If you wear the pin, send it back

If I had an Order of Canada I'd return it to protest the appointment of Henry Morgentaler. But of course people like me don't get that little white snowflake lapel pin. We're too divisive. I have to start by laying on the table my most fundamental objection here. Dr. Morgentaler has devoted his life to the killing of unborn babies and I do not think he deserves an award for having been good at it. But I do not produce that statement as a trump card. Rather, I do not want to be accused of dealing off the bottom of the deck in my subsequent arguments.

For while I am pro-life, to add anything to this discussion I need to reach out to people who may be uneasy about at least some abortions but do not share my core position. I must argue that appointments of this sort are wrong without requiring that you endorse my specific objection to it.

The first major difficulty is identifying appointments "of this sort." The closest analogy I can find to abortion is debates over slavery in Britain and the United States two to three centuries ago. It is the only other time essentially democratic societies were bitterly divided over a widespread practice that hinged on what, or who, qualified as a "person."

A Globe and Mail editorial on Wednesday said it would have been easier for the selection committee not to give this award, and probably better for the dignity of the Order, but praised the committee for its courage in doing so anyway. The editorialist asked "would it be right to overlook Dr. Morgentaler simply because he is a controversial figure?" No. But that's obviously not the point. Canada is full of "controversial figures" like, say, Don Cherry. But the people who dislike him think he's a blowhard, not a mass murderer.

Consider CAW national president Buzz Hargrove, who also got the Order of Canada this year. He is surely controversial, both for his beliefs and for his tactics. But given the position of trade unions in our society and the esteem he enjoys among his colleagues, I am happy to see him get the award even if the citation claim that he is "respected on both sides of the bargaining table" may contain an element of exaggeration.

As for Kim Campbell, the citation reference to "her distinguished contributions to Canadian politics" is impossible to take seriously. But it is a necessary fiction because, barring a Nixon-like fall from grace, all former prime ministers should have portraits on Parliament Hill and Order of Canada pins. And you don't have to be an ardent devotee of TV newscasts to consider Peter Mansbridge exactly the distinguished, reputable, non-controversial sort who should make up the bulk of the Order. Especially since the selection committee is chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who does not wish to seem biased in the culture wars given her day job.

There's the rub. The Globe editorial conceded that as only 5,000 people have received the Order since 1967, it is the awarding of the honour, not the withholding of it, that requires justification. And in this case the real motive seems to be not that Dr. Morgentaler was an activist but that he was a particular type of activist, like the pastor who performed Canada's first same-sex marriage and received the award last year (a topic also raised in Jean Chrétien's 2007 citation). Thus the Globe editorial argued that while Dr. Morgentaler "is not a popular figure ... his fight for legal abortion and the availability of that procedure greatly benefited the health of Canadian women." Which I strongly dispute, but never mind that now.

The point here is that the real reason for supporting his award isn't that he's controversial, it's that he's an abortionist. And it's no excuse for pushing it through that he's unwell and it cannot be given posthumously. If there is no afterlife there's little point rushing to collect attractive coffin decorations and if there is, that little white lapel pin will not help him face his accusers on the other side.

Sorry, was that divisive? Well, so was this award, which amounts to endorsing his position on abortion in a deliberately offensive manner, despite the euphemistic reference to his "commitment to increased health-care options for women" (Apparently the word "abortion" might raise uneasy thoughts about what increased "options" his activism offered the roughly 50,000 girls aborted each year in Canada, or more given sex-selective abortion.)

Feminist Judy Rebick said "For me, it's got a symbolic importance that it was announced on Canada Day." Exactly. It symbolized a slap in the face from official Canada to millions of Canadians for whom widespread abortion is a transcendent horror.

If you have an Order of Canada, send it back.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]