ABORTION

Support for women’s rights

Members of Parliament confront a dilemma

D’ARCY JENISH January 1 1990
ABORTION

Support for women’s rights

Members of Parliament confront a dilemma

D’ARCY JENISH January 1 1990

Support for women’s rights

ABORTION

Members of Parliament confront a dilemma

It was a rivetting personal drama played out before a rivetted nation. For four weeks last summer, 21-year-old Chantal Daigle waged a protracted legal battle against her former fiancé, Jean-Guy Tremblay, 25, over her right to have an abortion. Lawyers representing Tremblay convinced a series of Quebec courts to block the abortion. Finally, on Aug. 8, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of Daigle, although she had already received an abortion in a Boston clinic after 22 weeks of pregnancy. The DaigleTremblay case, along with a parallel Toronto dispute in which 22-year-old Barbara Dodd won a similar court case, revived the simmering debate over access to abortion in Canada. Those legal battles also appear to have had a dramatic impact on public opinion. Slightly over 60 per cent of the respondents to the Maclean ’s/Decima poll said that, in an abortion decision, a woman’s rights must prevail, while only four per cent supported the prospective father and 32 per cent said that fetal rights should be paramount.

In response to other questions related to the abortion issue, only a small minority— 11 per cent of respondents— said that abortions should be banned outright. Thirty-two per cent would permit abor-

tion on demand—the situation that has prevailed since a Supreme Court of Canada judgment at the beginning of 1988 struck down the law governing abortion. The majority of those polled, 55 per cent, said that abortions should be allowed “only under certain circumstances.” On the issue of timing, respondents who said that abortions should be available to women are divided almost evenly between

those who say that abortions should be allowed anytime during a pregnancy (41 per cent) and those who would permit abortions only in the first three months (43 per cent). The rest opted for time limits of 20 to 24 weeks or stated no opinion.

Participants in the poll also were almost equally split over the need for a new abortion

law. Fifty-one per cent said that there should be a new law, while 47 per cent said there was no need to enact legislation on the issue. That divisiveness compounds the problem that members of Parliament will confront in 1990 when they debate a proposed new abortion law, bill C-43, a Criminal Code measure stating that abortions are legal when one doctor determines that the pregnant woman’s physical,

On the other hand, opponents of abortion claim that public opinion surveys, including the Maclean ’s/Decima poll, show that most Canadians do not want decisions about abortion left entirely with a woman and her doctor. Laura McArthur, for one, president of the Toronto-based Right-to-Life Association, said that a huge majority of Canadians remain adamantly opposed to abortion on demand. She added that the Maclean ’s/Decima results showing 32 per cent of participants favoring abortion on demand does not accurately reflect grassroots sentiments across Canada. Declared McArthur, g whose group opposes abortion: z “There has been a tremendous surge in pro-life support in Canada in recent § years. There certainly is a strong reg sistance to abortion.”

mental or psychological health is at risk. The government introduced that long-promised legislation on Nov. 3 while the Maclean’s/ Decima poll—conducted from Nov. 1 to 8— was under way. Bill C-43 was designed to replace the abortion law that was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in January, 1988. The court ruled that its restrictions violated the right of women to “life, liberty and the security of the person.” In a speech to the Commons on Nov. 28, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney addressed the dilemma that faces the legislators: “There can be few questions on which views are as strongly or as deeply held. The challenge the government faces is to achieve a new law on abortion that balances divergent and incompatible views.”

The disagreements among respondents mirror the same deep rifts within Canadian society, particularly between those who favor abortion as a legal choice and those who oppose it under all or most circumstances. Organizations and individuals supporting the right to abortion say that polls have consistently showed that a vast majority of Canadians favor their position. Robin Rowe, national co-ordinator of the Toronto-based Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL), said that the

Maclean s/Decima poll showing 87 per cent of Canadians in favor of abortion to some degree proves that a strong consensus exists. Added Rowe: “We have always represented a silent majority of people who believe that abortion should be a private matter between a woman and her doctor.”

For MPs attempting to draft an abortion law, the issue is further complicated by divergent regional views.

