“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2258
The issue of abortion remains a controversial and hotly debated topic in society today. Of all the teachings of the Catholic Church, perhaps the one that attracts the most attention is its uncompromising defense of human life from the first moment of conception to the moment we draw our last breath.1 Abortion has been framed as a question of autonomy – of a woman’s “right to choose,” but this does not tell the whole story. No matter how we frame it, it is impossible to ignore the fact that when an abortion takes place, someone dies.
Abortion is not just a religious issue
The defense of human life is not just a Catholic – or even a purely religious – issue. You don’t have to believe that “God is the author of life in order to observe that life begins in the womb; scan technology makes it possible for anyone to see for themselves.”2 People from all walks of life, including Christopher Hitchens (a professed atheist), have spoken up on behalf of the unborn. In his February 2003 column for Vanity Fair, he wrote, “That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed, in an especially vivid sense, by the new debate over stem-cell research and the bioethics of cloning. If an ailing or elderly person can be granted a new lease on life by a transfusion of this cellular material, then it is obviously not random organic matter. The original embryonic “blastocyst” may be a clump of 64 to 200 cells that is only five days old. But all of us began our important careers in that form, and every needful encoding for life is already present in the apparently inchoate. We are the first generation to have to confront this as a certain knowledge.”3
Those who oppose abortion don’t necessarily base their objections on the teaching of the Catholic Church; the issue goes beyond these boundaries. As Ivereigh and Lopez point out, “The notion that every human life is intrinsically precious, and not of greater or lesser value according to its stage of development (or other characteristics), is not just an article of Christian religious faith but a basic tenet of human-rights doctrine underpinning Western society. To claim that some living human beings do not deserve respect or should not be treated as ‘persons’ (based on changeable factors such as age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities) is to deny the very idea of inherent human rights. What the Catholic Church teaches, that human life is not of lesser value when it is younger and less developed, is the foundational principle of democracy. The alternative has only ever been sustained by totalitarian regimes and racist ideologies.”4
History of Abortion in Canada
Many of us are familiar with the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which led to the legalization of abortion in the United States. But what many of us don’t realize is that Canada is one of only a few nations in the world that doesn’t have any legal restrictions on abortion at all. In Canada, it is legal to abort a baby at any time during a woman’s pregnancy.
This was not always the case. Historically, abortion was illegal in Canada. It was completely banned in 1869, and anyone who took steps to cause an abortion was liable to life imprisonment.5 But illegal abortions were not uncommon, and according to Marilyn Wilson, the former executive director of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, “several hundred women per year died from botched abortions.”6
In 1968-69, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced an amendment to the Criminal Law Act legalizing abortion, provided that a committee of doctors declared that the abortion was necessary for the physical and mental well being of the mother. In 1988, this law was struck down as unconstitutional (by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Morgentaler) because it was held to violate section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”7 Since that time, although efforts have been made to draft new laws, Canada has had no criminal laws governing abortion.
Although the court in R. v. Morgentaler determined that the state does have an interest in protecting the fetus ‘at some point’, they ruled that “the interest of the unborn child can’t override that of the pregnant women because the right to security of the person of a pregnant woman was infringed more than was required to achieve the objective of protecting the fetus, and the means were not reasonable.”8 The Court stated, “Forcing a woman by threat of criminal sanction to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of the security of the person.”9
The 1989 Supreme Court decision Tremblay v. Daigle went even further, ruling that not even the father of an unborn child has a say in whether his baby will live or die.10 Only the woman can make the choice; the father has no legal say in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy or carry it to completion. Abortion is a decision that is made solely by the woman in consultation with her doctor. This has had an enormous impact on the lives of unborn children. According to AbortioninCanada.ca, “The total number of ‘reported’ abortions that took place between 1974 and 2010 in Canada is 3,101,362.”11
What does it have to do with us?
