Friday, December 02, 2011

More on the abortion issue

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who did a fascinating study of suicide. His work is certainly worth looking at in terms of suicide but what was - and is - most interesting in his work on suicide is the observation that changes in rates of suicide say something about society and not just the behaviour of discreet individuals. He said, for example, that if a person commits suicide, that is a personal tragedy, but if the rate of suicide changes in a society, that is a public issue. And it's not just about suicide. The same could be said on a number of fronts. Take abortion.

When a woman decides to have an abortion - regardless of the reasons, the process, etc. - there is a certain sense of emotional response (relief, grief, confusion, etc.). That's a personal issue. And this is the strength of the so-called "pro-choice" movement. It's personal. The woman has the right to choose whether or not to remain pregnant, regardless of the means by which the pregnancy started.

What we often don't think about is the view from a societal perspective. Who can argue that abortion isn't personal. It is, and usually intensely so. But it's also social. If the rate of abortion changes - either up or down - that says something about social forces at work.

After posting my last blog I got thinking about abortion rates in Canada and what they might say about our society. When I started digging a bit, I confess that I was pretty shocked by what I found. In terms of the rate of abortion in Canada today, any guesses as to what it might be? I asked my first year class at St. Stephen's University and they figured maybe 5-10% of pregnancies are wilfully terminated through abortion. Wrong! Let's take 2005. According to Stats Canada, in 2005 there were 342,176 babies born and 96,815 induced abortions. That is, for every 100 live births there were 28.3 abortions! (see What?!?! About 25% of pregnancies end in abortion in Canada! Really?????!!!! How has this happened?

There's a very long answer to that question, and there's a short answer. For now I'll stick with the short answer. It seems to me that the abortion issue has generated such passion - on both "sides" (which, as I mentioned in my last posting, is perhaps mis-cast) that it's very hard for us to even talk about it. Maybe our "Canadian-ness" prohibits us from truly engaging in healthy debate on issues like this (and many other social/moral issues!). We don't like to fight - unless of course we're an "activist" and the activists are often viewed with suspicion. Many Canadians would cross to the other side of the street to avoid an activist. We prefer to avoid conflict and confrontation. I get that.

But when a quarter of pregnancies end in abortion - which I think we can all agree is a very BIG number (and note that these are official statistics for abortions legally performed in Canada in 2005, and therefore do not include abortions obtained in other countries or outside of the legal facilities where stats are gathered and submitted to the authorities). One of the sad things about this is that we are not talking about what this means for our society. What's the public issue or issues behind these stats? WHY is it that so many women are choosing this route? What are the personal and public consequences?

Is it possible for us to talk about this without the acrimony that has sometimes characterized the debate? Is it too much to ask that we all take a step back, take a deep breath, set aside our personal convictions and come to the table prepared to work together to find a more sane response to the conditions which perpetuate the demand for abortion in this country?

My students where shocked by the figures. For the most part, these students have been raised in a post modern world where they have a default position that accepts the underlying assumptions behind a rights-based social policy. But they are shocked by the figures and they are dismayed. They don't know exactly what to think about it or what should be done, but they know - intuitively perhaps (which is one of the strengths of post moderns) - that something's not right with this picture. And, in true post modern fashion, they don't want to argue about it. They're not interested in winning an argument. They just want us to find a way forward. Can we do that?

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