TORONTO — Canadian pro-lifers were stunned by the selection of former Prime Minister Turner for the Archdiocese of Toronto's Oct. 18 fundraising dinner. The reason: Turner was instrumental in legalizing abortion in Canada.

The chief spokesman for Toronto's Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic says that John Turner, the man who was Canada's justice minister when the country liberalized its abortion law in 1969, is “a Catholic in good standing” who “has done a great deal of humanitarian work.”

Suzanne Scorsone, communications director of the Archdiocese of Toronto, told the Register that Cardinal Ambrozic stands by the choice of Turner as chairman of the annual Cardinal's Dinner charity fund-raiser.

She also said he stands by a statement of the archdiocese defending Turner's record and absolving him of any personal responsibility for the legalization of abortion, a statement that the leading Catholic authority on the 1969 abortion law has called “a radical rewriting of Canadian history.”

Pro-lifers heard the news in late July that Turner, who also served briefly as Canada's prime minister in 1984, had been selected to chair the high-profile event in the country's leading English-speaking diocese.

Fifteen supporters of Campaign Life Coalition, the country's main pro-life organization, held a prayer vigil outside while the dinner took place, and approximately 30 members of Show the Truth, a group which displays large photographs of children killed by abortion, mounted a peaceful picket.

Alex Vernon, the organizer of the vigil, said that Campaign Life Coalition “was in no way questioning [Cardinal Ambrozic's] pro-life commitment or the pro-life commitment of the archdiocese.” He said that he and Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes wrote to the cardinal before the event, explaining that “we're not picketing the dinner. We hope for the success of the dinner and the cause that it supports. We're simply questioning the appropriateness of the speaker.”

The vigil participants and picketers included many young pro-lifers, some of whom prayed the rosary. Vernon said the group “really made an impression on the media … and the people going in. The Show the Truth people had some signs saying, ‘John Turner, Abortion's Architect,’ which Mr. Turner had to pass going into the dinner.”

There was no official response to the gathering outside the dinner from the archdiocese, but Scorsone came out briefly to photograph the vigil participants and picketers.

The 1969 abortion law was an initiative of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a Catholic. It gave legal sanction to abortions carried out for the sake of the “health” of the mother, without defining the term “health.”

After holding exhaustive public hearings on the bill, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and Welfare strongly recommended that the term “health” be limited, but Turner, who as justice minister steered the legislation through Parliament, refused repeatedly to define the term.

In response to religious and moral objections to the legislation, Turner said, “We believe that morality is a matter for private conscience. Criminal law should reflect the public order only.”

As many pro-life members of Parliament and others had warned, health was immediately interpreted in the broadest terms possible, so that there were in practice no grounds for refusing any request for an abortion.

While in 1969 the number of abortions in Canada was 542, in 1970 the figure jumped to 11,152, and in 1971 it increased to 30,923. There are now approximately 115,000 surgical abortions in Canada each year, with a total since 1969 of approximately 2.5 million.

Turner has never expressed any regrets about the 1969 law and its aftermath. During the 1984 federal election campaign, in fact, he proudly identified himself as “one of the architects of the abortion amendment.” He refused the Register's requests for an interview on the controversy over his chairing the Cardinal's Dinner.

After receiving complaints about the matter, the archdiocese issued a statement Oct. 1, which Scorsone said “will satisfy everyone.” Ironically, however, it has generated at least as much controversy as the original decision to appoint Turner.

In the unsigned statement, the archdiocese said that the 1969 abortion law “merely ratified the decisions of the highest courts in Canada and other major jurisdictions.”

Father Alphonse de Valk, a leading pro-life priest in Canada and author of a painstaking history of the 1969 law, responded in the November issue of Catholic Insight magazine: “What courts? What jurisdictions? … I can state categorically that there were no decisions by the ‘highest courts in Canada’ at all.”

In an earlier interview with The Interim, a Canadian pro-life newspaper, Turner said that he “merely put into statutory form what the courts were doing for 50 years — not prosecuting women who have abortions for health reasons.” There was, however, no ruling on the matter from Canada's Supreme Court, and the 1969 law went far beyond removing penalties for women who had abortions.

In a brief interview with the Register, when asked about Father de Valk's rebuttal of the archdiocese's statement about court decisions that allegedly endorsed abortions, Scorsone said, “I'm not going to comment on someone else's construction of the situation.”

When asked whether the archdiocese had specific court precedents in mind, she said only, “Yes, and the statement speaks for itself.” The statement, however, does not provide examples.

Another highly controversial aspect of the archdiocese's statement was the clear implication that the broad wording of the 1969 law was not to blame for the way in which the law was interpreted in practice: “What has happened since [the law was passed] in Canada is the responsibility of all of society, not of any one individual, particularly one who neither willed nor mandated what came later.”

Scorsone told the Register that Turner actually tried to restrain abortion, and that he saw the 1969 amendment as a “firebreak.” When reminded that Turner was warned by many people during the parliamentary debate on the abortion amendment that its wording was too broad, Scorsone repeated, “The statement stands for itself. That is the position of the archdiocese.”

The Register's request for an interview with Cardinal Ambrozic was referred back to Scorsone, who said that the cardinal was preparing to leave for Rome and was unavailable.

Father de Valk responded to the notion that Turner bears no special responsibility in the legalization of abortion as “balderdash. It sets the truth on its head. … To honor Mr. Turner without first obtaining an apology for his role in the passage of the [1969 law] is a counter-witness to the pro-life cause. We are now also truly amazed and disturbed at the attempt by the Toronto Archdiocesan Communications Office to recast Canadian history.”

Msgr. Vincent Foy, a Toronto canon lawyer and catechism expert, told the Register that “John Turner made no effort to stem the tide. Actually he promoted the tide by claiming that morality is a question of personal conscience and not to be introduced into politics. He resisted amendments which would have made [the law] more restrictive.”

Msgr. Foy added that regardless, “Nothing would justify the promotion of a [liberalizing] abortion law … it's forbidden to Catholic politicians, they have the obligation to do everything to stop it.”

In his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II taught that “in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is … never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it” (No. 73). The Pope added that while it may be permissible in some circumstances to vote for an imperfect abortion law, the legislator may do so only “where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on.”

The archbishop of Lima, Peru, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, has recently issued a document, “The Moral and Legal Dimension of Abortion,” in which the cardinal said that politicians who support abortion “are committing a grave sin,” and that “the pastor who has a parishioner in this condition can deny him or her Holy Communion in public, after warning him or her in private.”

A Second Helping

In contrast, Turner continues to enjoy the public support of the Archdiocese of Toronto. LifeSite News reported Oct. 19 that Turner will appear with Cardinal Ambrozic at another Catholic fund-raising dinner in Toronto Nov. 14. Promotional literature for the $500-a-plate “Tastes of Heaven” dinner, in support of Catholic missions in Canada, lists Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic and John Turner as “gracing the event.”

David Curtin writes from Toronto.