What does this mean for those of us who are not facing the stress of an unplanned pregnancy, who are not being forced to ask ourselves what it will mean – psychologically, financially, and emotionally – to parent a child who may be unwanted, who might be born with Down’s Syndrome or some other health issue? It’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation, to think it has nothing to do with us. It’s so easy to say, “Well, I wouldn’t have an abortion myself, but I believe that it should be up to each individual. Everyone should have the right to choose.” What does adopting this kind of attitude say about our society? A woman who had an abortion once said, “Everyone around me was saying they would ‘be there for me’ if I had the abortion, but no one said they’d ‘be there for me’ if I had the baby.”12
We all have a role to play, and it’s an important one. Ivereigh and Lopez wrote, “Catholics need to not just argue against abortion, but to help heal its wounds. They must above all care for women in need, through pre-natal care, adoption, and post-abortion counselling. Abortion hurts; that has been the experience of the church through ministering to the women and families who are the living victims of abortion.”13
“The value behind arguments for legal abortion is almost always compassion,”14 but as author Frederica Mathewes-Green points out, “It’s a grim experience, going through an abortion. … Abortion indisputably ends a human life. But this loss is usually set against the woman’s need to have an abortion in order to freely direct her own life. It is a particular cruelty to present abortion as something women want, something they demand, they find liberating. Because nobody wants this. The procedure itself is painful, humiliating, expensive – no woman ‘wants’ to go through it. … No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg. … Abortion is a horrible and harrowing experience. That women choose it so frequently shows how much worse continuing a pregnancy can be.”15 In speaking out against abortion, our desire is not to judge or to condemn, but to speak the truth in love – out of compassion for both mothers and their unborn children.
40 Days for Life
Each year during Lent, the 40 Days for Life campaign invites us to come together in a determined, peaceful manner “to [show] local communities the consequences of abortion in their own neighborhoods, for their own friends and families.”16 Their mission is “to bring together the body of Christ in a spirit of unity during a focused 40 day campaign of prayer, fasting, and peaceful activism, with the purpose of repentance, to seek God’s favor to turn hearts and minds from a culture of death to a culture of life, thus bringing an end to abortion.”17
If you’ve never been involved in pro-life initiatives in the past, this may all sound a little intimidating. And to be honest, up to this point I’ve been guilty of being a ‘closet pro-lifer’; I’ve shied away from getting involved. The whole issue is just so charged with emotion; there has been so much misunderstanding. But then I read something that made me re-think my position. The author wrote, “The pro-life cause is perennially unpopular, and pro-lifers get used to being misrepresented and wrongly accused. There are only a limited number of people who are going to be brave enough to stand up on the side of an unpopular cause. But sometimes a cause is so urgent, is so dramatically clear, that it’s worth it. What cause could be more outrageous than violence – fatal violence – against the most helpless members of our human community? If that doesn’t move us, how hard are our hearts? If that doesn’t move us, what will ever move us?”18 That really hit home for me.
What can you do?
To bring about an end to abortion, we need to begin with prayer. The mission of 40 Days for Life states that … “Prayer is at the center of 40 Days for Life. During each campaign, we are calling on people of faith across the nation … and around the world … to fall on their knees before the Lord, asking Him to hear our plea and heal our land. Pray outside an abortion facility. Pray at church. Pray at work. Pray in the car. Pray at home with your family.
“Christ told us some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. The two go hand in hand. Prayer keeps us rooted in the fact that it is our desire to carry out God’s will. Fasting is a sacrifice that helps us reach beyond our own limitations with God’s help.
“Each day during 40 Days for Life, individuals, churches, families and groups will be asked to join together in prayer for a specific request so the entire Body of Christ can unite around a common focus. These specific prayer requests will seek God’s help for:
- Women who are at risk of having an abortion
- Innocent children who are at risk of perishing
- Men and women who carry the pain of a past abortion experience
- Workers at Planned Parenthood facilities and abortion centers
- Local, regional, and national leaders
- Revival and renewal in our churches
- Repentance and healing throughout our nation
“People of faith are also invited to fast throughout 40 Days for Life. Christ said there are demons that can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. A fast is not a Christian diet; it is a powerful means of drawing closer to God by blocking out distractions. Fast from certain foods. Fast from television. Fast from apathy and indifference. Fast from whatever it is that separates you from God.
