The Debate is Over - Or Is It?When do the public debates about fundamental and foundational issues come to an end? As long as there is not unanimity, it seems that discussion and debate will continue.
Two stories have had an unexpected long run in media headlines over the first month and a half of 2009, drawing a lot of public response along with musing by media pundits. These stories seem to lead well into a third that is about to surface and all three ask us to consider foundational issues of Canadian life, society and identity.
Abortion was front and centre as 2008 rolled into 2009. Rod Bruinooge, the newly elected Conservative co-chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus (PPLC) propelled discussion about abortion back into the public square. Initiating the exchange that took place in news media across the country was a simple press release in which Bruinooge noted his new role and outlined his desires for deliberation of abortion as part of the Parliamentary agenda.
Reaction to the press release was varied and engaging. The media expressed interest in the story of an aboriginal MP speaking his heart on an issue in a manner that seemed in contradiction to an earlier statement from Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister that there would be no abortion debate under his watch. Pro-Choicers (also described at times as pro-abortion or anti-life, but I choose to engage respectfully referring to people in the way they have chosen to refer to themselves) and Pro-Lifers (also described by opponents as anti-abortion or anti-choice) alike wanted to know who are the members of the PPLC. Some people expressed offense that the membership list was not public information.
There are, in fact, several Parliamentary caucuses whose membership lists are not circulated for public consumption. These are working groups of people from across party lines who share a common interest. The members of these groups are not radicals or extremists, they are Parliamentarians who wish to engage in deliberation on matters of interest to Canadians. These men and women are accountable in a variety of ways, but really don’t need to draw the attention of radicals and extremists who would haunt them on one issue when the broader mandate they share with all Parliamentarians is the provision of good government (granted, as they understand good government to be – which is usually expressed along party lines).
Efforts to declare the debate on abortion “over” ignore the reality that abortion is clearly still an issue for discussion among many Canadians. This was evidenced by the volume of letters to the editors of several newspapers, blogs on the topic, etc that took place through much of January. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down an abortion law that was found to be unequally applied depending on where one lived in Canada and sent the issue back to Parliament to determine an appropriate abortion law for Canada (R. v. Morgentaler). This was a public debate initiative that took place for a period of about eighteen months in the House of Commons and concluded with legislation “dying” on a tie vote on third reading in the Senate. The legislation died. The debate did not.
The second issue which has drawn significant public attention is the proposal to place ads stating “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on buses in major Canadian cities. The response to the proposed ads gives clear indication that Canadians have not accepted the proposition that religion should not be discussed in public. Canadians have engaged in a very public discussion on the topic for several weeks (see webitorial on bus ads). Just when many declared public debate on religion to be over, the public has stated otherwise. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to soon comment on the subject of bus advertising in a decision for a case on which they heard argument in March, 2008 (BC Transit v. Canadian Federation of Students). It will be interesting to see what they have to say about freedom of expression in advertising on public transit systems.
The third issue will arrive again in the public square with the introduction of Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde’s next incarnation of her Private Members’ Bill efforts to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada. Ms. Lalonde is clearly sincere as this will be the third version of her bill, first proposed in 2005, when she re-introduces it – probably the week of February 23. The public will, I suspect, have strong opinions on this issue and voice them.
Debate on “dying with dignity” – a term which has nothing really to do with euthanasia or assisted suicide but more to do with how we choose to live life – will take place in the House of Commons and in the broader public square. Again, as the Supreme Court ruled on abortion in 1988 and is soon to rule on bus advertising, the court has ruled on Canada’s laws dealing with both euthanasia and assisted suicide, choosing to recognize the sanctity of life and the societal desire to protect those who are vulnerable (Rodriguez v. BC in 1993 re assisted suicide and R. v. Latimer in 2001 re euthanasia).
When do the public debates about fundamental and foundational issues come to an end? And who gets to declare them over? As long as there is not unanimity, it seems that discussion and debate will continue. If we have an opinion, we should be prepared to express it. If we do so reasonably and respectfully we are more likely to be heard, and to remain included in the continuing discussion. We hope for the same from those who observe a differing position.
Don Hutchinson is Vice-President, Centre for Faith and Public Life and General Legal Counsel with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
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