vs Morgentaler".

It isn't always a pretty picture.

First off, one may have expected that such a symposium would mark a valuable opportunity for pro-abortion (an infinitely more accurate description than "pro-choice") activists to refine their arguments for the future.

Yet Kay encountered a very different scene, one that he notes is very reminiscent of what passes for "debate" regarding abortion across the spectra of interested parties:

"Abortion is the one subject on which otherwise tolerant, open-minded people cannot agree to disagree. If you truly believe that life begins at conception, then what happens in Canada’s abortion clinics and wards approximately 100,000 times every year is, quite literally, a species of genocide. If you take the opposite view — that a fetus is a component of its female host without legal rights or human identity — then your opponents will strike you as nothing but ignorant misogynists. That is why we have precious little “debate” on the subject of abortion. Instead, we have sloganeering by two distinct and mutually hostile ideological tribes."
To this end, Kay is absolutely correct. The rhetorically-charged perceptions borne by the most militant of those on either margin may seem outragenously crazed by the measure of a rational person, but one has to keep in mind that these are not rational people.

"On Friday, Canada’s pro-choice movement convened what could best be described as a convention of tribal elders — middle-aged and elderly champions of the movement, including Henry Morgentaler, whose victory in the Supreme Court of Canada served to dismantle the entire criminal-law regime surrounding abortion 20 years ago today.

The University of Toronto Law School’s “Symposium to Mark the 20th Anniversary of R. v. Morgentaler” was an odd event. On one hand, it was organized by, and sponsored by, the law school’s own faculty — and so took on the superficial trappings of a normal academic symposium. But since not one of the 15 abortion doctors, scholars, writers and politicians who spoke took a pro-life stand, or even dealt in any serious way with pro-life arguments, the event was actually more of a pro-choice pep rally. On the few occasions when the existence of a pro-life camp was even acknowledged, it was invariably dismissed as a cadre of retrograde zealots plotting to undermine the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For these true believers, opposition to abortion is a mental defect, not a bona fide policy position. Osgoode Hall Law School professor Shelley Gavigan, the most militant and stereotypically feminist of the conference panelists, declared categorically that “The unborn child and the pregnant mother speak with one voice — and that voice is hers.” The fact that some of her students didn’t see things her way only meant that “I have some work to do on the pedagogical front.”
Or, conversely, that fact could be seen as proof that there are, as much as Gavigan would surely prefer otherwise, people afoot who can recognize abortion as a real issue that affects real people.

It could just so happen to be proof that Gavigan's premise is inherently flawed. If, as she asserts, pregnant mothers and unborn children do indeed speak with one voice, that would seem to be an implicit admission that abortion is an issue that deals with not merely one body -- but two: the mother and her child. The two may indeed speak with one voice. But by the same token, the unborn child doesn't really have a voice yet -- this is one of the handicaps of being unborn.

Furthermore, who is Gavigan to suggest that, in a matter pertaining to the life and death of the child, that the unborn child shouldn't have a say in the matter?

Unfortuantely, as morally satisfying as the certain inability of Gavigan and those who think like her to answer this question would be, it does make a real abortion debate unbearably complex.

Then again, what could be more unbearably complex than moral ruminations over the end of -- what at least would be -- a human life?

Perhaps there are good reasons why pro-abortion activists seem so unprepared to answer these questions.

" writer Heather Mallick likewise expressed approval of student associations that cut off funding to pro-life groups — because “the rights of Canadian women “are not up for debate.” She also theorized that pro-life stirrings in the mainstream media were mostly the result of over-the-hill male editors seeking to control through repression the lithesome bodies that, in their decrepitude, they could no longer enjoy in the bedroom. And Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett put up a slide entitled “Role of an elected official,” which declared that politicians have “no right” to oppose abortion — because “That is the responsibility of women.”"
Once again, these pro-abortion zealots simply drag up a host of philisophical quandries.

If the rights of Canadian women are not up for debate, why are the rights of the unborn child? Does Mallick really want to suggest that Human Rights is a zero-sum game, in which unborn children can only make gains at the expense of their expecting (or even unintending) mothers?

And who is Carolyn Bennet to suggest that politicians have no right to oppose abortion? Is the right to an opinion on the matter dependent upon support of abortion?

There are significant portions of the Canadian population who oppose abortion as well. Are they unentitled to their opinion? Are they unentitled to support political candidates who support their views?

Isn't Canada a Democracy?

These are the wrong questions for the pro-abortion movement to get stuck trying to answer. Yet they seem to be the questions they're content to provoke.

Fortuantely for them, however, they do have the wisdom to (largely) make such arguments in private, far away from the prying ears of anti-abortion activists (a label infinitely more accurate than "pro-life"), where such questions won't be asked of them.

"If anyone in the audience disagreed with any of this, you wouldn’t have known it. When the time came for questions, there were a few fawning queries, but no sparks. The intimidating-looking plainclothes security fellow who’s apparently been hired to hustle overeager pro-lifers out of the room never had to stir from his seat.

And yet, beneath the veneer of tribal sisterly celebration, I did manage to detect a strain of underlying tension. It came out on those few occasions when one of the speakers made oblique allusion to that taboo question in the pro-choice camp: How late is too late?

This should be a question of special interest to anyone who’s managed to escape the tribal polarization of the abortion debate. Squeezed between the two tribes are a few of us (including me) who think a woman should have a broad right to abort her fetus when it is an insentient bundle of cells, but are appalled by the fact that Canada — alone among industrialized nations — permits “socially motivated” abortion in the second and even third trimesters. Yet in a full day of presentations purporting to comprehensively evaluate the state of abortion in this country, no one at this symposium took on this one disturbing, and truly unique, feature of our country’s legal landscape.
This is probably for good reason: the current lack of limits on when a fetus may be aborted is a debate topic on which, frankly, the pro-abortion lobby doesn't stand a rat's ass of a chance.

