Sudbury·In Depth

Activists see assisted dying debate taking same path abortion did 25 years ago

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate say the discussion over assisted dying is also likely to still be going decades from now.
An anti-abortion sign held on Parliament Hill as protesters take part in the March For Life rally in Ottawa on Thursday, May 10, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate say the discussion over assisted dying is also likely to still be going decades from now.

While the Senate this week reviews the assisted dying bill, with many questions lingering as to what the law will look like by the time legislators are done with it, this year marks 25 years since a law governing abortion made a similar path through Parliament Hill before being defeated in the Senate.

It ended with an unprecedented tie vote, which could have been broken by the speaker, Progressive Conservative Rheal Belisle, who was from Sudbury and was at one time the MPP for Nickel Belt. But he decided to abstain, although said later he would have voted no, meaning the bill would have been defeated anyway,

Archival tape of the World at Six and Morningside on CBC Radio in the winter of 1991, following the defeat of the abortion bill in the Senate. 9:56

In the quarter century since then, Canada has not had an abortion law and regulations are left up to the provinces.

But the Ontario Ministry of Health reveals very little information as to how that health care service operates. It refuses to name the hospitals and public clinics where abortion is available and unlike most aspects of the health system, any information related to abortion is forbidden from public release under the Access to Information Act.

That isn't a big change from the early 1990s, when Sudbury's Memorial Hospital reported that it was performing 16 per cent more abortions, but refused to release any other information.
Morgentaler joins protesters calling for the legalization of abortion on Parliament Hill in 1983. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

The other thing that hasn't changed in 25 years is the raging debate between pro-life and pro-choice forces.

They opened the barn door and what they'll do is just paper it over and say it's OK.- Keith McCormick, Sudbury Right to Life Association

Keith McCormick with the Sudbury Right to Life Association helps organize regular anti-abortion protests outside the Sudbury hospital.

"What we're doing is trying to change minds," he says, adding that sometimes women tell them they opted against an abortion after speaking with them.

McCormick says they've also started telling passers by about the dangers of assisted suicide.

"I don't think the law going to make much difference. They opened the barn door and what they'll do is just paper it over and say it's OK. It's not OK to kill," McCormick says.

But others on the anti-abortion side believe that the pro-life approach has been failing for the last 25 years and are trying to turn the focus on the lack of federal legislation governing abortion.

Mike Schouten heads up We Need a Law, a national campaign that recently held a rally in Sault Ste. Marie.

He says he's trying to find a middle ground between making abortion illegal and having abortions on demand.

"Because we think that there's far more in common than what sets us apart and we need to focus on those areas," says Schouten.

He says he'd like to see an abortion law that provides some protection for the unborn child, outlaws gender-based abortions and requires health care officials to provide more information to women considering the procedure.

The pro-choice side also would like to see the government pay more attention to abortion.

Jesskya Lamirande, the founder of Pro-Choice Sudbury, says Health Sciences North only offers abortions at certain times and other hospitals in northern Ontario don't provide the service at all.

"So people just take for granted that women have access when we know that's really not the case depending on where you are located," she says.

Lamirande has been watching the assisted dying debate play out in Ottawa and expects that even when the legislators are done with it, the discussion will be far from over.

"I am somewhat concerned that we're going to see the same thing that we see with abortion, in terms of smaller communities and northern communities, while it may be legal, not really having access. So, this may very well be an issue that we continue to debate 25, 30 years from as we are with abortion."