Abortion, we are regularly told, is the most divisive moral issue in North America. Advocates of a woman’s unqualified right to terminate a pregnancy and advocates of a fetus’ unqualified right to be brought to term appear to agree on only one thing. They are both talking about rights.
In his uncommonly readable yet very thoughtful presentation, former Canadian Attorney General Mark MacGuigan adds authentic value to the debate. This may seem surprising, for MacGuigan is a devout Roman Catholic and morally committed to the “pro-life” position. Even more surprising is his opposition to civil disobedience in support the anti-choice argument and to any legislation that would limit abortion before viability. Contradictory? Confusing? No, not when MacGuigan’s entire title is taken into account.
This is a book about the morality of abortion, it is true, but it is more a book about the law, conscience and democracy. It would ill serve MacGuigan to attempt a summary here. It is enough to say that his primary emphasis is on another kind of right than those at odds in the debate itself. Freedom of conscience is, for him, the basis of all democratic rights. His concern is with legitimate process, the nature of democratic governance and the protection afforded us all by the inviolability of personal judgement.
By clearly distinguishing between morality and the practices of the secular state, MacGuigan retains both his personal belief that abortion is an immoral individual decision and his view that it is an individual decision. By refusing to impose his morals on the majority of Canadians, he protects democracy itself.
MacGuigan also speaks of the higher morality of his faith, the urgency of evangelism to persuade others of the truth of that morality, and the futility of using the law to coerce the consciences of citizens. Thus emerges another important theme in his work, the importance of the law as a defence against moral tyranny. As Robert Bolt had Thomas More say in his play A Man for All Seasons: “This country’s planted thick with laws, from coast to coast-Man’s laws, not God’s-and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
Respect for the law as a minimal defence against the despotism of moral fervour is consistent with disdain for the law as an instrument of achieving a higher morality. In saying this, MacGuigan is able to show how our passions and prejudices both cloud ethical issues and make reasonable discussions of law and politics all but impossible. His moral arguments will convince few pro-choice advocates and his rational approach to freedom of conscience will win few adherents from the pro-life movement. But both would be the better for reading them.
For college students seeking to come to grips with the serious issues of abortion, euthanasia and suicide (the latter two also being treated herein) as well as with some of the most important yet frequently overlooked grounds for civic virtue and citizenship in a democracy, Abortion Conscience & Democracy would make fine reading as a required text in many subjects from General Education to Law.
Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.