Battle lines drawn for next pro-life legal fight

  • October 14, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Defending doctors’ conscience rights, Catholic groups’ freedom of speech and the anti-euthanasia movement represent the next legal battlegrounds for the pro-life movement, said activists at an international pro-life conference held in Toronto in early October.

Dr. Jack Willke, president of the U.S.-based International Right to Life Federation, told more than 200 conference participants on Oct. 4 that the struggle of the pro-life movement is similar to the anti-slavery movement because of the hostility and opposition that both groups have faced.
Willke told The Register that developments in Canada such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 and last month’s controversial policy by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons asking doctors to consider checking their personal beliefs at the office door shows a troubling pattern.

“Canada has been the attack dog for the anti-life movement,” he said. “You’re on very thin ice up here. It’s very dangerous.”

According to Bill Saunders, director of the Family Research Council's Center for Human Life and Bioethics in Washington, USA has supported several anti-life initiatives at the United Nations. Saunders was part of the U.S. delegation at a UN meeting on children’s rights. He said Canada’s support of reproductive rights at the UN was similar to supporting abortion.

On the issue of free speech, Fr. Alphonse de Valk, CSB, editor of Catholic Insight magazine, said this charter right has come under attack by human rights commissions. Catholic Insight  faced a human rights complaint from Rob Wells, an Edmonton-based gay rights activist, which was dismissed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in July. The magazine was charged with promoting anti-homosexual hate speech. But after Wells appealed the commission’s decision, de Valk said the magazine will likely face another $20,000 in legal fees.

De Valk added that Catholic Insight was standing up for the traditional view of the family based upon Catholic teachings and that it was not criticizing homosexual individuals but the homosexual agenda.

It was important to defend the magazine’s stance, de Valk said, because this is an attack on free speech and freedom of religion.       

“People think secularism is neutral. It is not neutral. It is aggressively anti-Christian,” he said. 

Human rights commissions in Canada, de Valk argued, represent a flawed process by not allowing witnesses to be called or cross-examined and presumes guilt before innocence.

Meanwhile, Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, told the audience that recent cases like the B.C. Appeal Court ruling which upheld a controversial “bubble-zone law” restricting protesters around abortion clinics and the recent Ontario policy on doctors show the legal challenges faced by Catholic pro-lifers in exercising their religious and conscience rights.

“The next case is around the corner,” he said.

For Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Centre, the euthanasia debate hit home during the controversial fight launched by Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the late 1990s for doctor-assisted suicide in the United States.

“I often say that Jack Kevorkian converted me to Catholicism,” he said.

Thompson told the audience that until that time, he considered himself a “couch potato Christian.” But when he heard about Kevorkian, he said he was convinced of the importance of being pro-life.

“There is a war being waged for the soul of our nation, a war between the culture of life and the culture of death,” Thompson said.

At the conference, pro-life speakers like Willke and Alex Schadenberg of the London, Ont.-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition cited a potentially precedent-setting case in Washington state which could have a wider impact. The U.S.-based Death with Dignity, a right-to-die group, is supporting Washington I-1000, a state-initiated statute which will be up for a vote next month. The statute would allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request and self-administer a lethal overdose of medication. It is based upon an Oregon law which passed in 1997.

Schadenberg said if this initiative does become law, it could have implications for its northern neighbour, British Columbia.

But what’s more pressing in Canada is the potential revival of a Bloc Quebecois private member’s bill calling for legalization of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. It was introduced on June 12 but died when Parliament was dissolved for the federal election.

According to Schadenberg, this presents an “uphill battle” for anti-euthanasia groups given the political push from MPs in the Bloc and NDP in Ottawa in recent years.

As for how the pro-life movement can make a difference in the public arena, Jim Hughes, president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Register that hearing more pro-life homilies in the parishes and getting the involvement of young people or “John Paul II Catholics” will help spread the message.

“If the Catholic Church doesn’t talk about it, the Catholic schools won’t talk about it,” Hughes said. “And if the Catholic schools don’t talk about it, the children and the young people remain uneducated about the major issues of the day.”

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