Cardinal Turcotte stirs abortion debate

By Dennis Gruending

cardinal_turcotte_225.jpg Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte has waded into Canada’s federal election campaign by returning his Order of Canada medal in protest against Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s receiving a similar award in July. Morgentaler went to prison in the 1970s for providing women with abortions in free-standing clinics and without permission from hospital abortion committees. The courts later overturned both Morgentaler’s conviction and the existing laws. Turcotte, who is also the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal, received his Order of Canada title in 1996. He is asking Canadians to consider the abortion question before voting in the October 14th election.

Nothing has changed recently in Canada’s abortion law or policy but some have used the Morgentaler award in an attempt to breathe new life into an old campaign. A few individuals, including B.C. priest Father Lucien Larre, have returned their medals. It occurs that, years earlier, Larre had been charged and convicted for physical assault against a teenager in a group home that he operated. There has also been a protest in front of the Governor General’s residence and individuals have signed on line petitions calling for Morgentaler’s award to be rescinded.

The precedent that the Cardinal is setting could come back to embarrass his church. The next time that a Catholic cleric receives the Order of Canada (or some other public recognition) might we expect other citizens to organize a symbolic protest against such an award because of the many cases of sexual abuse that have been prosecuted against Catholic clergy? Might we see a protest against such an award because of the church’s unwavering position that it is sinful for women to use most available means of birth control in order to plan the size of their families? It could well happen.

Turcotte made his announcement on September 11, just a few days before the Canadian Conference of Catholic bishops issued a competent but rather tepid document called Federal Election 2008 Guide – a text that is now certain to be overshadowed by the Cardinal’s action. The bishops in their document frame the political choices that Catholics should make under the heading of “Respect for the life and dignity of the human person.” Life, they say, must be protected at all stages, “from conception to death, no matter the circumstances” — and, as always, they grant the status of personhood to the embryo and fetus. Other instances of choosing life, they say, include being present to people with disabilities and those who are elderly, ill, poor or suffering; promoting peace and ending violence as a way to resolve conflicts; and encouraging policies that help people balance their family and work responsibilities. They also talk about a “preferential option for the poor”, the environment, and the war in Afghanistan, but their analysis is vague and their recommendations timid.

Regarding the war they simply say, “our country has a serious responsibility to do everything possible to encourage dialogue leading to peace.” While that is true, it sidesteps the more delicate questions of whether Canada should be in Afghanistan at all, and when we should leave. The war has now taken almost 100 Canadian lives and those of many more Afghan civilians. Even the prime minister, if one is to take him at his word, now says that Canada should not remain beyond 2011.

In December 2007, Rev. Paul Hansen, then the board chair of the ecumenical group KAIROS, accused the Canadian Catholic church of having  “abdicated its responsibility to speak about Canada’s largest military endeavour since the Korean war.”  Hansen said that Catholics sitting on the KAIROS board were not showing up at important meetings, including one discussing an ecumenical response to the panel led by former politician John Manley regarding Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Rather than demonizing the 85-year-old Dr. Morgentaler, Cardinal Turcotte could have chosen to make a prophetic statement by returning his medal to protest against Canada’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan; or the federal government’s walking away from the previously negotiated Kelowna Accord, which would have made major investments in Aboriginal education and housing; or the government’s refusal to abide by the rulings of an environmental panels regarding mega-projects in the tar sands.

Most Canadians simply will not support the recriminalization of abortion, which is the logical result of what the Cardinal and others are demanding.  Such a move would represent an unacceptable encroachment upon the lives of individual women. Many people, however, would like to see the number of abortions reduced. The question is how best to do that in a way that does not penalize women. It would best be accomplished by pursuing a range of social and economic policies that would support women and families. This could include a higher minimum wage, better maternity and paternity benefits, improved child care and housing programs, more supportive labour legislation and any number of other initiatives. It would also be refreshing if our political leaders would, as Barack Obama has done, speak out clearly about the responsibilities of fathers in families.

Finally, on the topic of good election analysis and guides to action, I would recommend material being produced and distributed by Citizens for Public Justice, a small but engaged ecumenical organization.

One thought on “Cardinal Turcotte stirs abortion debate

  1. so what is your church’s position on abortion ? what’s your church interpretation of the bible on abortion and life in general ?
    It’s easy to criticize others about their position.


    Comment from Dennis: Dear zvj: I am not a member of any denomination although I do attend church services. My position is outlined in an article that I posted to Pulpit and Politics regarding Alphonse Gerwing on July 27, 2008. Please see


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