"Even in the Q&A, the issue came up only twice — and then, only obliquely. The first came when an audience member bemoaned the fact that most doctors in Western nations wouldn’t perform abortions after 24 weeks — and asked, with apparently genuine curiosity, why this was so. The panelist who answered, National Abortion Federation director Dawn Fowler, refused to supply a reason, merely demurring that “It will be interesting to have the physicians appearing later today [as speakers] comment on that.” (None did.) A few hours later, a male student rose during the Q&A to broach the issue indirectly with legendary Canadian abortion doctor Garson Romalis. The student asked whether late-term unborn children should be supplied pain-killers as part of the abortion procedure. Romalis (who, by way of background, has survived two murder attempts by pro-life fanatics) dismissed any evidence that aborted fetuses feel pain, and with it the entire issue, in a single sentence. And that was it."
On the particular question of whether or not aborted fetuses feel pain -- or at what stage they would -- Romalis seems to have recieved a free pass. The factual science on the matter is incredibly difficult to tell apart from the rhetoric on the matter. (Although there are some prime examples of some remarkably specious claims afoot.)

But the most interesting thing about late-term abortions is that, in Canada, they may not be such a serious concern (perhaps even due to possible ethical concerns on behalf of those doctors who would be performing such abortions).

"The interesting thing is that several of the symposium speakers — most notably, University of Toronto Law School professor Joanna Erdman — vigorously assured the audience that very few abortions take place in Canada “for social reasons” beyond 20 weeks, and none beyond 24 weeks.

No doubt, the data show this to be true. But why was this fact so important as to deserve emphasis? Similarly, why did Gavigan take such pains to dismiss anecdotes of women having abortions for capricious reasons (e.g., looking good in a bikini on an upcoming vacation) as “preposterous misogynistic fables.” If it is really true that “the unborn child and the pregnant mother speak with one voice,” then presumably they have the right to assume a voice that is selfish and vain. If the “dominant ideology of the unborn child” is nothing but a misogynistic construct invented by patriarchal moralists, why does it matter if that so-called unborn child weighs one pound — or five? Why strike such defensive postures against a issue that no one in the room would even discuss?
Well, Gavigan may have dismissed such anecdotes because they are just that -- anecdotes. Perhaps when such women can be convinced to make such comments on the public record they would be considered legitimate fodder for public debate. In the meantime, they're simply stories, which may or (more importantly) may not be true.

Who would know?

Perhaps the seeming percieved necessity to address such matters is indicative that these may be more than merely stories. Then again, perhaps the American fascination with conspiracy theories suggests that maybe the CIA really did order the trigger pulled on John F Kennedy.

Anyone rational care to take that one on?

Didn't think so.

"The answer to this last question, I think, is that these women are not as doctrinaire as they pretend to be. Within their own minds, they do wrestle with these important moral questions. But when in public, none of them feel comfortable exploring them. Locked in what they feel to be a tribal culture war against pro-lifers, they allow themselves no nuance. That is why on Friday, by unspoken agreement, they eschewed the opportunity for real intellectual give and take on the one fundamental aspect of the abortion issue that has needed to be addressed since January 28, 1988, and instead focused on self-congratulation, paranoia and sisterly bonding. It is no exaggeration to say that the middle-aged women behind the podium at this conference are the reason we have no abortion law: Any stirring of legislative action arouses among them such tribal war fury as to send politicians scurrying.

As for the next generation, I am more hopeful.

The Gavigan-Mallick-Bennett generation came by their militancy honestly: by witnessing the truly Byzantine and unconscionably arbitrary barriers to early-term abortion faced by Canadian women in the pre-Morgentaler era. They also bore witness to the hideous medical carnage caused by self-induced and back-alley abortions (a phenomenon Romalis described in detail in what was easily the most powerful presentation of Friday’s symposium). For these pro-choice advocates, there will never be compromise. Behind every law, they will see the hand of the old patriarchy.

But the same isn’t true for today’s 20- and 30-something Canadian women, who have grown up in a Canada where accessible, state-funded abortion is generally taken for granted. Perhaps this new generation will be the one to strike the sort of proper moral balance reflected in the legislation of most European countries. In 10 years, I like to think, I’ll be attending a “Symposium to Mark the 30th Anniversary of R. v. Morgentaler” where the participants will be trading not only slogans, but morally serious ideas as well.
Perhaps the Gavigan-Mallick-Bennet generation did comeby their militancy honestly. However, they've also passed that militancy along to the next generation, of whom Kay says he is more hopeful.

Yet, that same generation has been indoctrinated into the militant pro-abortion dogma since a much younger age. As is the case with all such things, the effects would be much harder to overcome, and even if they were, to what end?

Does Kay (or anyone else, for that matter) honestly believe that the abortion debate will ever be subject to compromise? Or even that it should?

Frankly, the only compromise what will ever bear productive fruit in regards to the abortion debate will be a compromise regarding the terms of debate. Other than that, the specific questions at hand in the abortion debate -- the rights of women, the rights of unborn children, term limits on abortion, post-abortion issues, and an infinite myriad of others -- are all simply too complex to ever simply "meet in the middle".

Abortion is a hopelessly complex issue. The solutions will either be hopelessly complex, or non-existent. There is simply too little middle ground, and too little will to debate to fill it.

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