The Cardus Daily

Debating the end of debate

Peter Stockland  |  June 12, 2012  |  Civic Core, Death, Justice

Like most Canadians, I long ago wearied of the intractable abortion debate as a debate.

I am increasingly fascinated, however, by the debate about the debate for what it signifies about debating in a democracy.

For example, there is currently something called the “New Abortion Caravan” crossing the country seeking to persuade a majority that Canada’s absence of any legislation governing abortion is unacceptable.

Sponsored by a group called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, the caravan is the anti-doppelganger of one that travelled Canada four decades ago promoting abortion as purely a matter of private medical choice.

The old debate is new again, it seems. The new initiative has reportedly even prompted the Canadian Auto Workers to threaten to mount counter protests everywhere the CCBR’s wheels come to a stop.

It is a curious that a union representing workers who make automobiles would feel the need to have an opinion, one way or the other, on abortion. Even the aborting of babies conceived in, say, mini-vans would not, you might think, be consequential enough to the business interests of the Canadian Auto Workers for it to protest an anti-abortion caravan.

Yet consequential it certainly seems to be. In calling for the counter protests, an official with the CAW’s women’s program insisted such action was essential to “once again tell (the caravan proponents) that our reproductive rights are not up for debate.”

Now, on its face, that statement is clearly factually out of kilter. The existential reality of a cross-country caravan being met by cross-country counter-protests suggests that something is very much “up” and being debated.

What is far more interesting, I think, is the idea of someone declaring, with a ring of quasi-authority, that whatever the skirmish might look like, it is not actually a debate because such a debate is, in fact, closed, over, finito, ergo impossible.

If the declaration sounds astonishingly high-handed, it at least has support from some of the highest hands around. No less than Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said repeatedly that he, too, considers the abortion debate closed.

How does a debate become “closed” within a democracy? Add another wrinkle: how does it become “closed” in a parliamentary democracy that is structured around a parlement—a place of speaking—where, theoretically, all ideas of interest to the populace can be peacefully contested?

In the prime minister’s case, of course, the simple answer is raw power. Those who persist in opening troublesome issues will find the caucus door closed against them. But that is not closure. It is silencing. There is a difference.

What about the rest of us? How do we accept that a debate is closed? For we do so accept on certain issues. Neither I nor my children nor my children’s children ad infinitum will ever accept, as democrats, that slavery is an institution whose time to return is now. Canada’s parliament will be tumbled down and its dust washed away before politicians in this country address themselves to a motion affirming that, in historical hindsight, Nazism and the Holocaust really weren’t so evil after all.

By contrast, issues that we might have thought dead, buried and decayed show surprising potential voltage. Given the gushing from some certain quarters in recent weeks over Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, for instance, I would not be surprised by calls, before my Cardus colleague Brian Dijkema gets much older, for renewed debate on restoring the Divine Right of Kings. (It is a call I would consider supporting provided, of course, the Divine order itself were fully returned and the Throne given back to Catholics from the current usurpers. But I digress.)

More seriously, we see in the current debate over euthanasia a revivifying of the old, and we thought extinguished, ideology of eugenics. Euthanasia merely puts a “merciful” spin on the hoary, heinous eugenic beliefs that a) the human condition is perfectible and b) the most evidently imperfect humans are entirely disposable.

Our inability to put a stake through the heart of those beliefs puts paid, however, to the notion that democratic debates are “closed” simply through a variety of majoritarian means.

For euthanasia has been repeatedly and overwhelmingly voted down or rejected by the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. Still, its proponents are able to persist in refusing to take “no” for an answer, and in keeping the debate open.

Contrast that with so-called abortion rights, which got the most knotted kind of constitutional assent from a deeply divided Supreme Court in 1988, and which were only saved legislatively because of a tie vote in the Senate 22 years ago.

Who decides, and how, that the latter is closed to further discussion while the former is a matter for perpetual democratic debate?

It seems to me that itself is the debate we need to have.



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