Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Canadians a wake-up call with his recent warnings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Sounding the alarm on our abortion problem

  • January 31, 2012

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Canadians a wake-up call with his recent warnings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The problem is that even those who hear the alarm might rise to the wrong bell.

Harper was candid that our country’s solid economic performance in comparison to Europe and the United States masks a frightening demographic threat. Bluntly put, the number of Canadians nearing retirement is rising; the number of younger Canadians available to replace them is falling. The outcome of that stark reality, Harper said, will require his government to simultaneously undertake serious reform of federal pensions, particularly the Old Age Supplement, and immigration policy.

For almost 50 years, Canadians have lived in the delusional state of believing we can grow old at public expense, that we can dispense with children to replace us and that massive immigration will somehow square that circle.As the Globe and Mail put it with uncharacteristic clarity, the arithmetic fails.

“More than 60 per cent of population growth comes from immigration, but that will approach 100 per cent by 2030. If Canada wants to maintain its population structure, or at least the proportion of the population over 65, it would have to start admitting about three to four times its annual intake of roughly 250,000 immigrants, experts say.”

What Canada really has to start admitting is that it has neither just an immigration problem nor a mere pension sustainability problem. It needs to start admitting it has an abortion problem.

Since the Morgentaler decision of 1988, Canada’s abortion rate has been about 100,000 a year. Pro-choice advocates see those abortions as simply 100,000 individual choices. Pro-life advocates see them as 100,000 moral travesties and personal tragedies. What we cannot agree on, however, begets a truth we can no longer ignore: the loss of 2.4 million “attendant” Canadians since 1988 has left us facing a serious public policy concern.

It is the equivalent, after all, of eliminating a city the size of Kelowna, B.C., Whitby, Ont., or St. John’s, Nfld. each and every year for a quarter century. If any group had actually proposed eliminating Canada’s smaller cities as a matter of public policy 24 years ago, we would have: a) questioned their sanity and b) recognized the long-term peril and acted to prevent it.

In part, we were prevented from perceiving that peril by the initial framing of the abortion debate as either a moral catastrophe or an individual right. Both positions were — are — sincerely held. But they overlooked the pragmatic result of denying 100,000 Canadians a year the chance to be born and become productive citizens.

Margaret Somerville put this well in a National Post column on the debate about sex-selection abortions. Even that debate has so far been framed in primarily individualist language since it focuses on the right of each couple to “balance” their family by ridding themselves of “wrong sex” children. But Somerville, an ethicist at McGill, pointed out that such purportedly private acts have demonstrable public impact.

“As sex-selection abortion most clearly demonstrates, abortion is not just a private matter. The issue involves shared societal values, cultural norms and clashes of cultural values and shows that the cumulative impact of abortion has societal consequences,” she said.

To Catholics, of course, abortion can never be a mere numerical or demographic matter. We know that aborting an unborn child is the taking of a life. It is the denial of a soul.

Still, even as Catholics we, too, are affected by public policy issues as much as we are affected by the moral dimensions of the practices of fellow Canadians. We have the prerogative, perhaps even the obligation, to speak to political leaders in the language they understand.

The political class in this country, as signaled by Harper, is being roused by sheer economic reality from the dream world in which it has lolled for decades. It would be fitting if Catholics helped them, and Canadian society as a whole, understand the true meaning of that tolling bell.

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