No silencing the March for Life

  • May 1, 2009
Next week, thousands of pro-lifers will gather in Ottawa for the annual March for Life. As they have every year for the past 12 years, they will promote respect for life at all stages, from conception to natural death, through prayer, Mass and a walk through downtown streets ending at Parliament Hill. Some MPs will attend. Clergy and at least one archbishop are planning to attend. There will be witnessing by members of the Silent No More abortion awareness campaign. Last year there were about 8,000 marchers. This year, there may be more.

If you’re a member of a pro-life group or Catholic media organization, or a regular Register reader, you probably know all this. If you only know what the mainstream news outlets carry, you probably don’t. Despite a large number of attendees and the presence of senior clergy and parliamentarians, the march has rarely attracted much media attention. Sometimes a handful of pro-abortion protesters will show up and make noise, creating a photo opportunity or two. Last year a police officer was injured directing traffic, but news reports still didn’t name the event that had caused the need for traffic direction. In the United States, the annual March for Life is at least 10 times as big, but the media situation is about the same.
It’s true that there are many protest marches that don’t get covered in the media, but not many are quite this big. Can the silence be traced to bias, disinterest, lack of news value or some combination of the three? A look at the history of pro-life protest suggests that all might be playing a role.

In the early days of social debate on abortion, leading up to its limited legalization in 1969, most major media were in favour of liberalization, citing the desirability of making legal what many believed was already happening. Chatelaine magazine, then the only mass-circulation for women in English Canada, adopted a leadership role for itself, calling among other things for an end to the risk of desperate women resorting to dangerous back-street abortions. We may never know the true extent of such scenarios, though there are indications that they were greatly exaggerated. At the time, enough people were persuaded of their truth that the abortion law was liberalized, but with enough restrictions to support at least some respect for life, and the implicit recognition that abortion was a moral issue. It was not unusual to see pro-abortion and pro-life opinion printed equally, and without venom.

This changed drastically, however, as the abortion law was challenged on the grounds that requiring individual decisions to be approved by a hospital committee violated women’s privacy and security. Much of this protest was focused on the court challenges of Henry Morgentaler. To say that debate and protest heated up during the early 1980s wouldn’t begin to cover it. By this time abortion had been identified as a “Catholic” issue. Some columnists saw no reason not to include anti-Catholic diatribes along with their support of abortion. Official editorials, while more moderate in tone, generally favoured full legalization. 

In addition to anti-Catholic, anti-religious and just plain illogical commentary, the pro-liberalization argument would often focus on extreme cases that tended to evoke great sympathy. People who did not believe in abortion themselves were sometimes persuaded that the procedure needed to be available legally so that such rare cases could be accommodated. At the same time, many pro-lifers warned of a slippery slope where abortions would face no restrictions at all. Few, if any, would now say they were wrong.

Twenty odd years later, parallels can be discerned between the debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide and the earlier debates about abortion. Those who support liberalization tend to focus on extreme cases that evoke great sympathy. Some of them maintain that euthanasia is practised anyway, so we should make it legal to protect doctors and family members from prosecution. At this stage, most of the debate in the media is respectful in tone, if emotional. But that could change in the face of a legal challenge. Given the experience with abortion, fears of a slippery slope on end-of-life issues are being voiced.  

Ongoing challenges to the sanctity of life are what motivate pro-life witness, including the annual march on Parliament Hill. Until full respect for life exists in law, such protests will continue no matter where the cameras are pointed.

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