A Canadian controversy
A wise and just decision, worthy of Canadians
For The Calgary Herald
Monday, January 28, 2008
As Canadians celebrate, agitate or ruminate on the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to strike down Canada's abortion laws, it is time to consider the general impact of this judgment.
Twenty years without any abortion law is considered scandalous by some. Yet, when compared to other countries with laws governing abortion, Canada is an intriguing example of how unnecessary such laws actually may be.
Writing in a National Post commentary on Jan. 22, 2008, David Frum called the Canadian situation "the Western world's most radical abortion regime." In this case, radical is best defined as going to the root or foundation of something. Radical as in fundamental.
The fundamental truth of having no abortion laws (and universal health care) is that positive outcomes have ensued. When comparing the U.S. situation to ours, a reasonable thinking person would admit that having no law has been more effective at managing outcomes than has the morass of restrictions legislated south of the border.
Canadian women, proportionally, have almost one-third fewer abortions than American women. In Canada, more abortions are done by 12 weeks than in the U.S. Canada also has one of the lowest maternal mortality and complication rates for abortion in the world.
In addition, Canada's abortion rates are similar to or lower than those in European countries that do have laws restricting abortion and have generally been in decline since 1997.
What the Morgentaler decision has meant for Canada is that abortion has settled into the domain in which it rightly belongs -- the health-care system. It is a medical procedure that, as two decades have proved, can be appropriately regulated by provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons.
Canada's abortion statistics bear this out, including those related to the most controversial aspect of our no-law status -- that there are no legal restrictions on late-term abortions.
Procedures occurring after 20 weeks gestation make up less than 0.4 percent of abortions. Late-term abortion is rare, difficult to access and provided only in cases of serious maternal or fetal health problems.
It is inflammatory to suggest as does a recent national billboard campaign by LifeCanada that women do or can access abortion on demand when they are nine months pregnant.
To further demonstrate how abortion laws have no real power to impact actual abortion rates, consider a study by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization published in October 2007 by the journal Lancet.
It found that abortion rates in countries worldwide are similar regardless of whether the procedure is legal or not. "The legal status of abortion has never dissuaded women and couples, who, for whatever reason, seek to end pregnancy," said Beth Fredrick of the International Women's Health Coalition commenting on the study.
Herein lies another fundamental truth about abortion. That whether legal or not, safe or not, abortion is a choice often made by normal women all around the world. We cannot deny this. We could do worse as a society than to normalize abortion as a fact of human experience. Not normal as in blase, but normal as in standard, natural, common.
Canada, it could be argued, has been doing just this for the past 20 years. We have, to a lesser or greater degree, depending on where you live in this expansive country, normalized abortion as a medically necessary, reasonably accessible and compassionately delivered health-care procedure.
Canada also continues striving, through sexual health education and services, to reduce the need for abortion.
Perhaps this normalization is what most aggravates those who want to keep the abortion controversy simmering -- or boiling over onto the political stovetop.
Barbara Kay, also writing in the National Post last week, argued that Canadians who believe abortion should be restricted in some cases have been silenced. She noted astutely that "the 20-year anniversary of any transformative social decision is a good moment for a dispassionate review of the decision's consequences."
Could it be the consequences that have kept our politicians from responding to calls for discussion on legal restrictions to abortion?
After all, a dispassionate review reveals that abortion in Canada is being appropriately regulated by the medical profession with reasonable outcomes equal to or better than countries that do have laws restricting abortion.
All things considered, it appears the decision made 20 years ago today by the Supreme Court of Canada was wise, just and worthy of Canadians.
Laura Wershler is a sexual health advocate, writer and speaker. She is the executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta