Again and again Margaret Somerville is seen “gracing” our newspapers, our radio programmes, and pronouncing of moral issues on Canadian television. And, while she is, as Wikipedia tells us the ”Founding Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University,” she gives no evidence of knowing anything about ethics beyond parroting the dogmatic Vatican line, especially when it comes to so-called “pro-life” issues. And on these issues, she shows no acquaintance with the literature on the ethics of either abortion or assisted dying, and she is given to imaginative ways of twisting language to get the results that she had before she started. Her latest contribution to her soliloquy on the ethics of abortion can be found in The Globe and Mail, with the unprepossessing title “The Preposterous Politics of Female Feticide.”
She has already been roundly condemned in the comments, many of whom wonder the same thing that I do: Why do newspapers and other news media give her a platform to spout off about her latest disapproval? It’s always the same thing dressed up a little differently. Even so, it is worth spending a few minutes with Margaret, because she shows so clearly how to go off the rails when you want to oppose something in the name of dogmatic certainty. Her ability to make an argument is weak, and, whether she realises it or not, her special pleading is obvious right from the start. So, we begin by taking it as read that Margaret is against abortion, period. There is no place in Margaret’s world for abortion, and she would be happy if we had draconian laws in Canada similar to the ones in some Latin American countries, where women’s bodies become crime scenes when their desperate attempts to abort go badly wrong. Then, after the indignity of being chained to hosptial beds is over, they will find themselves in prison, sometimes for life, because, in their desperation, they sought to terminate a pregnancy. This, I suppose, Margaret sees as a way to honour women, because there would be no sex selective abortions allowed where none are allowed, and this would honour women by making it sure that, no matter what the circumstances, female foetuses would be carried to term, and then would enter societies where they could be subject to the “machismo” of many Latin American societies where rape is rampant. In many Latin American countries, for instance, rape is widespread, and yet, at the same time, abortion is is often illegal except to save the life of the woman. You see how Margaret’s wishes would improve the status of women? It would happen just because women would not be able to abort female foetuses, and, magically, women would be respected. Well, Margaret, it simply doesn’t work that way.
You see, the trouble with Margaret is that she doesn’t think things through. She has a conclusion that she has to reach, and it doesn’t much matter how she reaches it. So, she says, as though butter wouldn’t melt (as they say), that having avoided the Scylla of Woodworth’s “definition of the person” bill (shades of American fundamentalism for the delectation of Canadians), that now Canadian MPs are smack dab up against the Charybdis of Mark Warawa’s anti-female feticide bill. And she seems to think that Canadians will support the second whereas they wouldn’t the first, but that the second will take them to the same place in any case — that is, the second would legitimate the state intervening in the life of women who want abortions for the reason of sex selection, but if you are prepared to allow this intrusion, then why not simply outlaw the practice altogether? Consistency demands it.
Now, of course, Margaret doesn’t make this clear. She doesn’t argue this. It’s just lying there in her article like an IED (improvised explosive device) waiting to explode in MPs’ faces. That’s why she says:
My prediction is, they might find they’ve jumped out of the frying pan of Mr. Woodworth’s Motion 312 into the fire of Mr. Warawa’s Motion 408.
Well, perhaps that’s what it looks like to someone who doesn’t understand the claim that women have the right to choose, and no one should interfere with this choice, but there’s no reason, even in the sex selection case, why we should interfere in women’s lives. Does she really think that bringing more girl children into situations where girls and women are not valued will benefit them? See what I mean by failing to think things through? So we force women to have children that their menfolk will treat with the same disrespect that they treat other women. This, no doubt, Margaret sees as a great leap forward, but not only does it not solve the cultural problems, it doesn’t solve the problem of the devaluing of women either, and it’s hard to think why she thinks it might.
We need to come at this from another direction. Yes, there are people who have immigrated to Canada whose valuing of women is troublingly low. Women are disadvantaged in the same way in downtown Toronto as they are in downtown Riyadh. They say that some women, especially those who have been taken in by the narrow orthodoxy of Salafism, actually choose to wear the burqa, but I doubt that choice is much of an issue with most of the women who are forced to live in these completely unsatisfactory ways devised by the overheated imaginations of men brought up to view women as sexually omnivorous and unable to control their desires (a fairly traditional idea of women in Muslim tradition and cultures). If we are going to make changes, here is where we will have to start, not at the point where they are having children. Forcing them to have more girl children will not improve their status in their (often hermetic) communities. What we need to do is to convince immigrants to this country that women have the same rights as men, and that it is wrong to keep them in customary subjection to men. Once women in these cultural enclaves as people of value, then the custom of aborting female foetuses will decline, and hopefully disappear. But it’s not going to help anyone, if we simply force women not to abort. This will only make an already bad system worse. Somehow, people who come to this country have to learn to live by its values, and when that happens, women will be as valued amongst these immigrant communities as they are elsewhere in Canada. No doubt many immigrants have already made the switch. But forcing them won’t achieve the result that Margaret is looking for, and she’d know that if she just stopped to think how bloody-minded and stubborn she is about things. Does she really think that forcing Margaret to do something Margaret disapproves of would work? Well then?!
But Margaret, of course, is after bigger fish. What she really wanted was to see Woodworth’s motion passed, so that a committee could be struck to determine the point at which something becomes a person, whether conceptus, blastocyst, embryo, foetus or child, a bit like some states in the United States are doing. Then we could charge with murder women who have miscarriages! You see how that would boost the status of women, and make them persons of worth?! What Margaret does, in order to make her point clear throughout her article is to use the terms ‘unborn boy’ and ‘unborn girl’, for what is growing in the womb of the woman. But that is already to have decided. Margaret thinks, as the pope does, that we have a human person from the moment of conception. Of course, the fact that we don’t use language that way should speak volumes, but Margaret’s mind is made up. So, instead of talking about feticide, she talks about unborn children. As she says:
At the heart of the issue, they’ll have to choose between “choice” and “respect for female human beings,” whatever their stage of development or age. [my italics]
See how easy it is to blur distinctions? But Margaret conveniently forgets the pregnant woman when she says these things, and it is valuing women that she is allegedly concerned about. But in Margaret’s lexicon, we don’t need to respect or value pregnant women; we can simply force impregnated “women” to carry “babies” or “unborn boys” and “unborn girls” to term — that is, to the point where they really do become babies — just because she’s pregnant. She hasn’t learned that you don’t show respect for women’s worth by forcing women to do things, but by giving them choices over their own lives. Margaret, unfortunately, starts at the wrong place, and so, of course, she ends up in the wrong place too.
Margaret Somerville as ”ethicist” is a menace to Canadian society, and the sooner our news media realised that she isn’t really an ethicist, but a lawyer who seems not to recognise the relationship between legal and ethical reasoning, the sooner we’ll be able to have a reasonable discussion about these things in Canada. But don’t expect this to happen soon. Margaret is a fixture of the Canadian media scene. That’s because she can talk the leg off an iron pot, and writes nonsense at the drop of a hat. When editors begin to recognise that there are lots of real ethicists working in Canada, not tied to the pope’s apron strings, we’ll begin, perhaps, to have an intelligent public discussion about some of these things, but it won’t happen until Margaret Somerville learns to think, or the news media recognise that there are people who really know about these things, and aren’t simply puppets of the Vatican.