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Balancing on the Knife Edge of Abortion Policy

  In early November, 2003, George W. Bush signed legislation banning partial-birth/late-term abortion. [1] Within a day, a New York judge declared the ban unconstitutional. [2] Last April, the British House of Lords ruled that “an anti-abortion political party cannot broadcast images of aborted fetuses in its party-political broadcasts.” [3] A Christian pharmacist in Alberta has reached an agreement with her employer and professional regulatory body allowing her to not dispense the morning-after pill. [4] George McKenna describes the quagmire of establishing societal policy on abortion in the USA because a “majority of Americans belong in the ‘mushy middle,’ allowing women to have a ‘right’ to abortion while agreeing that it is wrong and should be limited.” [5] The dilemma for public policy makers is in weighing the competing rights and freedoms—fetus, woman, pharmacist, medical profession regulatory body, political party, etc.—which reveal a consistently split public opinion, leaving no clear solution to please all. Permitting abortion appeases demands from some segments of society, while limiting it, perhaps to early-term, can address competing demands. Morgentaler’s latest battle, this time trying to get New Brunswick to pay for abortions up to the 16th week (beyond the 12 week limit they recognize), [6] indicates that as a society, we are still negotiating among competing forces about where the knife edge rests.

  A range of government institutions are directly and indirectly involved in seeking, assessing and enforcing whatever resolution exists in society at any given time. As legislators attempt to define a compromise, the courts are then expected to rule on the constitutionality of how a new law affects varying individuals’ freedoms, and legislation either stands or is rejected, as in the case of Mulroney’s 1989 Bill C-43 and the legislation Bush signed earlier this month. At the same time, groups and individuals with a moral or social stake mobilize on either side of the debate; this behaviour throughout civil society has implications for criminal justice if there are protests or harassment or violence. [7] Health care professionals responsible for administering policy must assess their own tensions between morality and vocational responsibility, then choose to act in some manner. McKenna argues for the necessity of deliberation of all interested segments of society: they should “act into history” [8] to establish wherever the negotiated settlement of the line separating legal from illegal abortion is in society at any given time.

  McKenna sees the culture of death claiming more ground, with society moving in recent decades from abortion to the “neo-infanticide” of partial-birth abortion and the right to die movements, [9] yet Morgentaler argues that the decline in violent crime in recent years can be attributable to a decline in unwanted children due to the availability of abortion over the last generation. [10] The weight of argument and evidence on both sides of the moral dimension of abortion demonstrate that there likely can be no ideal solution that pleases a solid majority, let alone a dominant majority of the population. The public policy necessity, then, is to continue to explore a justly arbitrated compromise that pleases few, yet treats each side with equity. This process will allow government to facilitate democracy by allowing civil society to debate, via government institutions, policy that reflects contemporary societal norms, morals and priorities.


[1]  “Bush bans type of abortion, judge partially blocks new law: Procedure called 'partial birth' abortion outlawed even as Nebraska federal judge sharply questions its constitutionality,” Guardian (Charlottetown), November 6, 2003, p. B7.
[2]  “N.Y. judge blocks ban on abortions,” The Gazette (Montreal), November 7, 2003, p. A16.
[3]  John Laughland, “We are bloody hypocrites about depicting violence,” National Post, November 8, 2003, p. A17.
[4]  “Pharmacist doesn’t have to provide ‘morning-after’ pill,” Calgary Herald, November 8, 2003, p. OS11.
[5]  George McKenna, “What Can We Reasonably Hope For?” First Things 99 (January 2000), viewed at http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0001/articles/mckenna.html on November 17, 2003.
[6]  “Fredricton: Morgentaler takes on N.B. on abortion fees,” Guardian (Charlottetown), July 23, 2003, p. A5.
[7]  Henry Morgentaler, “A Letter to Pope John Paul II,” Humanist 56 (Mar/Apr 1996): 23.
[8]  George McKenna, “What Can We Reasonably Hope For?” First Things 99 (January 2000), viewed at http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0001/articles/mckenna.html on November 17, 2003.
[9]  Ibid.
[10]  Henry Morgentaler, “Abortion and Violence,” Humanist 59 (Mar/Apr 1999): 40.

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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