EDITORIAL

The politics of abortion: religion overrules sanity

KEN LEFOLII November 3 1962

EDITORIAL

The politics of abortion: religion overrules sanity

KEN LEFOLII November 3 1962

EDITORIAL

The politics of abortion: religion overrules sanity

ABORTION is often a good thing. This is a medical truism, and something more as well. In the light of those sections of the Canadian Criminal Code that govern abortion, it is also a revealing measure of man’s regard for woman in our enlightened day. Until 1955 the code made it extremely difficult for a woman to find a doctor willing to perform a therapeutic abortion. In that year we changed the code, and since then it has been almost impossible for a woman to find a doctor who dares perform the operation.

There are Canadian doctors who will take a woman into hospital and abort her to save her life, but they are few and they always operate in some fear of the law. Section 237 of the code, under the heading Procuring Miscarriage, says that everyone who uses any means for this purpose is liable to imprisonment for life. Section 209, under the heading Killing Unborn Child, has a saving clause which says the penalty doesn’t apply to a person who acts in good faith to preserve the life of the mother.

The article that begins on page 19 of this issue reports the opinions of medico-legal experts who believe a doctor can abort a women legally under section 209, and other experts who believe any doctor who aborts a woman for any reason at all is liable to a jail term under section 237. The article reports that both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Bar Association advocate legislation defining legal abortion, and it also reports the case of a woman with one kidney who was refused a therapeutic abortion by the same doctors who warned her against carrying a child to full term.

Most doctors and lawyers would probably agree that this medieval mess is long overdue to be replaced by a clear statement of at least three grounds for medically and legally justified abortion:

• When qualified medical opinion holds the abortion is necessary to preserve the health of the mother.

• When the pregnancy is the result of proven rape.

• When qualified medical opinion holds that the child is likely to be born with serious mental or physical defects.

Religious objections are the sole reason why no such law has been framed and enacted, although few politicians would admit it openly. But religious influence is here being exercised in the wrong place. The clergy has every right to use all the ethical arguments and moral authority it commands to dissuade a pregnant woman, if she can be dissuaded, from asking for an abortion. The clergy has no more right to demand that the law prohibit abortion, whether the mother needs and requests it or not, than the Jehovah’s Witnesses have to demand that the law prohibit blood transfusions whether the patient is a Witness or not.

So much for logic. It is fair to say that most doctors, lawyers, and legislators have been persuaded of the justice of the case for legal abortion since long before the 1955 change, for the worse, in the relevant sections of the Criminal Code. But it is only realistic to conclude, on the record, that they are in no hurry to do anything about it — possibly because most of them are men, and are thereby spared any pressing sense of urgency in the matter. Women, on the other hand, have now had the vote long enough to learn what it’s for. The surprising thing is that they haven't yet used their proliferating organizations to make it clear to male politicians of all stripes that an intelligible abortion law won’t wait — not while yet another woman with every sane justification for requiring a therapeutic abortion climbs onto a kitchen table somewhere in Canada and closes her eyes tightly while a criminal crank goes to work on her.

KEN LEFOLII