The abortion debate remains not only mired in the vocabulary of the 1960s sexual revolution, but premised on the social and political conditions of the late 19th century, Peter Stockland writes. Pixabay

Peter Stockland: Abortion is a failure to create alternatives

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  • October 15, 2018

From a pessimistic perspective, a McGill University conference marking 30 years since the Morgentaler decision might seem another predictable festival of defensive triumphalism from pro-choice warriors.

Certainly, the titles of several discussions planned for the Oct. 11-12 event fail to produce great sparks of hope for a shift in rhetoric, much less recognition that there might actually be some legitimacy to the pro-life point of view. The panels “Bringing Abortion to the People: Expanding Access and Options for All” along with “The Stories We Tell: Research and Representation of Self-Managed Abortion” sound like cut-and-pastes from the pro-choice strategy manual of 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005 ad infinitum.

No one should expect a detailed, glowing explication of Humane Vitae, of course. Still, even though the event is organized by the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies (IGSF) and the Centre for Research on Gender, Health and Medicine, and sponsored in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, it remains possible to listen and be open to surprise.  

WFrom an optimistic perspective, there seems justification for such openness in the program notes. While they contain the usual boilerplate blaming Donald Trump for global restrictions on abortion and huzzahs for legalization of the abortion pill mifepristone in Canada, the notes also ask what I’ve long believed is at the beating heart of the abortion conundrum.

“Thirty years after the legalization of abortion in Canada, how should we reassess what women need from abortion legislation, technology, care, access and reproductive justice while respecting the specific conditions and contexts within which abortion is sought?” they ask. “What kinds of needs are made invisible or neglected by current standards and what are the creative means, often born out of necessity, that women have deployed (to) access abortion for themselves or others?” they add.

The keywords, for me, are “reassess,” “needs,” “creative,” “necessity” and, obviously, “born.” They open the way to asking if we have reached a time when all sides in the debate must reassess their feuding and acknowledge that abortion is always a failure to create alternatives.

From a pro-life perspective, the greatest tragedy of abortion is the death of the unborn child. But from a socially encompassing point of view, a proximate tragedy is the collective failure of the richest, most powerful, most dynamic polities in history to find creative means to meet the needs of women in times of necessity specific to their contexts so their children will be born, not aborted.

The abortion debate remains not only mired in the vocabulary of the 1960s sexual revolution, but premised on the social and political conditions of the late 19th century. We recognize that we live in a technological age when it is barely possible to remember life before the smartphone. Yet our social presumptions are fixed in the superstition that nothing in our political relations has altered since about 1912.

It’s a demonstrable and destructive absurdity whose damage goes a great deal deeper than the set-piece theatre of pro-life/pro-choice rhetorical disputation. We saw how much deeper in the horror show of the Senate confirmation hearings around Justice Brett Kavanaugh. There, the foundations of our Western legal and political order were put to the test by the diminution of presumption of innocence and the emergence of authentic doubt about preservation of equality before the law.

My purpose is not to enter into the rigid binary of who was telling the least truth in the now infamous Senate judiciary hearing. What matters is that the irreducible core of both threats was the defensive triumphalism of pro-choice forces preemptively protecting Roe v. Wade, and the heightened anticipation of pro-lifers that Kavanaugh just might, at long last, be their man to overturn the 1973 decision.

Would we face such potential catastrophe if the questions on the table at the McGill conference had been asked and at least partially resolved over the last three decades? From the perspective of a reasoning person of faith, i.e. a Catholic, I have to say no.

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

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