Abortion and Liberty

When Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth introduced a private member’s motion on the status of the fetus last week, the government was expected to distance itself. But when Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor stood to deliver the government line, he did far more than that.

“I can confirm that as a member of the Conservative caucus for nearly eight years, the prime minister has been consistent with his position on abortion,” O’Connor said. “As early as 2005 at the Montreal convention, and in every federal election platform since, he has stated that the Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion. While the issue may be debated by some, as in the private member’s motion here tonight, I state again that the government’s position is clear: It will not reopen this debate.”

It was a surprisingly sweeping and categorical pledge. And we can be sure it was crafted in the prime minister’s office, or at a minimum, personally approved by the boss.

But that was just the beginning of the surprises.

“The decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision,” O’Connor declared, “and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount and take precedence over that of the state.”

It was a genuinely shocking moment. In effect, the government engaged the debate it said it didn’t want to discuss, but rather than siding with Woodworth and the social conservatives who want abortion restricted, it came out swinging for the other side.

“I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code,” O’Connor said. “There is no law that says that a woman must have an abortion. No one is forcing those who oppose abortion to have one.”

O’Connor also appealed to practical realities. “Whether one accepts it or not, abortion is and always will be part of society. There will always be dire situations in which some women may have to choose the option of abortion. No matter how many laws some people may want government to institute against abortion, abortion cannot be eliminated. It is part of the human condition.”

In closing, O’Connor went further still, channelling the spirit of J.S. Mill. “I am sure we all recognize that the issue of abortion raises strongly held and divergent views within and outside Parliament. However, I firmly believe that each of us should be able to pursue our lifestyle as long as it is within the boundaries of law and does not interfere with the actions of others.”

With that, the government repudiated Woodworth and social conservatives who want abortion restricted.

It also repudiated a big chunk of its own agenda.

By coincidence, the same day O’Connor spoke those stirring words in the House of Commons, the government announced it would appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that had struck down key anti-prostitution laws. This was expected. The Conservatives have vociferously opposed any suggestion that the prostitution laws – which do not forbid prostitution per se but effectively make it impossible to do it without committing a crime – should be curtailed in any way.

So how does that square with the government’s declarations on abortion? Try replacing the word “abortion” in any part of Gordon O’Connor’s statement with “prostitution.”

“Whether one accepts it or not, prostitution is and always will be part of society. There will always be dire situations in which some women may have to choose the option of prostitution. No matter how many laws some people may want government to institute against prostitution, prostitution cannot be eliminated. It is part of the human condition.”

Fits rather nicely, doesn’t it? Notice also that in O’Connor’s statement he declined to answer the question of what constitutes personhood, which is the question raised by Woodworth’s private member’s bill. That’s important. If you believe the fetus is a person (I don’t, for the record) the issues of autonomy and liberty become more complicated. Not so in the matter of prostitution, which makes O’Connor’s words even more apt.

Then there’s marijuana and the other illicit drugs the government is making war on. Try plugging them into O’Connor’s statement.

“I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to drug use want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code. There is no law that says a person must use drugs. No one is forcing those who oppose drugs to use them.” Again, the fit is close to perfect.

Of course, whenever someone raises J.S. Mill’s “harm principle” – that people should be free to do what they wish provided they don’t harm others – those who want to restrict liberty insist they don’t disagree. Theirs isn’t a moral objection, they say. They want the activity banned because it harms others.

These claims are often disingenuous and easily disproven. But the simplest way to respond is to take them at face value and ask “but does criminalization actually protect others from harm?” The answer is clearly no. It even inflicts harms on others that would not otherwise exist (the only reason why street prostitutes blight residential streets, for example, is that they can’t conduct their business legally elsewhere). So if harm to third parties is really the concern, the answer is not criminalization but regulation – to ensure that only informed and consenting adults are involved.

So what’s left? Why does the government think its ringing words apply to abortion but not to other moral choices? Simple. In O’Connor’s statement, he objects to “new laws” that curtail personal freedom but says that the exercise of that freedom must respect “current law.”

Today, there is no law banning abortion. But there are laws banning prostitution and drugs.

Thus, what looks like a highly principled statement about the relationship between morality and liberty in a pluralistic society is actually something less grand: It is a lazy and weak defence of the status quo.