“My views on the abortion issue are complex. I don’t fall into any of the…polar extremes”: Stephen Harper on Abortion
This statement summarizes the personal attitude that Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes on “the abortion issue.” This was during the 2006 election campaign, at a time when the Liberals raised alarm over the Conservatives’ position on abortion. Again, in 2008, with a minority government reportedly at the brink of dissolution, Canadians are witnessing the same limited and polarized discussion.
An event that enlivened the debate on abortion is the recent appointment of Dr. Henry Morgentaler to the order of Canada. This created so much controversy that Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin was subject to a complaint for chairing the Advisory Council, which recommended Morgentaler to the order. The current discourse on abortion in Canada can be summarized as confrontational rhetoric between pro-life and pro-choice, that is, the right to life of a fetus and the individual right of women to their bodies.
While this discussion would have been relevant in 1988, the year Morgentaler and fellow doctors won their case that struck down section 251 of the Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, today, we might as well contemplate Harper’s ambiguous statement for what it could mean, not in relation to Harper or Dion’s political scores but to the interested persons (used loosely) involved.
The reaction to the Morgentaler affair today is also about how we make law. Canada still has no laws regulating the practice of abortion. This is an outlook that not even the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) intended in R v Morgentaler,  1 SCR 30. In a 5-2 decision with four separate judgments, the majority merely agreed to strike down section 251 of the Criminal Code. The 1969 Abortion Law required the assent of three members of a therapeutic committee in an accredited hospital to deem the abortion necessary if it would likely endanger the woman’s health or life.
Morgentaler’s defense suggested this law infringes on women’s right to freedom of conscious and religion, to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice, not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment, to be equal before and under the law and to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination. The constitutional questions before the SCC were the following:
- Does section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada infringe or deny the rights and freedoms guaranteed by ss. 2(a), 7, 12, 15, 27 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
- If section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada infringes or denies the rights and freedoms guaranteed by ss. 2(a), 7, 12, 15, 27 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is s. 251 justified by s. 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore not inconsistent with the Constitution Act, 1982?
- Is section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada ultra vires the Parliament of Canada?
- Does section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada violate s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867?
- Does section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada unlawfully delegate federal criminal power to provincial Ministers of Health or Therapeutic Abortion Committees, and in doing so, has the Federal Government abdicated its authority in this area?
- Do sections 605 and 610(3) of the Criminal Code of Canada infringe or deny the rights and freedoms guaranteed by ss. 7, 11(d), 11(f), 11(h) and 24(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
- If sections 605 and 610(3) of the Criminal Code of Canada infringe or deny the rights and freedoms guaranteed by ss. 7, 11(d) 11(f), 11(h) and 24(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are ss. 605 and 610(3) justified by s. 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore not inconsistent with the Constitution Act, 1982?
Indeed, Dickson C.J. and Lamer J found the impugned law in violation of women’s right to security of the person and that it cannot be saved by meeting the procedural standards of fundamental justice. The procedural requirements to section 251 of the Criminal Code was also found to put women’s health at risk because of delays in obtaining the assent of the therapeutic committee, lack of guidelines and availability of accredited hospitals. Beetz and Estey JJ. found that the means to protecting the foetus did more harm than was proportional to the good and thus failed the “reasonable limit clause” test under the Charter. The five judges, including Bertha Wilson – who provided the most comprehensive defense to women’s physical autonomy – did not provide a right to abortion, nor was there a suggestion that another regulatory law cannot necessarily meet constitutional standards.
Three attempts were made by the government of the day to respond to the Supreme Court reasoning, but failed. Our political representative did not go beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling that abortion was not unlawful. And that summarizes the state of the law today and how we got there. The disquiet, outrage and complaints over the law surrounding abortion when no legislation exists in Canada is not surprising.
The surprising aspect, however, is the oversimplification of the issue that is reduced to the question of to abort or not to abort and summarized in the person of Dr. Morgentaler. Meanwhile, other relevant and broader debates on child rearing responsibility, welfare, health care, affordable housing, shelters, mental health, access to higher education, job parity and minimum wage- all of which deal with structural reforms that may reduce the number of abortions without robbing women the right to choose, are not tackled.
Criminal law can do so much to create a good society and the courts can go only so far in shaping social practices and norms based on a single case. Nearly two decades after the SCC ruling, that single case continues to dominate and limit the discussion. Maybe the ambiguity in Mr. Harper’s statement is not to divert but to point out that the complexity of the issues involved in this act of abortion does not just fit in the current debate on abortion; and that is worth contemplating.