QUEBEC — The Primate of the Canadian Catholic Church, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, has attracted a firestorm of criticism from Quebec politicians and feminists for calling abortion “a moral crime” as serious as murder, even in the case of rape.
Typical of the reaction was the comment from Quebec’s minister of culture, communications and the status of women, Christine St-Pierre: “Women have fought and won that battle, and it’s settled. We’re not going back to knitting needles.”
But instead of backing down, Cardinal Ouellet, the archbishop of Quebec, used an open letter to Canadians and fellow Quebeckers to make a declaration of his own: “The abortion debate is on, and we must not be afraid of it.”
At the same time, he said the government should offer support to pregnant women and added that he did not condemn those who had abortions.
The archbishop did not exactly go looking for a fight. It came to him. True, he was the keynote speaker at the annual March for Life at the concluding rally on Parliament Hill, but the event has been ignored by the news media for several years, just as is its much larger counterpart in the U.S.
But this spring, the Canadian government backed into the abortion controversy by unveiling a Third World aid program focusing on maternal health that provides no funding for abortion. “The media went crazy all of a sudden when 12,000 pro-lifers appeared on Parliament Hill,” commented Georges Buscemi, the president of the pro-life organization Campagne Québec-Vie.
Two days after the march, when Cardinal Ouellet spoke at a pro-life conference in Quebec, the media recorded and reported his comments about rape and murder.
Politicians Want Abortion off Table
The leader of the Quebec separatist Parti Quebecois, Pauline Marois, said, “I am completely outraged by his declarations. These are struggles that date back 40 years for rights that women obtained.”
Nathalie Parent, the coordinator of Planned Parenthood Quebec, told the Register, “Not only does the position of the cardinal constitute an attack on women and an assault on their independence, it shows an incredible lack of compassion towards them.”
Parent added that Cardinal Ouellet had also applauded the federal government’s abortion-free maternal-aid program. “It seems the death of 70,000 women annually from badly done abortions doesn’t worry him.”
And even a Quebec member of the Canadian government, Conservative Member of Parliament Josee Verner, got into the debate — if only to keep her government out of it. “No one should be under the mistaken impression that we’re going to reopen the abortion debate. It’s out of the question,” Verner said, adding that Cardinal Ouellet’s comments were “unacceptable.”
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is widely perceived as indifferent to the abortion issue. James Hughes, the national president of Campaign Life, the political arm of Canada’s pro-life movement, told the Register, “I’ve known him for 20 years, and he’s just not interested.”
Harper, however, has many pro-lifers in his caucus, who periodically introduce bills to restrict abortion. However, these “private members’ bills” are easily squelched under Canada’s top-down procedural rules, and none has ever been brought to a vote.
Canada’s Supreme Court threw out the existing restrictions on abortions in the 1980s, and an attempt to pass a new law in 1989 failed by a single vote in the Senate. With no restrictions, 100,000 unborn babies are aborted each year in Canada, including 25,000-plus in Quebec.
Prime Minister’s Plan Backfired
Harper is believed to have left abortion out of the maternal-aid package because he calculated that its presence would get the government into a controversy. Instead, leaving it out got him into one. And it led to Cardinal Ouellet’s sudden celebrity.
Buscemi told the Register that the “mysterious” hyperreaction of Quebec leaders could be attributable to the leadership’s fear of “a return” of traditional, Christian values after 40 years of European-style secularist policies promoted by all political parties across the spectrum.
In the 1960s, Quebec went through its Quiet Revolution, which removed the school system from Catholic Church control and ended the long reign of the traditionalist Union National party with its informal ties to the Church.
“But those days are long gone,” said Buscemi. “The Church had clout then, but it doesn’t anymore.” He noted that Cardinal Ouellet did not cite Scripture or papal encyclicals to make his case, but relied “entirely on natural law” when, for example, he argued that in the case of rape, the fetus had committed no crime and should not be the “second victim.”
The reaction against Cardinal Ouellet has drawn a counterreaction, Buscemi noted. “There were a lot of letters to the editor defending him. Or they would say, ‘I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do think there are too many abortions.’”
And when Marilyn Paris, a 25-year-old mother of two from Trois Rivieres, wrote a letter in support of Cardinal Ouellet, she became an instant media celebrity.
Even a retired separatist politician, Jacques Brassard, came out for Cardinal Ouellet on his blog, mocking the cardinal’s critics as “a lynch mob that calls itself courageous” for attacking a Church leader who “is only stating the doctrine of his Church.”
Brassard, explained Buscemi, is part of the social-conservative wing of the separatist movement. “It generally keeps quiet about its aversion to abortion or same-sex ‘marriage’ to present a unified front. And once sovereignty is achieved, it hopes it can sort these things out.” The right-wing separatists are Church-attending Catholics, says Buscemi, but “they put sovereignty first.”
Myth of Consensus
The belief that Canada has long ago achieved a consensus on abortion was repeated often in the wake of Cardinal Ouellet’s comments, by everyone from Quebec Premier Jean Charest to Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
But whatever consensus there is is shaky, argued Margaret Somerville, director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University. “Good facts are essential for good ethics,” Somerville wrote in the Montreal Gazette. Most Canadians, including Wente, believe there are virtually no late-term abortions in Canada, but Somerville insists that between 400-800 “post-viability” abortions happen yearly.
Moreover, an Angus Reid national poll released this January reveals that 80% of Canadians believe, wrongly, that there are some legal restrictions on abortion, and 31% wanted such restrictions versus 41% who did not.
Somerville also said Canada’s provincial governments were deliberately suppressing abortion statistics.
She said the “pro-choice advocates” who have similarly tried to suppress Cardinal Ouellet’s opinions “might have cause to regret their action” by drawing attention to the issue they would rather keep hidden.
Buscemi applauded Cardinal Ouellet for “opening up space” for moderates to speak on the abortion issue. “It’s good for Quebec, and it’s good for the Church.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.