One teenager's fight against an anti-abortion billboard in her hometown

"It just sucks that there’s old men who say women shouldn't get an abortion because of religion," the Nova Scotian said in her first interview.

by Hillary Gillis
Jul 19 2018, 8:26pm

Photo courtesy of Grace. 

Grace is tired of hearing about people trying to make decisions for other people, especially women.

So last week, the 18-year-old Nova Scotian and two friends stole into the night to spray paint a pro-life sign that’s been sitting at the mouth of her hometown for the past 25 years. What was once “Defend Life” turned into “Defend Women!” The sign, which bears the Knights of Columbus emblem, has an illustration of a mother and child, as well as a growing fetus, accompanying its large red letters.

“I want the sign gone,” Grace says over coffee at a Tim Hortons just a couple kilometres from the sign. “That’s the biggest goal. And I think most of the community does, too.” Grace grew up in Eastern Passage — a small, industrial fishing town on the edge of the Halifax Harbour with a population of about 12,000. She asked to be identified by a different name out of fear of being punished for defacing the sign. This is her first interview.

The Knights of Columbus is one of the largest Catholic men’s clubs in the world, with origins in charity and disaster relief. Its members defend their right to put up any sign they want. Grace says she’s not opposed to the group itself but she stands firm on the fact that they do not have a right to voice their opinion when it comes to women and their bodies.

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“All we learn in junior high about sex is just to be abstinent,” says Grace, who graduated from high school last month. “And that you're going to get an STI if you don't use a condom, and if you don't use a condom you're going to get pregnant—but that sign preaches that you can't get an abortion. But if you're going to teach a bunch of 16-year-olds not to have sex and then they do have sex, and then they do get pregnant, they don't know what to do at that point.”

“It just sucks that there’s old men who say women shouldn't get an abortion because [of] religion. It just angers me so much.”

Grace reached out to VICE in hopes that telling her story would allow for a larger public conversation to be had about women, their choices and external factors that come between the two.

“It just sucks that there’s old men who say women shouldn't get an abortion because [of] religion. It just angers me so much.”

She’s among a group of young people across the Maritimes who have taken a visible role in the fight to improve access to abortions, staging protests in all provinces, launching petitions, and coming face-to-face with equally vocal pro-life demonstrators. According to CTV News, there were rusty coat hangers found strewn on the ground by the sign that night the vandalism happened — however Grace says these were leftovers of a separate guerrilla tactic that she says was not her doing.

Although abortion is fully legal across Canada, the issue remains deeply contentious in parts of the country. That's especially so in the Maritimes, where access only recently evolved from being virtually nonexistent due to a lack of safe services, long wait times, and thick stigma associated with the procedure. Nova Scotia was the last province in Canada to require a doctor’s referral to terminate a pregnancy, and that only changed this past February. If you live in a rural area you face more barriers; the vast majority of surgical abortions — 95 percent — are performed in downtown Halifax's Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre. However, advocates say improvements to the system are being made: the province recently introduced a toll-free phone line so women could schedule appointments and get information, and as of last November, Nova Scotian health card holders were also able to have some abortion services covered by MSI.

Grace said she got the idea to rewrite the sign’s message about two weeks ago, and after she drummed up some social support via an Instagram poll, she and two of her friends went through with it.

The sign, which sits on private property and had been vandalized before, only debuted its new look for about 36 hours from Wednesday night to Friday afternoon until it was cleaned up.

A photo of the vandalized sign has been circulating online, resulting in nearly 200 Facebook comments from community members—most of them in favour of the “Defend women” stance. The post has been shared 195 times, sparking a debate over whether the vandalism to the sign was an overdue act of free speech.

“People who erect those signs aren't thinking about helping anyone,” a 27-year-old woman who had an abortion in Halifax when she was 22 told VICE News.

The woman, a devout Christian, didn't want to be identified because of the shame and stigma still largely associated with terminating a pregnancy in Nova Scotia — she says she has kept her experience private because it’s still so taboo in Christian groups.

“People who erect those signs aren't thinking about helping anyone.”

“They’re seeking to control the bodies of other people. Compassion and support and not putting up signs like that are far more loving and in line with Christian teaching,” she said.

Sean MacGillivray, who lives in Eastern Passage, says he fully supports Grace’s “Defend women” graffiti.

The 40-year-old has participated in three pro-choice demonstrations in recent years.

“It happens every once in a while where down at the [hospital], people come with these gory signs—bloody fetuses and things like that—they tend to line up on [the street],” he told VICE News. “So, a bunch of people, myself included, went down with umbrellas to cover the signs — to obstruct them.”

He has a close personal connection to the fight for women’s reproductive choice.

“A potential child of mine was aborted,” says MacGillivray, adding that the birth control had failed between him and a woman he was not in a long-term relationship with. “Having been through it — well, not having literally been through it — obviously she went through more than I did in terms of actually having to go through with it. I feel quite strongly that, as is represented in our laws currently, that a woman’s right to choice should be protected.”

But Gene Lemay, a member of a local Halifax-area Knights of Columbus chapter, defended the sign, saying, “everybody is allowed to put up a sign.”

He pointed to another pro life sign on the border of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. “Everybody supports a different group. Because we are Catholic, we support pro-life.” Lemay insists however that just because the organization defends life, doesn’t mean they don’t defend women.

“We do support the women, too. We do a walk every September for women who were beat up by their boyfriends [or abused],” he said, referring to the Halifax area Knights of Columbus’ annual “Men’s Respect for Women Walk,” which had its third instalment last fall.

"Everybody is allowed to put up a sign."

The man who owns the sign’s property told CTV News Atlantic that if he ever catches the culprit, he’s going to “take them to court.” Grace, though admittedly a bit nervous about legal repercussions, says she hopes it will still have been worth it.

She says she and her friends hope to continue to increase public dialogue around abortion and women’s choices, adding that plans for future pro-choice installations are already being made.

“I'm hoping it [gets] more people to start talking about it and not be so afraid of the topic and so afraid to stand up for what they believe in. If there are that may people that want the sign down, why isn't the sign down?”

Cover image courtesy of Grace.

reproductive rights
Nova Scotia
Knights of Columbus