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Taking Steps For Life

In his reflection following this year's March for Life, Fr. Raymond de Souza explores the differences of opinion in the pro-life community: between a gradual versus "all-or-nothing" approach to pro-life legislation.

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Taking Steps For Life May 26, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The March for Life two weeks ago in Ottawa included something of a public acknowledgement of a shift in pro-life strategy.

The annual March for Life is organized by Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), which has held for many years a position against what one might call a gradual approach to pro-life legislation. For example, if a bill were to appear to Parliament that would permit abortions up until, say, 20 weeks, but prohibit them afterwards, CLC would advise voting against it, as it would permit in law what is an evil, abortion before 20 weeks.

At the moment, there is no law on abortion, which permits in practice an unlimited abortion license, but a bill which made some restrictions would officially permit some abortions. That is not morally permissible in the view of CLC.

The whole matter is hypothetical as there are not any such bills forthcoming. However, the dispute between the CLC approach and one that would favour a more gradual approach has created division in the pro-life movement. And such divisions drain energy.

Our publisher Peter Stockland acknowledged as much in his recent column in The Catholic Register:

There is also a law of diminishing returns that says if there’s been no success to date, the possibility of success is non-existent if the same leaders continue using the same techniques ad infinitum. Indeed, there is a very high cost to doing so. It comes in terms of energy expended and charitable dollars consumed that could go to, say, soup kitchens. But it also comes in terms of the political oxygen denied to alternative approaches.

I recently spoke with someone deeply involved in promoting and facilitating adoption. She described a truly Byzantine regulatory regime that is the reason adoption is such a distant second choice to abortion. When I asked why more political pressure isn’t applied to unravel the crazy rules, she said bluntly it’s because the pro-life movement monopolizes the policy space with its all-or-nothing-at-all demands on abortion.

Peter was picking up on some of the discussion around the March for Life this year. This issue was highlighted by the current federal Conservative Party leadership race, which concludes May 27.

CLC endorsed two candidates as pro-life, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux. It did not endorse Andrew Scheer, who is well-known for his pro-life views and votes, but favours the position of Stephen Harper, who promised that the government would not bring forward legislation on abortion.

There is no doubt that, in principle, Trost and Lemieux have the more pro-life position. In practice though, many pro-lifers favour Scheer as being more likely to make some incremental improvements toward a culture of life. It’s a dispute over strategy. Several MPs at the March spoke of the “three” pro-life candidates, including Scheer amongst them.

More surprising though was the short speech by Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. The March for Life is not a Catholic event, but Catholic bishops have a rather prominent role. Collins explicitly rejected the all-or-nothing approach. In a talk organized around the theme of “hands” – service to the needy – “heart” – compassion for the suffering – and “head,” he spoke about the last as requiring a certain prudence about what it is possible to achieve.

“If it’s either all or nothing, we are going to get nothing,” Cardinal Collins said. “St. John Paul II said to advance, to get something, and something, and something until you get everything that is needed. That is the approach we need.”

The reference to St. John Paul II was to his teaching in the 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. Cardinal Collins reads that as encouraging clarity of purpose and a willingness to proceed gradually. St. John Paul wrote:

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

I think it fair to say the gradual approach, rather than the “all-or-nothing” approach, is quite substantially the majority view in the pro-life community. That it would be so clearly stated at an event hosted by Campaign Life Coalition though is noteworthy, as seen in the pro-Scheer MP speeches, the words of Cardinal Collins and the analysis of Peter Stockland.

It would be a happier day if there were actually bills in Parliament that required the moral analysis offered by St. John Paul. The March for Life this year did advance the argument about what to do when that day comes.

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