Abortion Controversy in Canada and the United States

By Tatalovich, Raymond | Canadian-American Public Policy, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Abortion Controversy in Canada and the United States


Tatalovich, Raymond, Canadian-American Public Policy


The political dynamics and policy processes which have affected the abortion controversy in the United States and Canada offer a unique opportunity for cross-cultural research on how regimes of fundamentally unlike character cope with contentious disputes over morality. (1) While there are excellent case studies of abortion politics in the United States (2) and in Canada, (3) none offers a comparative perspective of both countries from common vantage points. The deficiency guides the analysis in this essay which draws upon substantive findings in a forth-coming book on abortion politics in North America. (4)

Though Canada is a constitutional monarchy and the United States a democratic republic, both were originally founded as English colonies. The Americans openly rebelled against British authority and created a Constitution in 1789 with great potential for a national government, but which later was coupled with a written Bill of Rights that circumscribed national authority to reflect strong libertarian values. Canada did not formally separate from the English Commonwealth until the mid-twentieth century and only recently--in 1982--did the northern nation establish a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as part of its fundamental law.

Both are federal systems, and the recent narrow defeat of a separatist referendum in Quebec recalls to mind the bloody Civil War which erupted when southern states seceded from the United States. Indeed, sovereignty issues about provincial self-government, notably a "special status" for Quebec relative to the rest of Canada, may be more volatile than racial animosities between whites and African-Americans in the U.S. But quite different political consequences have resulted. The end of the Civil War saw a sustained nationalization of American politics as the federal government gained at the expense of states' rights; moreover, the Supreme Court came to exercise a policymaking role over states through its "incorporation" of the Bill of Rights. In Canada, by contrast, the provinces have enjoyed substantial autonomy from the central government and today the Supreme Court of Canada may be especially reluctant to raise legal objections against Quebec legislation in order to avoid a constitutional confrontation. Prior to 1982 the Supreme Court of Canada held a restrained approach to "judicial review" but after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established, it has begun to imitate the U.S. Supreme Court by rendering decisions defending unpopular minorities and alternative lifestyles. (5)

On the other hand, Canada is a parliamentary government which allows for greater decision-making capacity than the U.S. system of "separated institutions sharing power," as the American arrangement is commonly characterized. And further bolstering the governing potential of Canada's parliamentary politics is its multi-party system, where the social democratic NDP, Liberal, Progressive-Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and Reform parties are more ideological and cohesive than their weak counterparts--Democrats and Republicans--in the United States.

While both nations are liberal polities, observers believe that Americans are more committed individualists, whereas Canadians are more respectful of community values. (6) Lipset succinctly portrays the difference this way: "America reflects the influence of its classically liberal, Whig, individualistic, antistatist, populist, ideological origins" whereas Canadians "can still be seen as Tory-mercantilist, group-oriented, statist, deferential to authority--a `socialist monarchy,' to use Robertson Davies' phrase." (7)

I. COMPARING THE U.S. AND CANADA

Sociologist Mildred Schwartz notes that "[a] striking characteristic of American life is the ease with which moral causes are translated into political issues." She hypothesizes that "[i]n other countries, even when the same moral issues arise, they will be treated more cooly, with less emotional fervor. …

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