Since I’ve received several complaints via email and ended up tussling in the comments section with none other than one of Canada’s foremost feminist bloggers, I thought it might be useful to respond in detail to the complaints from a number of people who’ve suggested that Friday’s rant saying it was “time to reopen the abortion debate” was at the very least counterproductive, and also insulting in that women’s rights are not negotiable and I wouldn’t say that about other human rights.
First of all, in case it needs to be said (and apparently it does), on this issue I stand with women’s choice, with the Supreme Court of Canada, and with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I don’t say that women’s rights or any human rights are negotiable, that violations of those rights are tolerable, or that it’s an indication of a healthy society that there are free-wheeling public debates over whether these rights exist and should be respected.
Having said that, I have other things I have to balance that with. First, in a free society, freedom of expression means the freedom to say things that the rest of us find outrageous. I’m kind of surprised to find myself channelling the late Christopher Hitchens on this, especially since Hitchens wasn’t actually pro-choice, but my position on this is firm. There is no subject on which a person should not be free to express honestly held opinions. That includes whether women’s rights exist. It includes whether aboriginal rights exist, whether the Holocaust happened, and whether some humans are better than others because of “race” and genetics. All four of these positions I find outrageous, and for similar reasons.
Now, if an angry minority is free to express outrageous things, the rest of us must be prepared to respond to those outrages, in detail, with as much as strength, persuasiveness and resolve as may be necessary. Outrageous opinions will be answered. We will not be silent. And the result is debate. You may not want to call it debate because the word “debate” conjures up people engaged in a polite back-and-forth on an unsettled subject where everyone agrees that there’s a 50-50 chance of either side being right. I don’t suggest that kind of formal debate only. But what is going on is still a debate. I don’t know what else you’d call it.
Consider the situation. Right now, a vocal minority continues to insist that abortion be outlawed. A disturbingly large proportion of the Parliament agrees with them, including several ranking Cabinet ministers. A few days ago, some of these politicians tried to do an end run around the legislative system with an absurd request to the RCMP to begin prosecuting some late-term abortions as murders — even though late-term abortions are the ones which generally aren’t elective in Canada, but instead are done due to severe medical complications which have compromised the viability of the fetus, the survival of the mother, or even both, and therefore, one would think, would be the ones that even the anti-choice crowd might agree were ethically justifiable.
Under the circumstances, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say that the debate about abortion is now over and shouldn’t be reopened. It may have been closed in the courts since 1988. It may be closed in the Parliament insofar as there is not (currently) any debate proceeding on legislation to regulate abortion. But it is obviously not closed and done with in the public sphere. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. Some of the people who criticized me here spend countless hours on their own blogs attacking anti-choice groups. Obviously as long as that battle still has to be fought, we cannot say that the debate is over.
Which is part of the reason that I’ve now become so convinced that the “debate is over now” line is problematic. Stephen Harper himself uses this line as an excuse for why he isn’t allowing his backbenchers to indulge in their anti-abortion fantasies too far — but, at the same time, he allows them to remain in his caucus and to produce an endless stream of absurd press releases demanding RCMP prosecutions, calling abortion doctors “fetus bullies,” and so on and so forth.
Now, some people found it offensive that I would imply that women’s rights are “debatable” when I would find it insulting and humiliating to make the same statements about, say, aboriginal rights. On the contrary: all rights are debatable. But at least for the moment, all constitutional rights are enforceable, and none of them are negotiable.
The reason I make this distinction, which may seem like just meaningless verbiage, is that when Stephen Harper says he will not support his MPs’ resolutions because it is “not the right to reopen the debate,” I find that response fantastically inadequate. Suppose, to turn this on its head, the MPs had proposed resolutions to strike Parliamentary committees to discuss whether the Holocaust happened, or whether people who aren’t of European descent aren’t fully human. Now suppose further that Harper responded to these resolutions by saying that he wouldn’t kick the MPs out of the caucus, but that it wasn’t the right time to “reopen the debate” about whether the Holocaust happened, or about whether aboriginal people are human beings.
I don’t think a single journalist, blogger, or fellow politician in the country would consider such a response to be appropriate. They would say that on such a fundamental issue as fundamental human equality and the reality of historical genocides, no responsible prime minister could allow a denialist to remain in the government. Moreover, every citizen should as a matter of basic education be able to explain, firmly and in some detail, why outrageous positions like Holocaust denial and white supremacy are absolutely untenable.
So it should be with constitutionally protected women’s rights. And yet it isn’t. Vellacott and his ilk remain in office, unfettered. Some of them may even be Cabinet ministers this time next year. Some of their fellow travellers certainly are Cabinet ministers, Jason Kenney among them. So you have a situation where people who are overtly opposed to respecting constitutionally protected women’s rights (like Jason Kenney) are currently in a power-sharing coalition with people who say that now is not the right time to have a debate over constitutionally protected women’s rights (like Harper himself).
Well, it’s time to yank that crutch out from under them. It would be nice not to have to debate fundamental human rights because everyone agreed on them. But that isn’t the case. And so long as it isn’t the case, clinging to the line that we shouldn’t “reopen the debate” is pointless. The debate wasn’t closed to begin with.