Framing the Abortion Debate

Despite Stephen Harper’s insistence that he had no intention of reopening the abortion debate, he signed the nomination papers of someone who did. Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth sponsored Motion 312 to study when a human life begins; though innocuous sounding enough, M-312 was a kind of dog whistle, bringing out troops on all sides of the debate, ready with their usual rhetoric. As I see it, in this debate, there are three main parties: the social conservatives, eager to finally achieve this legislative Holy Grail, their opponents, who declare the debate closed and settled, and (what I’ll call) the moderators, generally against restrictions on a women’s freedoms in practice but in theory open to debate. Why this debate keeps being reopened seems, with glaring obviousness, to be the fault of the social conservatives but I would argue that this is not the case. I believe, in their desire to be fair and balanced, it is the fault of the moderators that we have not been able to bring this argument to a close.

Quickly surveying the conversation in the Twitter echo chamber, various prominent and generally neutral political commentators and watchers have aligned themselves with the view that this debate should be open for debate. None more so than Andrew Coyne, who spent the better part of the evening of the vote on M-312 tweeting in frustration, mentioning his articles on the subject from Maclean’s and the National Post.

Overall Coyne’s point is that we should be having the debate so that we can finally settle the issue. On this, we agree. Settling the debate would avoid situations like Harper’s maternal health initiative, which defunded abortions abroad. Because the debate is not completely settled in Canada, Harper was able to deny women abroad access to what is often lifesaving medical services.

Where Coyne loses me is the way that he frames how we should be having the debate. If order to have this debate, it must be framed in such a way to put the moral argument that social conservatives make on a continuum with the more pragmatic position that their opponents take. The way Coyne presents the argument is helpfully summed up in his National Post piece in four points (which I have numbered):

Any honest defence of the status quo must concede:

[1] that whatever its merits, the status quo — abortion on demand at any stage of the pregnancy — is at one end of the possible legal regimens surrounding abortion, with absolute prohibition at the other. That is, it is objectively extreme.

[2] that it is the result neither of any judgment of the Supreme Court nor the decision of any elected legislature. In fact, the House of Commons accepted the court’s invitation to redraft the law and, after two years of debate, passed one. It died by a tie vote of the Senate.

[3] that the legal vacuum that prevails in Canada is unique in the democratic world. Every other democratic country imposes some conditions on the right to abortion, with greater restrictions in the later stages of pregnancy.

[4] that polls have consistently shown the Canadian public is divided over the question, with the largest proportion somewhere between the two extremes.

I will address each argument in turn.


Coyne’s first argument has two parts: first, that our law is objectively extreme and second, that it is counterbalanced by absolute prohibition as its opposite. The appeal to objectivity and reason is, in my opinion, disingenuous (especially since he expects us to concede this point before we can defend the status quo) and it crumbles under the simplest of logical scrutiny. To be glib, by his measure, our laws regarding breathing are objectively extreme since there is no restriction whatsoever on the practice. Likewise with theft, murder and so on; each of these laws would be deemed extreme, in one direction or the other. Glibness aside, the Canadian laws regarding abortion are not extreme, they are simply as far in one direction as any country is currently willing to go. This is an important distinction; absolute prohibition leads to back alley abortions and the deaths of pregnant women so an equally extreme position would be, say, allowing anyone to perform an abortion at any time. Since the procedure must be performed in a regulated medical environment by trained medical professionals, there are clearly some regulations in place.

Claiming that the status quo is extreme is a rhetorical trick to muddle the meaning of the word ‘extreme’ so that it can no longer be used as an effective weapon against those in favour of absolute prohibition. If we accept that both sides are being extreme, we simply need to calm down and have a rational debate. This argument is an accepted narrative that has to be presupposed for the current debate to happen in the first place. This is why it is so dangerous; if we concede to have a debate on these terms, we concede the debate in advance.

It’s important here to note, because Coyne uses the word ‘extreme’ as a covert way to denounce the status quo; in his plea for moderation, he is implicitly supporting some restrictions on abortions. Deploying the word ‘objectively’ as he does is making an argument in itself (which further cheapens his use of the word).


For his second argument, Coyne appeals to the higher ideals of our democracy. Love the status quo or not, surely we must concede that the method by which it was reached is unbecoming of a country such as ours. It was never properly codified in law and was reached by an accident of the Senate. That it was the Senate that led us here is particularly odious to Coyne; he goes out of his way to mention that this was “the non-decision of an un-democratic [house]” (Maclean’s).

