By Mary Deutscher

Trudeau’s pro-life ban doesn’t pass scholar’s test

I don’t mean to brag, but I spent the majority of my summer sitting in the sunshine and reading. (For the record, I’m not lazy. I’m just a PhD student in a liberal arts program.) This gave me a lot of time to ponder things, and one thing I pondered a lot was Justin Trudeau’s decision last spring to ban pro-life MP’s from the Liberal party. I know I’m a little late getting to this story but, given that opening the abortion debate is one of my most favourite things to do, I’m going to go ahead and offer a few thoughts.

Initially I didn’t think I had anything to add on this topic beyond what was already being articulated in the news. But then I came across a section in the book, Conscience and the Common Good by Robert K. Vischer. In this section, Vischer began to look at whether there are any conditions under which the law can infringe on the consciences of its citizens.

He concludes that there are, and uses as his case study the American Civil Rights Act (1964), which forced business owners to employ and serve African Americans regardless of their personal convictions about segregation.

I hope most Canadians will see the Civil Rights Act as a legitimate attempt to improve social conditions in the United States. It was enacted after centuries of racial struggle, during a period of political turmoil when riots graced the headlines regularly. Opinions regarding this act were divided, but the government pushed it through.

Vischer believes the American government’s actions were justified for three reasons: 1) the status quo presented a real danger to citizens; 2) there had been robust national debate on racial issues; and 3) the Civil Rights Act placed minimal restrictions on conscience to achieve its goals.

Although many Canadian politicians believe that stifling the abortion debate is justified, I can’t help but notice that not one of Vischer’s carefully crafted conditions has been met in this Canadian debate. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

First, the American Civil Rights Act was instrumental in preventing abuse to African Americans who lacked social and physical security despite being recognized as full citizens under the law. By comparison, politicians who suppress the abortion debate do so at a time when Canadian women have unbridled access to abortion and are in no danger of enduring any of the supposed harms that an abortion law would bring. It is hard to imagine what the heavy-handed interference of political leaders is supposed to accomplished other than alienating the two-thirds of Canadians who are not satisfied with the current lack of abortion law in Canada.

Second, the act followed centuries of public debate over racial issues. When the public debate on racial issues in 1960s America is compared to the Canadian public debate on abortion, there are substantial differences. The abortion debate has been public for at most 60 years, and has only been actively addressed for a fraction of that time. Although many abortion advocates presume the abortion issue is closed, the reality is that it was barely even open and certainly did not reach the caliber of debate necessary in a functioning democracy.

Third, when the American government intervened in 1964 to ensure the rights of African Americans, it placed the fewest possible restrictions on conscience. Granted these restrictions were significant, but they were justified given the gravity of the situation.

On the other hand, in the Canadian abortion debate it is difficult to see how, in a country that has no law limiting access to abortion, banning discussion can be seen as an appropriate response. If political leaders feel compelled to further access to abortion, they can exercise their free speech to accomplish their goal. However insisting that MPs vote the party line is simply not necessary in this context and represents a paranoid attempt to control discussion.

The parallel between the Civil Rights Act and Justin Trudeau’s actions is, of course, not perfect. For one, Trudeau is only setting policy for his own party while the Civil Rights Act was legally binding in all States. However, if Trudeau wants to win the trust of Canadians, it would serve him well to think about what factors need to be in place before infringement on conscience is justified.

I have picked on Trudeau in this article, but I realize his actions are unfortunately not unique in Canadian politics. It is disturbing that all three of our major political parties are committed to stifling the abortion debate in one way or another. An open discussion of abortion would only result in a complete ban of abortion if that is what most Canadians want, so it begs the question: why are abortion advocates so afraid?

On a more hopeful note, perhaps our elected officials’ fear of discussing abortion is a sign that change is on its way. Perhaps we are only a few brave politicians away from finally having the debate that has never been openly engaged.

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