Maybe I should make a New Year's resolution to avoid spending so much time following the news, in order to help me cultivate a more cheerful disposition. Reading the newspaper can often be an exercise in discouragement, not just because of the actual contents but also because of the relative importance given to news items and the types of items that happen to be published simultaneously. We shake our heads as we note full page stories with accompanying colour photos of the Jolie-Pitts appearing in the same editions as tiny articles picked up from the wire services about families left homeless after a house fire, or death tolls from famine.
Earlier this month a letter to the editor of our local paper caught my eye. Its author, who was both a mother and a pet owner, objected to the way two different crimes had been covered on the same day. I well remembered the newspaper page she was describing. One story told of a cat that had died as a result of terrible abuse. It took up at least one third of a page in the paper and included a photo of and interview with the grieving owner. Taking up a fraction of this space on the same page was the story of a three month-old infant who died one month after being admitted to hospital with a head injury. The letter pointed out that the suspicious death of a baby should merit at least as much if not more outraged media coverage than the abuse and death of a cat.
No doubt it is difficult to obtain interviews and photographs where an abused child is concerned, in large part because of laws governing the privacy of individuals and families. In this case, the infant had been apprehended by child welfare authorities soon after her admittance to hospital, and the infant's mother was legally, at the age of seventeen, a minor. Still, there was an indignant tone to the cat story, not only because of the space it was allotted but also because it included quotes expressing the justifiable sadness and shock of the community. There was no such tone, no such space, and no such quote solicited by the reporter who covered the baby's suspected abuse and subsequent death. I sincerely hope it's because the reporter chose not to use quotes from the community, or that he did but his editor didn't. Either of these two explanations would be preferable to the worst — that the community just couldn't summon up any real outrage over a tiny little girl meeting such a terrible, premature end.
Two more contrasting articles in the National Post made me wonder if we really have reached the point where the worst explanation above is in fact the most plausible. On the one hand was a Post article about an amendment to government regulations (in response to international protest) meant to ensure the humane slaughter of seals in the annual hunt that takes place in Newfoundland and Labrador. And on the other hand was an article reporting how our current prime minister has no intention of re-opening the abortion debate or introducing any bills that mention gestational limits (Canada has not had any such limits on abortion since 1988, when existing abortion laws were struck down by our supreme court).
Just let that sink in for a minute. My country has rule upon rule governing the seal hunt (the length of the season, the minimum age for a seal to be harvested, the manner in which they are killed, bled and skinned), and no law governing abortion. Do you think it would have helped the pro-life cause if Sir Paul McCartney had helicoptered on to an ice floe with his soon-to-be-ex-wife to wag his finger at Canada because of the number of abortions performed here each year instead of because of the seal hunt? Of course I'm not arguing against sealing regulations or for the wanton slaughter of animals. I'm not even necessarily arguing in favour of the hunt itself. But it is worth noting that the hunt is in support of human beings -– those rural populations who derive a small income from not only the pelts but also from the oil and meat. Whether other industries should be encouraged instead is a subject for another article. The fact remains, however, that unborn Canadian children are treated with less consideration than Canadian seal pups.
It's not only seal pups that get more consideration. Canadian MP Rod Bruinooge, chair of the multi-party pro-life caucus, points out that the rules governing organ donation mean that even Canadian kidneys get more consideration than Canadian embryos. Bruinooge's op-ed was actually in the same edition of the paper as the previous two articles I've mentioned. A daily newspaper, both national and local, really can give us a snapshot of ourselves as a society. Sometimes it's not such a flattering picture. But we can take heart when people like Roy Bruinooge say, this time in a Globe and Mail article about the pro-life caucus, "The bottom line is that people like myself are not going to stop until, at the very least, unborn children have more value than a Canadian kidney." Now that's a New Year's resolution.
Michelle Martin writes from Hamilton, Toronto.