Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

That one Unmentionable Subject

We need to talk, but I fear abortion debate will be more like a war

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Through the dimly lit rooms of an uneasy truce, so many Canadians of my generation learned the shape of abortion almost by feel.

Mostly, it all seemed a little theoretical, a little unreal. Here was a legal medical procedure, revealed by the edges where sex-ed handouts trailed off; found at the point in the debates where politicians issued clipped platitudes and clamped their lips shut. Not something to talk about, never something to discuss, except in fierce whispers during a teenage sleepover, fumbling for words in the dark.

If all of Canada was having a Thanksgiving dinner, then abortion was that one Unmentionable Subject. We offered up silence in service to the illusion that, for one night at least, we could all get along. So long as we didn't push too hard. So long as we didn't talk about it too much.

In the empty spaces, shadows crept in. Shadows and dust, obscuring the clear lines of the procedure then swallowing them whole in the dark. Most Canadians don't know much about abortion. They don't know much about how it is performed, and who chooses it, and why. Truthfully? Until I spent a year volunteering as an unplanned pregnancy counsellor at Women's Health Clinic, neither did I.

Maybe that is about to change. Maybe it should. Maybe it will have to, as that uneasy silence cracks, and in places breaks apart.

It is broken in New Brunswick, where advocates are rallying to push for stronger access in the wake of the province's only abortion clinic shutting down. It is breaking in chunks around the House of Commons, where Justin Trudeau announced future federal Liberal candidates will be expected to vote pro-choice, every time.

The next day, Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton announced she would put forward a motion to formally affirm that access to abortion is "a fundamental question of equality and human rights," both at home and abroad. CBC journalist Kady O'Malley surmised that it is "difficult not to see the motion as a direct -- and pointed -- response" to Trudeau, a "pre-election test" of that party's pro-choice resolve.

But the bid could backfire, O'Malley noted, by giving the issue more play in the House of Commons, than it has in years.

Reading these headlines, I shift in my seat, uncomfortable and restless. Knowing that if Canada does indeed "reopen the abortion debate," as they say, that I would be one of the soldiers. Knowing that I could never not speak on an issue so important to me. But knowing too that speaking will be draining, a fraught and fractured process, and exhausting.

No, I'm not putting on my battle-gear here -- not yet, though that time may come. Before it does, though, I wonder: beyond the House of Commons, what do we mean when we talk about "reopening the abortion debate?" What would it look like, and what price would be paid?

If there's one thing we can be certain of, it is any broad public debate would be divisive, and bruising. The topic of abortion, more than almost any other, tends to produce little real understanding, and not a heck of a lot of constructive debate. Facts should be lodestones, but if they get trampled in the process of drawing up battle lines, they can't point the way.

In the United States, one in six voters count abortion (for or against) as a make-or-break election-day view. To be clear: it would be for me too. But there is no satisfaction in the idea of a public debate cycle where abortion takes up so much of the oxygen in the room. No satisfaction in a debate that makes collateral damage out of other social and economic issues that need our time, and care.

Not a debate, but a war. This is what I fear -- most of all for the women whose lives and bodies are caught in the crossfire.

Not a debate, or even really a civil discussion, but a progression of slogans slapped on posters, swirling in a murky soup of broken information. We've seen it before. In these chaotic panoplies, the hundreds of thousands of women who have chosen abortion in Canada too often vanish from the foreground, their realities largely unheard and hidden.

Oh, but I remember the counselling room. I knew the women, and I remember them. I remember a woman -- a woman in the blossom of her life. She was settled and happy. She found out she was pregnant the same week one of her children was diagnosed with a devastating illness, a guarantee of a year or more of hospitals and surgeries. She was a woman of faith, so she prayed, and this was her answer: "I can't be pregnant now," she said firmly, her voice full-grown and unwavering. "My child needs all of me."

Everyone who chooses abortion has a story, and every story offers a key to understanding the full depth of the issue. So if we are headed for a public debate, again, is there any chance that everyone who wants to speak will also be prepared to listen?

I don't know. Given that North America has yet to fully reconcile itself with the sight of an uncovered human breast, I'm not optimistic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D2

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