On (Dis)Engagement, Part 1: Trudeau’s pro-choice edict

On (Dis)Engagement: Let’s not act like we all need to think alike on everything (and ideas on how to proceed when we do) :: A two-part essay :: 1 2

“The fundamental political idea of modern times is the presumed moral superiority of centralized control.” – Paul Lutus

This two-parter isn’t actually about abortion, but rather about living in the same country while remaining on speaking terms with one other. The recent revival1 of abortion in our political discourse (pardon my charitable language) makes abortion a timely table-setter for the rest of this essay.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau in 2009 (Wikipedia)

This past Wednesday, after his party’s weekly caucus meeting, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”

I’m pro-choice™ myself, or at least I think I am. But does Trudeau’s definition mean “pro-choice, no matter what?” What if “voting pro-choice” means voting to explicitly permit no-questions-asked abortions at or after, say, 25 weeks, the 50% survival threshold for premature births? Is it so regressive to question the ethics of aborting a fetus that has a strong chance of being viable without further support of the mother? It’s possible to support easy and early abortions but to also have a nuanced position on late-term abortions. You might question the political wisdom of bringing it up, as women aren’t exactly lining up to get late-term abortions (only 2-3% are done after 16 weeks), so this would generate a lot of heat for seemingly no good political or practical reason.2

Jen Gerson writes in National Post on the idea of limiting medically unnecessary abortions to 20 weeks:

“I mention 20 weeks here because, thanks to the guidelines set out by the Canadian Medical Association, that’s, in practice, the abortion regime we have now. The CMA explicitly demands that doctors consider the viability of the fetus outside the womb when deciding whether to proceed with an abortion.

“I’ve spoken to abortion providers here in Alberta who told me that it’s all but impossible to get a late-term abortion absent an extraordinarily compelling medical reason, such as anencephaly – which should put to bed a lot of the hysteria about a supposed rash of elective late term abortions in light of Canada’s regulatory absence. This provider told me that if a healthy woman in the third trimester presented for an abortion, she’d be referred to a shrink, not the back room.”

In my view, to some extent the public dialogue seems more nuanced than it was, and to some extent I’ve gotten smarter (and, probably, we all have). So far as I’ve been airing my opinion on this issue, this time around, people have disagreed with me, but nobody’s detonated themselves in my face. Perhaps this post will change that! Anyway, I’m generally heartened, even as I believe that there’s something chilling to Trudeau’s edict. I believe there’s something compelling to Andrew Coyne’s statement that “the idea we can’t debate abortion is unworthy of a democratic country.”

But in 2011 when I shared a link to Coyne’s similarly-themed 2008 article in Maclean’s, a then-acquaintance commented “WTF, Will?” and unfriended me.

Here are Coyne’s words from 2008:

“This is not about abortion. This is about democracy.”

“It is about how we decide things, and by what rules, and how we treat each other when we disagree. Indeed, it is about whether we are allowed to disagree; whether dissent on a contentious issue is respected, or even recognized; and whether, in the face of clear evidence over many years that an issue is not settled — that it was never settled — a democracy should be allowed at last to debate and decide it. Like a democracy.”

The lengths that we’ve gone to to not talk about abortion are practically interstellar:

“Over the years, we have all learned to tiptoe around the issue, to refer to it by elaborate euphemisms — ‘a-woman’s-right-to-choose,’ in the politicians’ dutiful catechism. It isn’t that abortion has been accepted, in the way that abortion rights advocates would wish, as just another medical procedure. It simply isn’t spoken of. Even the citation on Morgentaler‘s Order of Canada talks, not of his long and prolific career as an abortionist, or even of his part in the removal of the last legal restrictions on the practice, but merely of his commitment to ‘increased health care options for women.'”

Update: Coyne writes again in National Post: “It turns out you can’t stop the abortion debate just by telling people ‘it’s settled.’ Who knew?” I’m probably too taken by his wit for my own good.

