Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Collective ignorance: not quite the same thing as consensus

It's an oft-repeated truism in ethics: "Good facts are essential for good ethics." So surely we need the facts about an issue as ethically fraught as abortion. Yet not only do we not have them, but they are intentionally not gathered or, if some are or might be available, access to them is denied.

That allows two myths that favour the pro-choice stance on abortion to be propagated: That late-term abortion is rare and that there is a consensus in Canada on the public-policy regime that should govern abortion (which, at present, is the complete absence of any law).


The facts on late-term abortions are intentionally made difficult to obtain. Some time ago, I contacted a staff member at Statistics Canada to ask about the numbers of late-term abortions. She told me they were instructed for political reasons not to collect statistics on the gestational age at which abortion occurs. She explained, however, that hospitals must report the number of abortions and about 45 per cent had continued to report gestational age. From these unsolicited reports, it's known that at least 400 post-viability abortions take place in Canada each year and the actual number is most probably more than twice that. The Canadian Medical Association sets viability (some chance of the child living outside the womb) at 20 weeks gestation.


As to trying to get specific facts on abortion, in general, two British Columbia hospitals, Vancouver General and Kelowna General, have applied to stop a freedom-of-information inquiry initiated by pro-life activists, John Hof and Ted Gerk. After the hospitals refused their request last year for information on abortion statistics, Hof and Gerk initiated applications for access to the information through the B.C. Office of Information. The province's Freedom of Information Act was amended in 2001 to specifically exclude access to information about abortion, but they are using a "public-interest-override" clause in the privacy legislation, to argue that the release of the information is in the public interest and should not be withheld. The hospitals have applied for a Section 56 exemption to Freedom of Information rules requiring disclosure, claiming that it was "plain and obvious that the records sought by the Applicant will not be disclosed." The dispute remains to be resolved.

These situations raise the issue of the ethics of intentionally blocking access to information on abortion.

Such blocking is not neutral, but a strategy to help to maintain the status quo of the complete void regarding abortion law. The unavailability of this information makes the pro-choice lobby's claims that late-term abortion is rare and that there is a consensus on abortion in Canada, much less likely to be challenged, and, therefore, bolsters its case that we do not need any law on abortion.

It is also a stance that appeals to many politicians who are terrified of an abortion debate for political reasons. A striking example of the lengths to which they will go to avoid that debate are manifested in a motion just passed unanimously by the three parties in the Quebec National Assembly, in favour of unrestricted access to free abortion, with no limitations mentioned. One can only wonder whether they all, or even just some of them, understood that they were endorsing a position that there should be no legal restrictions on aborting viable babies. If they did not understand that, it's deeply concerning; if they did, in my opinion, it's horrifying.

Margaret Somerville, Busting the abortion myths.