Ignorance on abortion is far from bliss

By Susan Martinuk, Calgary Herald
August 6, 2010
A new poll shows the vast majority of Canadians don't know the facts about Canada's abortion laws, yet are quite content to hang on to their ignorance. According to an Angus Reid poll released this week, only 21 per cent of adults know that Canada has no restrictions on abortion and a woman can request an abortion at any time during pregnancy. That means a whopping 79 per cent of Canadians (86 per cent of Albertans) have no idea of the reality behind the word "choice." Further, 55 per cent of primarily unenlightened Canadians don't have any desire to have a debate about abortion. Despite the reluctance to put facts on the table, the poll showed even a wee bit of education can change opinions. Once respondents were informed there are no restrictions on abortion in our country, only 27 per cent supported the status quo and 63 per cent thought there should be some regulation -- ranging from no abortion under any circumstances (six per cent) to women having unrestricted abortion for the first trimester and, after that, only in cases of the woman's life being in danger, rape or if the unborn child has serious defects (22 per cent). Further, 79 per cent would support provincial legislation demanding that health-care workers give information about counselling and alternatives to abortion to pregnant women. Welcome to Canada's largely uninformed and slightly schizophrenic abortion debate. No wonder our vague attempts at discussions don't get anywhere -- few people have the facts. As Margaret Somerville, director of the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, said: "If you don't understand the facts, you're in trouble working out what the ethics are." Canada has been without an abortion law since 1988 when the Supreme Court struck down the law based on a Charter challenge from Dr. Henry Morgentaler. That decision shut down discussion. From 1990 to 2005, Statistics Canada reports that Canada has averaged about 100,000 abortions per year (these numbers could vary significantly based on incomplete reporting from private abortion clinics). The above poll is informative to legislators who have been reluctant to touch the issue. It shows that, once they understand the lack of regulation, the majority of Canadians (63 per cent) would support some form of regulation. They (79 per cent) want pregnant women to understand all the facts prior to choosing an abortion and they are content to have their provincial politicians legislate such a law. Only 13 per cent of respondents oppose this measure. It also shows they want all this to happen without public discussion about it. Why are Canadians so reluctant to have a reasoned debate about abortion? Primarily because the debate has been co-opted by the feminist movement and the euphemism of "choice." People may be reluctant to support abortion, but they're even more reluctant to speak out against that word and the angry women who are chanting it. Most discussion is based on pro-life or pro-abortion emotional extremes, even though most Canadians seem to congregate at the middle. Consequently, the majority of Canadians disengage, remaining comfortably ambivalent and ignorant of the facts. We need public debate that is focused on fact, not emotional cliches. Once people are aware of the facts, there would likely be an increased openness to having a debate and a better chance of a reasoned discussion. An abortion law that stems from the legislature would most likely reflect the views of the majority of the population. Rather than basing law on a court decision that reflects the experience of one individual and the legal opinions of five or more judges, a legislated law would be struck on the basis of compromise. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a start. There is always room to refine or change the law later, based on more facts. Susan Martinuk's column appears every Friday.
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