Blue Man Group

The Blue Man Group, by all appearances an extremely coherent party. (Wikipedia)

Party Coherence

As Chris Selley says in National Post, “Mr. Trudeau can demand whatever ideological purity tests he wants.” But just because he can, it definitely doesn’t follow that he should, either morally (the particular test might be unconscionable) or pragmatically (if he truly wishes to direct a “Big Red Tent”).

My friend commented on my posting of the Gerson article:

“I actually think it makes a certain degree of sense to have issues where You Must Agree. Otherwise what, precisely, binds the party together? I don’t think there should be many of them, but I think having them makes a certain degree of sense. Not least because it allows for clear distinctions between the party’s plans and the views of the individual MP.

“Also, how [can you, who have advocated for proportional representation3, be worried enough to speak against something that has the effect of] increasing the strength of the party system?”

Parties need be no more than like-minded people working together for a common goal. But parties as they are now are ideological fortresses. If parties are still going to be this way, we should4 have proportional representation so that the ideological makeup of parliament reflects the ideological makeup of the people. Provided PR itself doesn’t further exacerbate the religious and authoritarian nature of parties (in their public face, anyway – I hear individual MPs can be rather sensible people when the cameras are off), it would seem to be an improvement.

“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.” – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

In either case, I’m against political parties maintaining ideological “purity” through the inquisitional screening of potential candidates. Each You Must Agree issue subsumes the distinction between a party’s plan and views and that of an individual MP. The more of these we have, the more the MPs are effectively homunculi instead of being independent representatives. Like-thinking by decree isn’t really like-thinking. I also believe forced homogeneity of thought or of form is an affront to nature. We may need to force it anyway for self- or group-preservation, but we should be very careful about when to do it.

Nine Year Microwave Sky

Even the universe itself defies homogeneity in its own way. (NASA)

Parties are also innately anti-internal-extremist. The more extreme the party-individual difference is, the less likely you’ll be in the game anyway. Presumably, if I wanted to get government out of health care5, I wouldn’t run for, say, the NDP. And if I did run for the NDP, and I did come out and say I wanted to get government out of health care, I would probably be shouted down.

The hazard for the NDP is that a few low-information people would say, “Oh, look, it’s proof that the NDP wants to privatize health care after all!” and a few other low-information people might believe it. But we shouldn’t let our fear of the fear and cynicism of low-information people unduly steer our country, and in that I think we should resist the idea that having an isolated candidate with off-platform views should be toxic to the entire party. We’ve had our laughs and gasps at off-script candidates and legislators in the past, yes. But it’s now time for us to consider the long-term expense of our complicity or outright participation in the ridicules and excommunications stemming from political incorrectness and heresy.6

Here are Gerson’s own words on this matter:

“As we’ve seen with the Conservatives, backbench MPs who are willing to dissent can be very powerful. They can bring attention to issues that they are passionate about and be important voices for reform. Eliminating all dissenters before they ever get the chance to take a run at a seat does not serve our democracy.

“It’s one thing to demand an MP vote with you: it’s another thing entirely to demand conformity of thought. MPs who support this idea might want to consider whether or not this policy would stop at abortion. If Mr. Trudeau is going to forbid any dissent here, what other issues will become verboten? And if he’s willing to veto a potential MP’s nomination papers because that person holds different views, who is ever going to disagree with him?

“Those who would wish to see Mr. Trudeau take up the Prime Minister’s mantle might consider the democratic implications of a leader who not only centralizes power, but also restricts his caucus only to those who are willing to perfectly parrot party policies.”

A similar critique could perhaps be made of Mr. Mulcair inasmuch as he is responsible for ensuring ‘his’ members parrot the NDP’s party line on senate abolition. Or, more seriously, on intervention in Libya – an area where there may have been NDP MPs who didn’t want to support it. Ms. May has repeatedly spoken against whipped votes, though for now I don’t predict a Green-led coalition forming government after the next election. :-) I realized after I posted this that I didn’t even mention Mr. Harper. Well, his relatively new party7 has long had its own brand of coerced conformity, too.

If you have some time, watch this lecture by Andrew Coyne, entitled “The Alarming State of Canada’s Democracy”. Among the many topics he covers are the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s office and the use of the whip, and also the power of the party leaders to veto nominations, which I’ll quote below.

