Universities across the country are facing criticism because student unions are refusing to allow discussion of “abortion” and university administrators are not insisting on the free exchange of ideas on campus. The situation has brought unity of cause to groups as diverse as The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The basis of agreement? Free expression of ideas is the foundation of democracy and the concept of the university.
Let me clarify the “discussion on abortion” point. Student unions are only banning clubs and conversation that doesn’t fully endorse abortion. Recently, Carleton University’s LifeLine club was told they could retain club status – which includes the benefit of being able to communicate on campus – if they would simply re-define their constitution to note that they support abortion. That’s right, the campus pro-life club could exist if it endorses abortion! The other condition sought by the student union is that they agree not to have conversation about laws that might criminalize abortion in any way.
For those unfamiliar with a group of nine men and women commonly referred to as the Supreme Court of Canada, the Carleton University Student Association demands are entirely reasonable. However, if one has some familiarity with the Supreme Court of Canada and their comments in regard to abortion then one knows that the question of protection for unborn children falls within the jurisdiction of Parliament to determine.
And that brings me to Parliament. Along with the university, in a parliamentary democracy Parliament is one place where discussion on ideas and issues of public concern is supposed to take place. As Andre Schutten notes in Defying Common Sense: The Criminal Code and the Being Born, Newly-Born and Unborn Child:
In R v Morgentaler,  1 S.C.R. 30, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a section of the Criminal Code that violated a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person” under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, the court was clear that it was striking a specific section with a specific constitutional problem. The court was equally clear that Parliament has the jurisdiction to enact legislation in regard to the unborn.
Since Morgentaler, the Supreme Court has emphasised that the unborn has no “legal” rights - a recognition that Parliament has not passed legislation granting those rights.
Parliament seems to have its own aversion to discussion of abortion, or anything that might be construed or confused as relating to abortion. (That being despite the fact that without any laws – other than those that provide for government funding of abortion in both public hospitals and private “health” clinics – abortion is unconstrained and available until the moment a child is born.)
Let me clarify the Parliamentary aversion point, Parliament is not actually averse to discussing anything about abortion. The leaders of every party represented in Parliament are only averse to discussion of any limitation on abortion or anything that might be construed or confused as relating to a limitation on abortion.
Mr. Harper has said he will not reopen the abortion debate while he is Prime Minister (at least, apparently in Parliament because clearly it continues outside the House of Commons and the Senate Chamber). Mr. Ignatieff infamously expressed his opposition to international assistance for pregnant women who are desirous of giving birth to their children unless funding was available for them to have abortions. (Don’t try to figure it out, I didn’t follow the reasoning either.) Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe have long held positions that there should be no limits on abortion.
Thus, when Parliament was presented with a private member’s bill, Bill C-510, that proposes supporting the choice of a woman who opts to give birth to her child – unfortunately, the only way to do that was to talk about dealing with the criminal aspects of coercing or attempting to coerce a woman to have an abortion – the immediate reaction of all four leaders was that they couldn’t support a law dealing with abortion.
Let’s step back a second. If the proposal was to protect a woman’s choice to have an abortion would there have been objection from the four leaders? It seems that’s the position they have already endorsed. So, what is the problem with the other side of that particular coin, protecting the choice of the women who choose to give birth?
One Member of Parliament has had his Legislative Assistant put it this way in response to letters asking him to support Bill C-510, Roxanne’s Law:
Although Mr. [name of MP] agrees strongly that woman [sic] should be free of coercion when making decisions about their pregnancy, he would like Canadian abortion laws to remain uncomplicated in order to protect their integrity. Furthermore, he argues that the use of threats or coercion is already a criminal offence under Canadian law and that bill C- 510 creates redundancy.
Canada’s abortion laws are very uncomplicated. There are none. There is no integrity of law to protect.
The MP is a lawyer and experienced politician who recently voted in favour of amending the Criminal Code to make it illegal to steal an automobile. Yes, you are correct it has been illegal to steal an automobile since the time of their invention but it was not specifically so stated in the Criminal Code. It was covered in other sections, but the car theft amendment made it easier for law enforcement officials to arrest and prosecute car thieves. No one has ever been convicted for coercing an abortion under existing Criminal Code provisions dealing with threats or coercion.
What is it about discussing or debating abortion (or anything that might be construed or confused as relating to abortion) that seemingly turns otherwise thoughtful and conscientious people into opposite corner pugilists? What is the great fear of giving fair consideration to an issue that is funded by government, has been adjudicated on by the courts and is being discussed and debated seemingly everywhere except the two key forums established for such discussion and debate in a parliamentary democracy?
I haven’t changed my mind about the oppressive style of student unions seeking to limit free and informed discussion on abortion. But I can excuse somewhat the youthful exuberance that, after all, is simply following the example set for them by our nation’s leaders.
Bill C-510 is not about abortion. It’s about women and protecting their choice. But it still may not pass into law because it seems the position of the party leaders, echoed by student leaders, is quite simply, “No talk about abortion please, we’re Canadian.”