14 July 2014

Like father, like son: The Trudeau legacy

In 1969 the Criminal Law Amendment Act, known as Omnibus Bill C-150, was granted Royal Assent. Introduced two years earlier by Pierre Trudeau while he was still federal Justice Minister, the bill had sparked heated debate in the Commons and the popular press, because it proposed, among other things, to decriminalize homosexual acts, permit abortion and contraception, and allow government-regulated gambling. In the midst of shepherding this bill through the parliamentary process, Trudeau famously asserted that “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” and that “what's done in private between adults doesn't concern the Criminal Code.”

As a belated recognition of the intrinsic limits of government, this statement would appear indisputable. After all, a law against nonmarital sexual activity could hardly be enforced with any consistency and would necessitate something close to a totalitarian surveillance state. Even Thomas Aquinas admitted centuries ago that human laws cannot suppress all acts of vice, only those egregiously detrimental to the commonwealth. So far, so good.

However, there was more behind C-150 than recognition of reasonable constraints on government. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had already begun to upend the widespread acceptance of a normative understanding of sexuality and to substitute for it an ethic of mutual consent: whatever two (or more?) people agree to is right, no matter what others may think. Yet over the long term something that sounded initially like an advance in the progress of personal liberty would necessitate an expansive government infringing on other previously-protected, and arguably more central, liberties.

For example, does a woman have a right to end her pregnancy if she so desires? The US Supreme Court said yes in 1973 and reaffirmed this in 1992. By contrast, the Supreme Court of Canada refrained from asserting such a right in R. v. Morgentaler (1988), deliberately leaving room for Parliament to legislate new regulations on abortion that would conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, over the past quarter century many of our political leaders act as if there were such a right and that the debate over it has been settled. How else can one explain the attempt of Ontario’s Minister of Education two years ago to dictate to the province’s Catholic schools what they can and cannot teach with respect to abortion? Because abortion is a “right,” then the schools should not be teaching something that violates rights. Case closed.

Never mind that she had made no real argument, only an assertion. What is worse is that a government had put itself in the untenable position of telling a faith-based institution what must be the content of its own teachings, thus negating the Charter guarantee of religious freedom. If the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, it apparently does have a place in its schoolrooms, and perhaps even its churches, as the newer sexual freedom calls on an expansive government to protect it against those communities, now deemed oppressive, with stricter moral and behavioural standards.

Not unexpectedly, Trudeau’s son Justin, current leader of the federal Liberal Party, has inherited his father’s understanding of human rights and is using it against members of his own parliamentary caucus. In May he announced unilaterally that his party would not be accepting pro-lifers as candidates for Commons seats in the next election. Present caucus members who are pro-life will be tolerated – for now. But the handwriting is clearly on the wall: “We are steadfast in our belief . . . it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body,” claimed the younger Trudeau, echoing his late father’s sentiments.

Once again, something touted as extending personal freedom is being advanced at the expense of real persons compelled to act in ways that violate their sense of right and wrong and perhaps even their recognition of reality itself. If some Liberal MPs persist in seeing clearly that abortion ends the life of an unborn child, they must be browbeaten into suppressing this knowledge for the sake of retaining their jobs over the long term.

Let us pray that these MPs will retain their integrity and do the right thing, even if, in the name of a spurious freedom, their right to live out their convictions increasingly goes unrecognized by our political leaders.


Trit said...

The term "right" itself has been rendered almost completely useless at this point in society's movement. The word was a rallying cry for issues such as self-determination, protection from starvation, and perhaps most potently-the right to be recognized as a human being and maintain individual freedom (slavery). It has been trivialized to the point that people argue such things as not paying too much for tuition, or having sexual activities with anyone they choose. I believe it was you David who taught me that a right is proactive, whereas a freedom is non-active. We have the "right" to not be forced into slavery or starvation-and the government should be proactive in ensuring we all receive this right. We have the "freedom" to choose sexual activities, in that the government should not forcefully constrain our activities. But, by no means should the government be proactive in ensuring that all utilize this freedom.

David Koyzis said...

Thanks for your comment, Nathan. In my most recent book, I make an argument for using the language of authority in preference to the language of rights. Authority is always derived authority. To have authority is to be under authority, as Victor Lee Austin puts it. But the language of rights invites us to think of ourselves and our expansive desires as the centre of the universe.


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