Slippery slope indeed

  • June 5, 2013

Four decades after Henry Morgentaler performed his first abortion to set the country on a path to abortion lawlessness, Canada is still weighing his profound and tragic impact on society. That regrettable truth was apparent in the obituaries after Morgentaler, 90, died May 23 of a heart attack.

Friends and foes called him the force behind the 1988 Supreme Court decision to undo Canada’s abortion laws. But that legal decision hardly reflects his full legacy. An unintended consequence of Morgentaler is that in barely a generation Canadian respect for life itself has fundamentally and tragically shifted to the point where now society is seriously debating euthanasia.

Morgentaler’s public persona was made possible by two developments: the 1969 Criminal Code revision that legalized therapeutic abortions and the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The 1969 development, while not intended to create unrestricted abortion, placed abortion in the public consciousness and emboldened a young Morgentaler to launch a very lucrative business. Thirteen years later the Charter gave him ammunition to persuade the Supreme Court that the 1969 law was unconstitutional because on one hand it sanctioned abortion while on the other it restricted a woman’s freedom to make her own choice.

Canada has lacked abortion laws ever since, even though polls consistently show most Canadians want legislation. Opposition to sex-selective and late-term abortion is overwhelming, for example, and the majority oppose second trimester abortion. Most voters also dislike state-funded abortion through provincial health care plans at a time when essential services are routinely underfunded.

Yet the polls have failed to spur federal politicians to fill a legislative vacuum that has spawned a lucrative industry and caused about 2.5 million abortions since 1988. That apparent apathy seems to reflect society’s creeping indifference to life issues in general. It started with abortion but now encompasses the coming storms of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The issues are connected. Morgentaler argued in the Supreme Court that the Charter guaranteed women the sole right to choose. Twenty-five years later, a similar human-rights argument is routinely made in end-of-life debates. It declares that each person has a constitutionally guaranteed right to choose death and this right overrides society’s moral compass or the common good. For a society that already permits doctors to end life on behalf of pregnant women, it’s not seen as a huge step to permit them to kill suicidal or terminally ill patients.

In past decisions, the Supreme Court has been wise to forbid assisted suicide and euthanasia. But society places even greater weight today on individual choice and inevitably the highest court will be petitioned again to rule on this matter. It is the frightening next step on the slippery slope initiated by Morgentaler all those years ago.

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