Canada's pro-life movement is in need of renewal before it's too late, writes Peter Stockland. Photo courtesy of Robert Dubroy

Comment: Pro-life movement is in need of renewal

  • May 18, 2017

In a recent Toronto Sun column, John Snobelen had four wise, albeit chilling, watch words for those in the not-for-profit world. They are: “The atrophy of purpose.”

He was referring to what happens within organizations and institutions that fail to renew themselves at least once a decade. The risks of such failure are serious in the for-profit sector, he said, but at least the pressure of market competition acts as a counterbalance. Not so in the volunteer or charitable sector, where the signs of stultification can go undetected until it is too late to correct course.

“The sagacious leaders of not-for-profits often preside over the most decaying structures,” wrote Snobelen, a former Ontario cabinet minister. “The not-for-profit sector has a less direct connection to markets, and so redundant policies, tired programs and the layering of inefficiency and waste can go unchecked for a generation.”

His concern in the column was the fate of the annual Pride Parade in Toronto, whose arrival at “the terminal stage — the atrophy of purpose” was at long last exposed by last year’s Black Lives Matter debacle. But as incongruous as it might seem, Snobelen’s warning is equally valid for something vital to Catholic hearts and minds: the institutional pro-life movement.

An honest look shows real cause for concern about “atrophy of purpose” within formal pro-life groups. There seems blockage of hope for progress for many of the same reasons of atrophy that left self-satisfied Pride organizers outfoxed and embarrassed by Black Lives Matter in 2016.

Given the stakes involved — the protection of life itself — the implications of the pro-life movement showing such signs are, of course, infinitely more grave. No one can — or should — direct personal critique at individual pro-life leaders who’ve sacrificed so much for the sake of the unborn and those at the end of life. All who toil in that vineyard do so out of faith, hope and charity. That said, the aggregate success record of the collective pro-life leadership is, being diplomatic, a succession of losses.

It’s true those losses have accrued in a zeitgeist of relentless and ferocious hostility to life, and against an ideology of personal autonomy that borders on the mad. Even acknowledging that, however, we have surely reached a moment where there isn’t an iota of evidence of the zeitgeist and the anti-life ideology being effectively contested. Leaders who began the pro-life fight in the Trudeau generation are still fighting it in the Trudeau generation 2.0.

Angus Reid polling data freshly published by Cardus shows 94 per cent of non-religious Canadians now give the highest priority to personal choice when it comes to abortion or doctor-assisted death. Even among the one-fifth of Canadians who are “religiously committed,” just 56 per cent rate preserving life as a higher moral priority than personal choice.

There is a fair argument to be made that any hope of reversing such grim statistics will be lost if those in the institutional pro-life movement pack up their campaign tools and move on to other issues. But there is also a law of diminishing returns that says if there’s been no success to date, the possibility of success is non-existent if the same leaders continue using the same techniques ad infinitum. Indeed, there is a very high cost to doing so. It comes in terms of energy expended and charitable dollars consumed that could go to, say, soup kitchens. But it also comes in terms of the political oxygen denied to alternative approaches.

I recently spoke with someone deeply involved in promoting and facilitating adoption. She described a truly Byzantine regulatory regime that is the reason adoption is such a distant second choice to abortion. When I asked why more political pressure isn’t applied to unravel the crazy rules, she said bluntly it’s because the pro-life movement monopolizes the policy space with its all-or-nothing-at-all demands on abortion.

Such hegemony might help with fund-raising and organizational brand awareness. It might keep the institutional machine humming. But it contradicts the very purpose of pro-life belief. We as Catholics cannot let the institutions that lead us in it fail to properly renew.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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