My last post on marijuana and why legalizing it is not an endorsement of it has generated a lot of interest, and I’ve received a number of emails from people asking me about my stance on abortion in light of this discussion of the limits of law in relation to morality. I really appreciate that this conversation is happening, because abortion is a very important issue to me, and one that Canadians have been increasingly polarized on for so long that we’re not going to see any change from the status quo unless a third path can be found. I believe that it can.
First, a bit of history. I grew up being an anti-abortion advocate, even choosing to debate the topic in my high school English class in order to get more people talking about it. But in all of my research into how abortions are performed and how many occur, I had never heard (until quite recently!) about why the abortion laws in Canada and the US were struck down in the first place. In large part it was because there were unintended consequences to the outright prohibition of abortion: women continued to seek abortions, but they were either performing self-abortions or were receiving unsafe abortions from back-alley black market providers, and they were dying or being seriously injured in large numbers. It was so bad that there were actually groups of Christian clergy who were helping women get safe, but illegal, abortions. They felt that what they were doing was reducing harm, rather than killing children; if a woman was desperate enough to attempt a self-abortion, it was clear that they weren’t going to be able to save the child, so they did what they could to save the woman. In all of my years of anti-abortion activism, I had never heard of this, or understood why pro-choice people framed the issue as a women’s health issue.
I bring this up because I believe in harm reduction. The interesting thing about harm reduction is that it is often portrayed as a refusal to take a moral stance on an issue; I believe it is quite the opposite, and that’s because of what I believe about the way law and morality interact.
The Morality of Law
Law is not, and cannot be, moral. Actions can be moral or immoral, and restraint can be moral or immoral, but laws are just words. It takes a person, acting or refusing to act, to be moral. A law is just or unjust based on what it requires of people: does a law require us to do something that is moral, or something that is immoral? Does a law prevent someone from doing something that is moral or immoral? Does a law result in people doing something that is moral or immoral? Note that these three questions are all different. Let’s walk through it in relation to abortion.
We have an intention for a law, and that intention is usually based on a moral stance. In this case, we want to stop abortions because we believe that killing a human being, no matter their stage of development, is wrong. So we write a law that requires people to act in a certain way, in this case to not get or provide abortions. If it actually does prevent people from doing something immoral (killing a human fetus), and there are no other consequences, then it would be a just law. But if it doesn’t stop people from doing so, it is a flawed law – it is not enforceable. Unenforceable laws are inevitably unjust because they undermine the validity of the law in general. Visit a nation that doesn’t enforce its laws, and you’ll find that morality is actually quite relative when it comes to obeying the law, even if people otherwise have a strong sense of morality; a government that does not enforce its laws gives up its own authority, including its moral authority.
But what if the law isn’t just ineffective – what if it also has unintended consequences? In this case, prohibition of abortion was not only not preventing abortions from happening, but it was resulting in thousands of women dying or maimed by unsafe abortions. I believe that we are just as responsible for the unintended consequences of our laws as we are for the intended consequences, and that makes a law that results in maimed and dead women unjust. But questions of responsibility aside, we have to deal with the outcome either way.
So a law itself is not moral or immoral, but it does relate to actions that are moral and immoral, and it does lead to results that similarly have moral status. A situation in which millions of human fetuses are dying is profoundly immoral; but a situation in which millions of human fetuses and grown women are dying is also profoundly immoral. We cannot legislate intentions or morality, but we can write laws that create space for moral behaviour, and this is where harm reduction comes in.
You’ve probably heard the term “harm reduction” in relation to safe injection sites or sex education and free condoms, and it’s always controversial. Opponents to harm reduction say that giving someone a clean needle with which to inject their heroin is the same thing as endorsing heroin use; or that giving kids condoms is encouraging them to have sex. If you read my last post you know that I don’t agree that having a frank discussion about our choices and their consequences, and then giving people the freedom to make those choices, is the same as endorsing something. This is particularly true when we don’t actually have the ability to stop people from doing these things: we weren’t successful in stopping abortions, we’ve never been successful in stopping teenagers from having sex, and we’re incredibly unsuccessful at stopping people from smoking marijuana. Remember, if we can’t enforce a law it becomes an unjust law – and too many unjust, unenforceable laws makes for an unjust society. So while the intention of those who oppose harm reduction is to take a firm moral stance, the result is often quite the opposite: attempting to enforce unjust laws, and removing the help that we might have offered to those who are dealing with the consequences of their actions (or all too often, the actions of a rapist).
Showing mercy and grace to people who are facing the consequences of their immoral actions (or of the immoral actions of others) is deeply and profoundly Christian, perhaps more than anything else we could do. We serve a God who, “while we were yet sinners,” died for us; who forgave his executioners as they nailed him to a tree. This unbounded love for those who are living immorally or unjustly is so profound that we wear crosses around our necks and place them at the front of our churches to remember it. It is what defines us as Christians. So as a Christian who also wants to be a Member of Parliament and write just legislation, I see laws that give room for grace and mercy as deeply and profoundly moral. So what does this look like in practice, and in relation to abortion?
