Elizabeth May: Looking for common ground

A response to Judy Rebick's open letter from the leader of the Green Party.

Dear Judy,

As you know, I admire you enormously. I think of us as friends, although goodness knows we see each other all too infrequently. I wish you had contacted me as your “open letter” misconstrues my own views, not to mention the Green Party's. I have never questioned the importance of the victories of the women's movement — not for legal abortions or any other hard-won victory. I am a feminist (and naturally have been attacked for that too.)

In any case, thank you. I have been wondering the best way to clarify this issue. My goal in this response is to win back your support. (As I didn't know we had your support — other than the morale support of friend to friend — I'd be over the moon to have you as a public supporter!)

Let's revisit the basics.

Is the Green Party strongly in favour of a woman's right to access a safe and legal abortion? Yes.

Am I personally strongly in favour of a woman's right to access a safe and legal abortion? Yes.

(In fact, I am concerned that there is progress to be made to ensure access through enhancing availability of abortion providers. More work needs to be done to ensure access.)

Have I ever suggested we should re-open a debate on the issue? No.

I never said a woman's right to choose trivialized anything. Not ever.

So, what is the kerfuffle about?

I did say that sloganeering gets in the way of dialogue. As a practicing Christian, I hate being told I am not “pro-life” because I support a legal right to abortion. I favour access to safe and legal abortions as an aspect of my respect for life. As we know and your letter notes, otherwise, women will die. The status of a foetus before birth is debatable in terms of when the potential for life crystallizes as human life. That is, as I explained in my rather long, nuanced answer posted on a blog which created this controversy, something that has been in dispute since Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

But there is no doubt about the status of the human lives lost in the period when abortions were illegal. Not potential lives — actual lives were lost. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women died.

I also said that the slogan “right to choose,” without context or dialogue, left those on the other side of the debate feeling offended. There are moral questions in that issue of the potential for human life. No one “chooses” to have an abortion in an off-hand way. It is always a deeply difficult decision. It is not a form of birth control.

Some feminist scholars have pointed out that the slogan “right to choose” focuses on too narrow a context. What are a woman's real rights in society? Where are our economic rights? While a woman must have the right to terminate a pregnancy, what of the larger context?

What about the on-going struggle to create a truly equal relationship of sexual equality that might (would) help avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place? What about the responsibility of both sexual partners to avoid unwanted pregnancy (and while on the topic, to avoid sexually transmitted diseases that would be reduced through use of condoms)?

I believe that respectful dialogue is possible even around such an emotionally charged issue as this. Not every opponent of legal abortions is unthinking. Neither is every supporter of legal abortion unwilling to acknowledge the moral complexity of the issue. Some common ground could be found, I believe, when the discussion shifts to a broader context.

I remember admiring Bill Blaikie (NDP MP, Elmwood-Transcona) in an interview he gave the CBC radio show Tapestry, easily a gazillion years ago, when he asked why it was that some on the Left would happily quote the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops when it took up the issue of poverty, but who wanted nothing to do with the Conference on the subject of abortion.

It should not be a thought-crime to state publicly that the issue of abortion is one fraught with moral dilemmas. The sloganeering (“pro-life/pro-choice”) gets in the way of understanding and respect. Granted, not everyone can be reached, but I really detest the kind of politics that seeks to exploit difference, creating ever wider chasms in our society (the “beware of them” type of politicians, whether a George W. or a hard-line Left winger). I think politics must be about democracy and democracy is better when we are capable of respectful dialogue.

Now, my recent experience should be an object lesson for me in the political safety zone created by sloganeering and staying far away from nuance or suggestions of moral dilemmas. But I do not want to retreat behind the barricades of slogans. (It is worth noting that “slogan” is originally a Gaelic word, meaning “war cry.”)

I'd like to continue to explore a dialogue about what our society really wants ... no one would suggest we want to see abortions as a measure of public health and well-being. We must have access to them as a right, but that does not elevate an abortion to a “good or desirable thing” — not for society nor for a woman's life.

If we could focus on what we want as a society, that might bring us closer together. We would want every pregnancy to be a wanted pregnancy and every child to be a wanted child. We would want to expand on the range of real choices a woman has as a right. We would want to build a society based on true gender equality with an appropriate balance of collective responsibilities and individual rights.

Wouldn't we?

I hope you will give me a call if this feels at all like a “slap in the face.” It is meant as a hug.


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