The Maclean ’s/Decima poll showed that participants from the three Prairie provinces and four Atlantic provinces were the most strongly opposed to abortion on demand, while participants from British Columbia, Quebec and Metro Toronto were the most supportive. Indeed, 42 per cent of those questioned in Metro Toronto supported abortion on demand, compared with only 19 per

cent from Saskatchewan.

Other factors that affect attitudes to abortion, according to the poll, are income, marital status and religion.

The poll indicates that the lowest-income Canadians, those with household incomes of less than $10,000 a year, are the most likely to support abortion on demand.

But those in household income brackets higher than $25,000 a year are also substantially in support of abortion, at least in some circumstances. The highest level of outright opposition to abortion is among poll respondents in the $10,000-to$25,000 household income range. People living in a common-law relationship are most likely to support abortion on demand or in certain circumstances, while married people are marginally more likely to oppose abortion outright than are single people or those living common law.

Views on abortion differed among members of different religious groups and among those with no church affiliation. Half of the respondents who declared themselves to be atheists or agnostics or to have no religious affiliation

THE ABORTION DEBATE Should abortions be allowed on demand, in certain circumstances or not at all? Should there be a new abortion law or not?

ON CERTAIN NOT NEED NO DEMAND CASES AT ALL LAW LAW TOTAL POLL 32 55 11 51 47 FEMALES POLLED 30 56 13 45 53 MALES POLLED 35 54 10 57 41 ROMAN CATHOLICS 29 56 14 56 43 ANGLICAN/UNITED 35 59 38 60 OTHER PROTESTANT 24 55 19 59 39 NO RELIGION 50 46 48 50 ATLANTIC REGION 28 58 12 53 46 QUEBEC 37 49 14 56 43 ONTARIO 32 57 10 49 49 PRAIRIES 25 59 13 54 40 BRITISH COLUMBIA 39 54 38 62

said that they believed in abortion on demand. Those respondents, along with affiliates of the Anglican and the United churches, are less likely to oppose abortion outright than were those attached to other Protestant denom-

inations or the Roman Catholic Church.

Those shades of opinion reflect the official stands on abortion taken by some of the churches. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, a conservative Christian denomination that comprises 1,050 congregations with over 180,000 members, responded to the government’s proposed bill C-43 with a statement calling for “explicit prohibition of abortions for social, economic and stress-related factors.”

On the other hand, the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination with almost 850,000 members, officially opposes abortion on demand but, in a Nov. 27 statement, reaffirmed its support of a woman’s “responsible choice” to terminate a pregnancy if she chooses to do so. The church also stressed its opposition to putting abortion back into the Criminal Code. Linda Ervin, a United Church minister and spokesman for the British Columbia Coalition for Abortion Climes, said that a law on abortion would be “a backhanded slap at women, a way of saying women are not capable of making responsible decisions.”

In late January, a legislative committee made up of 15 MPs from all three parties will begin scrutinizing bill C-43. By restoring abortion to the Criminal Code, the legislation would make abortion a crime punishable by up to two years in prison—unless performed by a qualified medical practitioner who had determined that a woman’s physical, mental or psychological health was in jeopardy.

Activists on both sides of the debate have attacked the bill and launched intense lobbying campaigns to defeat it. Margaret Purcell, the national vice-president for Campaign Life Coalition, which opposes abortion, said that the provisions permitting legal abortions are so broad that the government is condoning abortion on demand. Said Purcell: “This legislation is absolute hypocrisy. We don’t want the bill amended. We want it defeated.”

Activists who favor abortion as a choice also oppose the bill. CARAL’s Rowe said that the government is doing nothing to make abortion more universally available. She added that the fear of criminal prosecution will discourage many doctors from performing the procedure. Added Rowe: “It will have a chilling effect on the availability of abortion, especially in small communities.”

In the House of Commons, there are currently only two identifiable blocks lined up on C-43. The 43 New Democrats have said that they will vote against any bill that criminalizes abortion, while the 38-member Tory cabinet is under instructions from Mulroney to support C-43. For activists on both sides of the issue, the challenge now is to find enough votes among the remaining MPs to defeat the bill. But regardless of the outcome of the battle on Parliament Hill, abortion will likely remain a searing and divisive issue throughout the nation for many years to come.

D’ARCY JENISH

E. KAYE FULTON

in Ottawa