Refugees, and Getting Out of the Way of Morality
There was a time in which every hospital was funded by the church. In the time leading up to the social reforms of the 1960’s (the “welfare state”, healthcare, etc.), churches were divided on such measures: some saw the social gospel as filtering through all of society, so that even the government became God’s tool for serving those who needed help; others saw the government as stepping into the church’s territory, and resented the idea of things like healthcare and welfare that removed the necessity of the church’s service of the needy. As time went on we became more and more individualized, our homes have become fortresses that outsiders rarely breach for a cup of coffee, and hospitality seems a thing of the past; it appears that the role of government in supplying for the needy got the church off the hook, and we tend to this day to focus on weekly programs for our members rather than the focused service initiatives and hospitality that used to characterize Christians. I’m not saying this to lambaste the church, but only to point out that our social role has changed drastically over the past fifty years, and that is in part because of the government taking on roles we once had a monopoly on.
People are moral actors, and the church makes a point of trying to train and encourage people to act morally. Government can prohibit or enforce actions, but sometimes government can get in the way of the moral actions of people. Let’s use the current refugee crisis as an example.
It is morally unacceptable to allow people to die when we have the means to save them. It is also morally unacceptable to exclude a foreigner from our community (check Deuteronomy 10:19 or Exodus 22:21 or Leviticus 19:34 or Ephesians 2:12 if you doubt it). In spite of the fact that we know there are around 60 MILLION refugees living in crisis around the world, our government has designed our refugee system in such a way that it only brings in 10,000 refugees per year, and it takes 4-5 years and tens of thousands of dollars to get in. By definition, a refugee is someone who needs help now, and probably has few resources. Most Canadians are willing to help refugees, but this is a great example of legislation that actually prevents moral action.
There are around 25,000 churches in Canada. If every one of them sponsored one refugee family, we could bring in around 150,000 people and settle them in caring communities across the country. As an MP, I would work to reform the refugee system so that the government can get out of the way of ordinary Canadians and churches who want to do something profoundly moral and Christlike; and I would work with churches to help them navigate the system in order to bring more people in as quickly as possible.
So what is the Green Party stance on abortion, and how would I as a Christian MP uphold morality while still upholding the law?
The Green Party stance begins with the promise to always support access to a safe abortion. This sent my red-flags up when I first read it, but knowing what I do now about the history of prohibited abortion and harm reduction, I agree with it. But my agreement with that point didn’t come until I came to terms with the rest of our stance on abortion, which is to work to address the issues that lead to unwanted pregnancies in the first place – things like poverty, women’s inequality, safety, and social supports. I would add to that list that it’s about time we had a serious conversation about the over-sexualization of our culture. These other steps are something that no other party is talking about, and what made me appreciate the Green position.
Among all of the political party positions on abortion, the Green position is the only one I think has any chance to change the status quo. While Conservatives like Ted Falk are genuinely interested in introducing abortion laws, Stephen Harper has said unequivocally that he will not re-open the issue, and while they claim to have a free vote on “matters of conscience” Conservatives still voted down a Conservative back-bencher’s private member’s bill that would have made it illegal to coerce an abortion (and I probably would have supported that bill, had I been an MP). The Liberals and NDP are firmly pro-choice, and don’t appear to be interested in dealing with unwanted pregnancies in a more compassionate way. The debate is so polarized that nobody is looking for a third way, a way to save babies AND women, except for us Greens. I think that a compromise on “principle” that leads to saving more lives is far more moral than taking a moral stand on the issue and demanding all or nothing, but Jake Epp saw what happens to people who take a middle stance on this issue – it cost him his job as MP of this riding. I hope we’ve all noticed how few lives have been saved by insisting on taking a moral stand rather than seeking a compromise; a third way is necessary to see any movement on this issue at all.
As MP for Provencher, I would work within the current abortion laws: there are none, and I see no chance of that changing any time soon (neither does Ted Falk, as he admitted at the all-candidate forum on Thursday). I would continue to ensure that safe abortions are accessible, but remember that this is a harm reduction strategy designed to save women’s lives. At the same time, I would work to create space for moral action, whether by writing bills or by simply working with community groups and churches, to provide supports for pregnant women in order to address the concerns they face. We must remember that people don’t have abortions for fun, they have them because they have serious needs that we have not addressed. The Green Party wants to implement a Guaranteed Livable Income to ensure that nobody has to live in poverty, and we have a national housing strategy to ensure that everyone has access to a safe and affordable place to live; these are the types of things that governments can do to address basic needs. We would also run public health campaigns and educate people about fertility, and introduce strategies to hold men to account for their act in producing an unwanted pregnancy.
But I would also work with churches to connect them with clinics or charities to sponsor a pregnant woman. As with refugees, if every one of the 25,000+ churches in Canada sponsored a pregnant woman we would save a lot of lives. Providing a hospitable community is something that government has never been able to do, but somehow we in the church lost track of that part of our calling as the government took over our mandate to provide hospitals and colleges. Meals, clothes, transportation, child care – these are all things that churches can offer without great cost and with great personal care and connection; but if government tries to offer them, it can only do so in impersonal, money-intensive ways. Government can never replace the church’s ability to care for people, but it can do a number of things to create space for the church to fill with love and grace, and create more justice through the combination of our efforts than we could ever hope to create alone!
This is a complicated subject, and I’m happy to discuss it further. Please leave a comment or send me an email. Together, we can make a third way that stands a chance of making a difference – for children and women.