“We believe that when God’s people fast with a broken, repentant and contrite spirit, our heavenly Father will hear from heaven and heal our lives, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world.”19
You can also speak out by participating in organized prayer vigils – near a Planned Parenthood centre, an abortion facility, or some other place that has strategic significance – in order to educate people, to support women who are considering abortion and those who have been impacted by it, and to draw attention to what is at stake. “It is a peaceful and educational presence. Those who are called to stand witness during this 24-hour-a-day presence send a powerful message to the community about the tragic reality of abortion. It also serves as a call to repentance for those who work at the abortion center and those who patronize the facility.”20
If you think your participation won’t make a difference, think again. “Since 2007, 3,895 individual campaigns have taken place in 607 cities in 32 nations across the world and 675,000 volunteers have joined together in this historic display of unity, prayer and fasting for an end to abortion. 40 Days For Life has succeeded in shutting down 64 abortion facilities, and has documented saving at least 11,165 babies. In addition to the babies, 127 abortion workers have quit their jobs and walked away from the abortion industry and thousands of women have been spared the suffering and trauma that comes with the decision to abort one’s own child.”21 That’s quite a record. Hope to see you there!
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 It is important to note that it is not just abortion that the Church cares about. It is “unborn human life wherever it is experimented on, cloned, created, and killed – treated as a mere ‘bunch of cells’ instead of a God-created early human life deserving of respect.” From Austen Ivereigh and Kathryn Jean Lopez, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-button Issues, revised and updated (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2015), 122-123.
2 Ivereigh and Lopez, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-button Issues, 127.
3 Christopher Hitchens, “Fetal Distraction,” Vanity Fair [magazine], February 1, 2003; available from http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2003/02/hitchens200302; Internet; accessed 5 February 2016.
4 Ivereigh and Lopez, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-button Issues, 128.
5 The Criminal Code – Part VIII.3 Offences Against the Person and Reputation, 287(1) stated, “Every one who, with intent to procure the miscarriage of a female person, whether or not she is pregnant, uses any means for the purpose of carrying out his intention is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life.” See Criminal Code, Justice Laws Website; available from http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/section-287-20150226.html; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016.
6 Marilyn Wilson, “Three decades of choice: Canada’s landmark abortion law is 30 years old tomorrow,” The Gazette (May 13, 1999), B.3.
7 Constitution Act, 1982: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Justice Laws Website; available from http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-15.html; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016.
8 R. v. Morgentaler  1 SCR 30, Judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada; available from http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/288/index.do; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016.
9 Ibid. See, for example p. 38, 56-57, 113, 170, 181-182.
10 Tremblay v. Daigle  2 SCR 530, Judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada; available at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/515/index.do; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016.
11 “Annual Abortion Rates,” AbortioninCanada.ca; available from http://abortionincanada.ca/stats/annual-abortion-rates/; Internet; accessed 3 Feburary 2016. The 1988 ruling also struck down reporting requirements, so it is difficult to know how accurate these figures are.
12 Frederica Mathewes-Green, “When Abortion Suddenly Stopped Making Sense,” National Review (January 22, 2016); available from http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430152/abortion-roe-v-wade-unborn-children-women-feminism-march-life; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016
13 Ivereigh and Lopez, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice, 137.
14 Ibid., 126.
15 Mathewes-Green, “When Abortion Suddenly Stopped Making Sense,” National Review.
16 40 Days for Life [website]; copy and past the link, https://40daysforlife.com/mission/ to access the website; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016. 40 Days for Life began in the U.S.A. and was first introduced in Canada in 2007.
17 Ibid. In 2016, 40 Days for Life will be held from February 10th to March 20th.
18 Mathewes-Green, “When Abortion Suddenly Stopped Making Sense,” National Review.
19 40 Days for Life: About/Mission.
20 Ibid. To get more information about how to participate in 40 Days for Life in Canada, please go to http://www.campaignlifecoalition.com/index.php?p=40_Days_For_Life and click on the appropriate link. For links to a complete list of international locations, cut and paste this link into your browser: https://40daysforlife.com.
21 “The fruits of 40 Days For Life and its history in Canada,” Campaign Life Coalition, available from http://www.campaignlifecoalition.com/index.php?p=40_Days_For_Life; Internet; accessed 3 February 2016.