Coyne’s error here is two fold: first, that the method by which it was achieved is undemocratic and second, that we have arrived here by accident. A law was struck down by the Supreme Court and no law has ever managed to take its place. At a glance, this would seem to be a problem, as if it had happened by neglect. But Coyne, explaining the history at length in Maclean’s, makes it very clear that this is not the case; the Mulroney government made several attempts to put in a law and subsequent governments made their positions clear when they faced voters. That Mulroney was unable to get a law passed is not a failure of democracy, it is a victory of our checks and balances. It’s not as if they couldn’t have tried again if a law was so necessary and the support for it overwhelming. On the subject of Liberals demonizing their rightwing opponents for their pro-life positions, surely we can recognize that, even if Liberals were being dishonest by casting themselves as the defenders of the status quo (as Coyne in Maclean’s implies), gaining votes for doing so should be considered support for the status quo. Every party to get elected after 1988 campaigned on maintaining the status quo; if this is not enough to consider it deliberate and democratic, I’m not sure how else we can prove it.

In the framing of his second point, Coyne privileges the Supreme Court over the Senate, allowing his personal bias to cloud his argument. Claiming that the status quo is somehow not valid because the Senate itself is undemocratic is an argument that could be applied to any law, passed or not. Coyne has made himself clear that he is in favour of reforming the Senate several times but trying to apply this to specific arguments is absurd.


Here Coyne mentions that Canada is unique in having a legal void where an abortion law might sit. Why we should take seriously the “everyone else is doing it” argument is not made clear (e.g. someone had to be the first to ban slavery etc.). He takes care to mention that other countries generally restrict abortion more as a pregnancy progresses and, in his Maclean’s article, mentions that opponents of the status quo are right to point out that, in Canada, abortion is legal at all stages of a pregnancy. He is alluding here to the fact that in Canada, late term abortions are technically legal, which allows for the hypothetical potential for viable, healthy fetuses to be terminated. Ignoring the fact that this is a solution looking for a problem, that is a policy issue and one that we can’t get to until we stop having the debate in this way.


Coyne saves his best point for last: opinion on the matter is divided. Polling shows quite regularly that a great deal of people would be open to a law that restricted abortions in certain cases. This is a difficult assertion to address directly, except to say that a poll is a poll and a vote is a vote and the parties that promise to keep the status quo are parties that get elected. Beyond that, it’s difficult to dismiss an appetite for change.

In explaining that opinion is divided, Coyne mentions respondents to the poll were offered three possible answers to the abortion question: no restrictions, some restrictions, and complete prohibition. The problem here (aside from privileging complete prohibitions as a reasonable position) is that this is two questions conflated into one. The first question is the moral question, “Should we allow abortions?” The second question is applicable only if we answer “Yes” to the first question and is “Since abortion is legal in Canada, what’s the best way to handle it?” The second question is a policy question, not a moral one. This is where the useful conversation begins; we get answers like support for single mothers, improving the adoption system, and better sex education for teenagers, just to name a few. The problem is that as long as the first question is open for debate, the second question will be drowned out. As long as we are still talking about pro-choice versus pro-life, every argument will be reduced to one category or another. Right now, it’s difficult to even suggest offering emotional support to women who have abortions, for fear that the implications that abortions can be traumatic might be construed as a pro-life argument.


As a man, I don’t have any more of a stake in the abortion debate than wanting to see the best possible outcome and I get the impression that Mr. Coyne is arguing from a similar position. The problem as far as I see it, is in trying to be a fair moderator between two irreconcilable positions; social conservatives are trying to engage in a moral debate and their opponents are approaching the problem more practically. A useful analogy is that at one point, opinion was deeply divided on the subject of the legalization of alcohol because at its core, it was a debate on legislating morality. Once we took morality out of the debate, it became a policy issue. Now we try to moderate the harm of alcohol, we offer support and treatment for alcoholism, and we have reasonable restrictions in place. There is a glimmer of that now, in Canada with abortion; in Maclean’s, Coyne explains that “even without an abortion law, the incidence of abortion is falling, and has been for a decade” and that “[i]f the objective is fewer abortions” the status quo might be the way to achieve that. We should be building on that success.

There is a vested interest in resolving this debate but we must do it from a position where we explicitly avoid making the concessions that Coyne insists we do. It’s not enough that Motion 312 was voted down; we need to stop having this discussion this way. Until we do, every debate is going to be taken as a thin wedge, a slippery slope or a dog whistle. The debate is more in the framing rather than in the argument itself; frame it properly and we can finally stop worrying long enough to have a productive conversation.


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