Freedom of religion and separate schools in Alberta – the case of the abortion video

I have watched the short video recording (The Case Against Abortion:  Personhood) that was played to grade 10 students in a Red Deer Separate Schools Religion class.  The video aroused much debate, principally because it went to considerable length to equate abortion to the Holocaust of WW II....


In the context of separate school education, two observations come to mind.

  1. The presentation probably weakens the reputation of the pro-life movement, since it offers four logical fallacies with no logical arguments.  Readers may wonder why the producers are offering distractions instead of arguments.

• It offers up a straw man (Peter Singer).

• It makes an ad hominem attack (associating pro-choice advocates with the Holocaust).

• It appeals to emotion not to reason, and the appeal to emotion is extreme.

Of the four logical fallacies, the one that is of most concern is that –

• It makes a false comparison (essentially equating pro-choice with the Holocaust).  (More on this in a moment.)

  1. The political defense that is offered is that the school in which the video was shown was a “Catholic” school, and the provincial government, it has been said, has no right to dictate what a denominational institution may teach as part of the work of the school.

This demonstrates ignorance of what a separate school is in Alberta.  Although separate schools are often referred to as ‘Catholic’ schools, because their electors are entirely Catholic, it is wrong to read much into the casual term.  In spite of the fact that separate schools are often casually referred to as ‘Catholic’ schools, their legal status is that they are separate schools:  they are not established by the Catholic Church, or owned by the Catholic Church, or financed by the Catholic Church.  They are simply separated from the public school system:  they are a civil alternative to public schools.  Separate schools are accountable to Trustees, who are elected by a civil election procedure.  The Trustees, in turn, are accountable to their civil electorate and to the Minister of Education.  The Trustees of a separate school system owe no duty to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  Most important, there is nothing in the Constitution or the law that gives separate schools the right to do anything more, in the way of permeation and evangelization, than can be done by public schools.  For example, the Constitution (The Alberta Act, 1905) limits religious instruction to the last 30 minutes of each day, in either a public or a separate school.

As such, the classroom teacher in a separate school is bound by the same constraints and obligations, and has the same responsibilities in the classroom, as the classroom teacher in a public school, including the obligation to adhere to the relevant professional standards.

The false comparison

Comparing the pro-choice position to the Holocaust is an egregiously false comparison for many reasons, of which only three are dealt with here.

Whether a fetus is living or not is a matter of genuine and heartfelt uncertainty and disagreement among intelligent people of good will, including people of faith.  In contrast, there is unanimity among intelligent people of good will that those who died in the course of the Holocaust were living at the moment gas was administered or a bayonet or bullet was used.

In the face of genuine differences and uncertainty, the current abortion law allows a woman to make an elective decision of very limited extent (herself and the fetus).  The law and the organization of the Holocaust was prescriptive and of universal application.

There is no evidence that the decision of any one women, or of many women together, is intended to lead to the elimination of an entire nation of people.  The purpose of the Holocaust was genocide.  To make the comparison is to suggest that women who act to terminate a pregnancy are acting malevolently and with universal ambition.  (As the Chair person of the Red Deer Separate School District said:  “Any reference or comparison to the Holocaust in order to make or reinforce another idea is generally not an acceptable method of communication.”  Agreeing with him, it also needs to be said that he might have spoken more strongly.)

A civil democratic society believes in, and honours freedom of speech, including the attendant responsibility to teach and to nurture conversations on the assumption of good faith from others, and in ways that are civil, reasonable, and proportionate.  Separate schools enjoy no religious freedom that gives them a free pass on the responsibilities of citizenship.

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