The New Face of Anti-Abortion Protest in Canada
Facing Canada's emphatically pro-choice government, young organizers say they've changed tactics.
"Have you ever seen a photo like this before?"
The question comes from Kianna Owen, an approachable 19-year-old with blonde hair standing on the sidewalk outside Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville, Ontario. She is holding a large sign that asks, "Choice?" above a photo of a bloody fetus with a small coil of beige, stringy intestines spilling out of it. Owen works for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), a pro-life organization that describes its focus as "making the killing of pre-born human beings unthinkable."
Owen stands with three other young women from the CCBR holding similar signs just off the school property at 11:30 AM, placing themselves in the path of teenagers streaming to a plaza across the street to buy slices of pizza on this bright March day. Another staff member, Pieter Bos, waits across the street with brochures.
"No," responds a young female student to Owen's question while staring at the photo.
"This happens 300 times everyday in Canada," Owen tells her.
Some students call them religious nutjobs, others crowd around and give precious minutes of their lunch hours to debate. None were yet born when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled abortion is legal in Canada in 1988.
In many ways anti-abortion activism looks the same as it did in the years leading up to the R v. Morgentaler decision. The gory signs are familiar, but observers say the activists leading the movement today aren't as vocally religious or aggressive as those who came before.
Kelly Gordon, University of Ottawa PhD student and co-author of a book on the changing voice of the anti-abortion movement, found that pro-lifers in Canada are increasingly diverse and don't fit the traditional portrait of an angry religious protester outside abortion clinics. They're young, well-educated, and using more inclusive arguments to get their message across.
In her research, Gordon observed the growing use of language that focuses on the medical and psychological reasons abortion is harmful to women. She also found some of the most visible spokespeople are now female, and that in TV and radio interviews to the Canadian public, religious justification is rarely used.
A strong part of this movement exists in the Toronto area. As part of campus groups and different organizations, they cling to the hope that they can change public opinion.
Jonathon Van Maren, 27, is communications director for the CCBR, the pro-life organization known for graphic images and controversial campaigns. The organization and its more than 50 staff members—all under the age of 30—are funded by private donations.
Van Maren thinks the abortion debate in Canada is far from finished and views today's landscape as an opportunity for the pro-life movement to make gains, even as Canada's last hold-out province announced this week it will provide abortions on Prince Edward Island. He says the pro-choice movement has decreased significantly in strength and size since the Morgentaler decision. Van Maren also points to the fast growth of the CCBR team in the last five years, and says many of their young employees are giving up careers in the fields they studied at university to work full-time trying to change public opinion on abortion.
Van Maren grew up in a Christian family where being pro-life was a given, but never really discussed in depth. While an 18-year-old student at British Columbia's University of the Fraser Valley, he watched an online video of an abortion after the topic came up in some of his first-year classes. He became involved with the campus pro-life club, and after graduation shelved plans to pursue a master's degree in favour of a job with the CCBR. Now Van Maren travels in the US and Canada speaking, recruiting, fundraising and spreading its views.
"I'll warn you, but this is the first-trimester image that we use mainly," Van Maren says before sliding over a small business-size card with an aborted fetus on the front. This kind of image is part of CCBR's attempt to make Canadians confront abortion. One campaign includes large trucks with photos of aborted fetuses on the sides being driven around Canadian cities at peak traffic times.
In advance of the 2015 federal election, flyers from the organization showing an aborted fetus beside an image of now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau landed in Canadian mailboxes. "This year we're hoping to distribute over a million pieces of literature in various homes," says Van Maren.
Abortion rights activists maintain these graphic, in-your-face tactics are actually counterproductive. "The good side from our perspective is that we think it hurts the anti-choice movement as a whole. I think it just pushes them more to the fringes," says Joyce Arthur, executive director for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. "It makes it more likely the public will just dismiss them as fanatics and won't listen to them."
Despite the jarring images, Van Maren says his staff and volunteers steer away from confrontational techniques of the past. "Nobody is allowed to actually talk like that," he says of the way protesters screamed at Dr. Henry Morgentaler. "Because at the end of the day, nobody ever changed anyone's mind by being a jerk."
In a small sunlit room at the University of Toronto, six students gather at 4 PM on a Wednesday to listen to Blaise Alleyne introduce a discussion paper called "Abortion: A Failure to Communicate." It's a meeting of the University of Toronto Students for Life, the campus pro-life club.
Alleyne, 28, has a relaxed persona and black hair shaved at the sides of his head and dyed in a shock of bright green at the front. While not representative of the group as a whole, the turnout at today's meeting is mostly male.
A father of three, Alleyne says he and others try to practice active listening, and he enjoys when people stop and have a conversation with him. He became involved with the movement during his undergrad degree at U of T, where he's now a part-time masters student in theological studies.
Alleyne thinks a big misconception is that pro-lifers don't care about women or are motivated by misogyny and malice. On both sides of the issue he sees lots of people with good will and concern for human rights. "The difference is not in terms of good intentions, the difference is in terms of what, how, people conceive the pre-born child."
Alleyne joined the board of Toronto Right to Life filling in for a long-serving board member. He says over time he has seen a lot more vacancies filled by young people, with the bulk of those working with the organization under 35. He thinks those active in the pro-life movement have grown up under the Morgentaler decision and what he calls "a radical legal situation" in Canada and view abortion as a human rights and social justice issue.
Back on the sidewalk outside Iroquois Ridge High School, more students have gathered around the CCBR members and a trio of female students speak with Owen. They are strongly pro-choice, but they listen and explain their views. The young woman in the middle, in a black headscarf and Ugg boots, tells Owen what she thinks it boils down to: "You can argue about who is right and who is wrong all you want, but in the end, who is going to have to deal with this? The mother."
Bos stands beside the growing lunch-hour crowd and explains that despite some negative reactions from students and sometimes being asked to leave, they remain steadfast that this is an effective way to engage young people. "Our goal is to show people what abortion is."
What do those involved in the pro-life movement see for the future? Many believe that the way the Canadian public views abortion needs to change first before even minor legislative action can take place. Van Maren is under no sort of illusion that a backbench motion or bill would pass into law, but hopes abortion will be discussed more under a Trudeau government.
The University of Ottawa's Kelly Gordon is curious to see how the pro-life movement fares with the current government. "They didn't have success with a Conservative majority, and this is probably the most pro-choice federal government that we've ever had. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in terms of access on the ground." She says changing public opinion and legislation in Canada is a serious uphill battle. "They have their work cut out for them."