Let there be light on abortion debate

by Margret Kopala

Published by The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday December 3, 1988

Each year some 60,000 Canadian women are sufficiently distressed at the prospect of having a child that they have an abortion. In other countries, similarly high statistics may be explained by the planetís exploding population or Third World poverty. In Canada, however, the figure remains a mystery.

With effective birth control widely available, with little or no stigma attaching to unwed pregnancy or single parenthood, with many couples desperate to adopt babies, with Canada seriously underpopulated, why does abortion remain a fact here?

There are three plausible answers. First, lack of information forces many young and or poor women to use abortion as a method of birth control. You could argue that the pro-choice movement and the Supreme Court of Canada decree that abortion is a matter of individual rights so reasons or explanations arenít relevant. Or, finally, thereís Mother Teresaís implication that abortion results from murderous sensibilities.

None of these answers suffice. Educated, conscientious women choose abortion as well as the poor and the young. And while aborting may not be murder, neither is it a civilized remedy to a distressed womanís condition - if it is a remedy at all.

Some women suffer from post-abortion syndrome, a psychological disorder in which they feel grief and loss. Attempts to dignify abortion by invoking individual rights or by measuring fetal viability can never detract from the fact that the cellular contents of a pregnant womanís uterus have human potential.

While the abortion debate ranges on these philosophical, religious, legal and emotional levels, it is safe to conclude that it will never be resolved. Because of this, our legislators need to do some hard-headed analytical thinking instead of falling in with unyielding, emotionally cemented attitudes.

To begin with, they might consider that every year about 60,000 Canadians die of heart disease. But the discussion on what to do about that tragedy hasnít bogged down in legalities, moralities and viabilities. Money is spent and research is done; heart disease may well be eradicated one day.

But when an equivalent 60,000 Canadian women have abortions in the same year, few want to look at hard facts or even try and find them. No one seems to have considered talking to those million or more women who have had abortions since 1970 on a nationwide, confidential and non-judgmental basis. Then we might find out why they chose abortion instead of parenthood.

If these women are ever asked, it shouldnít surprise anyone if they say that society does very little to support parents, either financially or psychologically. Being a parent, they might point out, is simply not valued in our materialist, job-oriented world. "Children tie you down."

"Not at this point in my career/education/life." "My husband doesnít help." "I/we canít afford it." "I want to be something more than a mother."

They might point to the number of fast-tracking couples who fail to juggle the often contradictory demands of children and jobs.

And, these women would not doubt say, the lack of support those on welfare is devastating. Single parents, particularly, face outright condemnation for wanting to look after their children. Society would prefer they have an abortion or pack their children off to daycare so they can become productive workers - as if being a parent isnít productive.

What an astonishing turnaround of Canadaís value system. Only a generation ago, abortion - though evident - didnít approach current statistical highs. Most children then enjoyed family home care, the tried-and-true method of raising children. Yet the generation raised on after-school cookies and milk, the generation that protested war and materialism in the sixties, is embracing abortion rights and placing their children in the care of other people so they can go out and earn money.

Doesnít anybody want to be a parent anymore?

Granted societyís demands for professional mobility has undermined the support traditionally available to new parents from the extended family. Financial security - a security defined in some instances by yuppies materialist excesses but which, in other instances, requires two incomes to put food on the table and a roof overhead - is also a factor. Then there is so-called professional fulfilment which is a high priority for many, despite evidence that family life, and the sacrifices that may entail, is ultimately more rewarding.

Whatever the reasons, any prestige or status that ever attached to parenting is dead. Feminists would rightly argue that in a patriarchal world, it never had much prestige or status anyway. Historically, looking after children was the motherís job and while some cultures put mothers on a pedestal, others treated them as chattel. Either way, they were over or under some manís thumb.

Then women began pursuing prestige and success as defined by the male world. Padded shoulders and all, women sought to become equal to men in the workforce. Since men found homemaking and care giving too menial, it seemed obvious that women should find them menial too. Birth control, access to abortion and child care supported the "liberation" movement.

The results were predictable. Full-time mothers, feeling put down, went to extremes of militancy or apology while professional caregivers, usually women too, took their place among the nationís lowest paid workers. Even grandma, usually a reliable babysitter, took the job reluctantly because she felt so foolish for having stayed home to raise her kids.

And that new breed, superwoman, doing triple duty - creating a home, raising children and building a career - threw her hands up in exasperation and resentment at the token household gestures of her "liberated" husband. It seemed easier just to turf the guy out.

This is not to say the feminist movement has been wrong in trying to overcome womanís historically diminished status. But somehow the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. Almost literally.

By calling them "womenís issues", abortion and childcare entrench the mother-child syndrome that has historically kept women subjugated. Compounding the irony is the current trend to denying fathersí rights in those areas. That can only alienate them for good and all, from the parenting process.

Denying fathers their rights and responsibilities in the conception of and care for their children estranges men and women from each other, and condemns the current abortion debate to the dark ages of moralisms, sexisms and emotionalisms. All of this threatens to overshadow social and biological research that offers the possiblity of eradicating the need for abortion without having to criminalize it.

Eradicating the need for abortion is a goal with which no one can disagree. Once this goal receives the same financial and scientific attention as heart disease, women will know they are nearer the equality they seek.

But while society persists in offering distressed pregnant women the same quick trip to the abortionist that history has always offered - only now itís legal and hygienic - women will remain unequal and oppressed by their sexuality.

And children, the product of that sexuality, will e societyís biggest losers. Even if they survive conception their care will continue to bear the stigma of menial labour. In and increasingly fragmented and de-personalised world, men and women need more than ever to involve themselves in the human and humanising experience of looking after small children. The benefits to society of well bonded children with strong value systems are incalculable. But without encouragement, support and even training (sex education, say, taught in a context of consequences and responsibilities) for parenting society can expect more broken homes and increased child-care costs; the womenís movement will continue to be controversial and abortion statistics will continue to rise.

In social and medical terms, 60,000 abortions a year is an epidemic. Societyís anti-parent prejudice is only one explanation. The others must be found out and confronted.

Let there be light.

Margret Kopala

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