37m0s: “If the leader dominates caucus, it’s not only because they do not choose him, it’s because he – almost literally – chooses them. In Canada, as I mentioned, as a matter of law, no candidate may run for Parliament under a party banner without the signature of his leader on his nomination papers. This gives the leader an absolute veto over the nomination of every member of caucus, real or prospective, which means, ‘Get out of line and you’ll never run again.’

“Yet this is, pathetically, defended oftentimes by MPs themselves. ‘How? How?’ they ask, ‘How can a leader be expected to put up with a candidate who was damaging the party’s brand?’ Like they’ve been stealing from the till or something. This is how fully they’ve absorbed the notion that MPs are, in effect, the leader’s employees.

“It’s always possible, I grant, that a riding association could nominate a candidate so abhorrent to the party that it would have no choice but to withdraw its imprimatur: they nominated a Nazi or something. But why should that be the prerogative of the leader? Why can’t that be a vote of the other riding associations? Why do we automatically assign the power – all the power – to the top person?”

This essay so far has been caught up on the particular mechanics of this freedom-of-thought debate. My particular opinion on abortion is only relevant inasmuch as I need to illustrate the evils of you-must-think-this-way. For the purpose of my stance on thought-diversity, abortion is ‘just’ a prominently divisive subject; in no time at all, there’ll be a new controversy to take its place.

I’ll be back soonish with Part 2, which will get to the more general ideas I’d like to describe and assert. In the meantime, here’s the only politician who ever spoke honestly and accurately about when life begins:

  1. CTV News: “Topless protesters disrupt anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill” 

  2. Morally, “one is too many” may be an averable reason. But the evils of the asymptotic effort required to stamp out every last transgression might outweigh the evils of the actual transgressions. 

  3. To the point where I used “ought” about things being party-proportional, which is misleading because using “ought” was asserting it to be self-evident truth. 

  4. CGP Grey has an excellent video series called “Politics in the Animal Kindgom”. It covers the problems with our current system (“first-past-the-post”), shows how the alternative vote (or “instant-runoff voting”) would be useful, and describes a system of proportional representation.

    If you’re interested in the problems with FPTP as it pertains to Canada, Andrew Coyne gives a brief overview in his lecture, but you should probably just watch the whole thing, either on YouTube itself or in the video box down at the bottom here somewhere.

    My present position: If we’re going to have parties, we should have some form of proportional representation. And in any case we should have ranked-ballots for single-winner elections. (Electing your MP is currently a single-winner system – there is one and only one representative for each district. For the next election, the makeup of the House of Commons will be decided by 338 single-winner elections happening at the same time.) Getting a winner more people can agree on might ameliorate some of the evil of winner-take-all, and it would mercifully diminish the spoiler effect.

    Update: CGP Grey released a further video on Single Transferable Vote. I think this system would be our best bet, though we’d have to redraw the districts to be multi-member. It takes out the evil of winner-take-all (and the double evil of plurality-winner-take-all, of course) and it doesn’t enshrine political parties in the workings of the system itself. 

  5. For what it’s worth, I’m for keeping government in it inasmuch as I want to maintain a single-payer system with universal access and comparable services nationwide. Our neighbours to the south spend bucketloads more than we do, and not having a single-payer’s negotiating power is one of the reasons. If there’s a way to have the same or better access, efficiency, quality, and value that we do now, but decoupled from direct government control for some compelling reason, I’d be open to that, yet I don’t expect such an alternative to be presented in the near future, if ever. 

  6. I say this even as I suggest we should do everything possible to ensure that Peter MacKay fails to win reelection in the riding from which I’m writing this, but this isn’t because he’s an ideological outlier – in fact, he is very much on a script that I find ridiculous at best and chilling more typically, and he doesn’t scruple about curtailing debate over his more Orwellian proposals

  7. The Conservative Party of Canada was founded in 2003. Its antecedents, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada were founded in 2000 and 1942 respectively. Their antecedents, the Reform Party of Canada and the (historical) Conservative Party of Canada were founded in 1987 and 1867 respectively. 

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