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Fighting Choice

Pro-lifers pin their hopes on anti-abortion politicians

by John Cameron

Despite the rain spattering down on the dozens of white wooden crosses, signs with gruesome photos of fetal body parts and the heads of nearly 500 protestors — 200 of them teenagers — Chantal Devine was smiling when she approached the podium in front of the Legislature.

“Isn’t it great to be alive?” she asked.

Cue applause.

I’m at the Saskatchewan March for Life, the local take on an event put on by religious groups in several cities across Canada on Thursday, May 10, and Devine — a representative from the local Catholic Women’s League — was calling for the defunding of abortion services. While smaller than the main march in Ottawa — a 10,000-strong swell of people that shut down streets as it flowed through the nation’s capital — Regina’s march was no slouch in the rhetoric department.

Take the white crosses lined up in front of the podium. Wrought from the wooden frames of cribs, the crosses symbolized “regret, sadness and lost little lives,” event co-organizer Collette Stang explained to the crowd. Beside the podium stood a large sign with an illustration of a crib, empty save for a sad-looking teddy bear, its bars and rails flying from the frame and planting themselves in the ground as mournful black crosses.

“It’s in black and white, as is the subject matter,” Stang said solemnly. “Abortion kills.”

Stang and Devine were just two of several speakers from a variety of organizations in attendance: the Catholic archdiocese, the Ukrainian Eparchy out of Saskatoon and several evangelical churches. There was also one anti-abortion celebrity: Bill Whatcott, an anti- same-sex rights crusader famous for getting a doubtless exasperated Pat Fiacco to proclaim Heterosexual Pride Day (an event that made The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and got Whatcott a backyard wrestling match with former correspondent, Ed Helms).

Though they didn’t speak, there were also MLAs in attendance: Warren Michelson and Greg Lawrence of Moose Jaw, Greg Ottenbreit of Yorkton, Wayne Elhard of Cypress Hills, Randy Weekes of Biggar, Scott Moe of Rostern-Shelbrooke and Delbert Kirsch of Batoche.

Even Ken Cheveldayoff (Saskatoon Silver Springs), a relatively high-profile, three-term MLA with several ministries on his resume, popped his head out of the Legislature to see what was up.

What these MLAs all have in common — besides being men — is that they showed up just long enough to be acknowledged and then, skittish, disappeared into the rain. Why were they there? To demonstrate solidarity with the cause or just show their constituents they’re attentive?

One member I spoke with refused to comment, saying his views would be interpreted as those of the government rather than those of an individual or private citizen.

And since there are pro-life caucus members, he said, any comment he gave to the press would put Premier Brad Wall in the awkward position of having to actually speak to abortion.

Heaven forbid.

Of course, that’s why conservatives in Canada, and the religious right especially, are excited about Members of Parliament like Stephen Woodworth, whose bill to strike a federal commission determining when a fetus becomes human is set for a second round of debate in the House of Commons later this year.

Marci McDonald is a Canadian journalist who has written extensively on the rise of the religious right in Canada. She’s the author of The Armageddon Factor: The Rise Of Christian Nationalism In Canada, a book that grew out of a 2006 feature she wrote for The Walrus magazine.

McDonald says initiatives like Woodworth’s give anti-choice activists a strategy to change public opinion on wedge issues — in this case, restricting access to abortion by degrees rather than attempting to ban it outright which is unlikely to succeed.

“[Stephen] Harper keeps reiterating the fact that he’s not going to support, say, Woodworth’s legislation or reopen the abortion debate, but none of the abortion rights pro-choice camp ever believed that that was the way things were going to change here,” McDonald told me in a phone interview. “What they do believe is there’ll be efforts to erode the legal situation now, bit by bit, through private members’ bills first, as a testing of the water.

“And that’s consistent with all of Harper’s tactics on other measures, as well. He’s used private members’ bills often as trial balloons,” McDonald says.

“But as the polls show there’s more receptivity, you might find bills that will put small dents in the legal situation, to just erode the absolutely untrammeled access to abortion, bit by bit.”

Even if Harper’s protests against his own MP’s legislation — not to mention those of chief government whip Gordon O’Connor, who in April declaimed Woodworth’s bill with what CBC reporter Kady O’Malley called “the most stridently pro-choice speech of the debate” — are sincere, anti-abortion representatives don’t expect their sympathizers in the House to be deterred.

“Few pro-life citizens are surprised at Prime Minister Harper’s latest refusal to re-open the debate on abortion,” Marcy Millette, the chair of Saskatchewan Pro-Life and a co-organizer of the local March for Life, wrote in an e-mail. “He has simply reaffirmed his past statements on the subject. In a true democracy, it matters little what the leader believes.”

Regardless of where in the Tory government the push to legislate abortion is coming from, MacDonald is right: attempts to dismantle access to abortion in Canada — along with sex education and birth control, two things that organizations like Planned Parenthood actually provide — will be incremental.

Take the spin over gender-selection abortion. An Angus Reid poll released earlier this year, after the Canadian Medical Association ran a report that women in certain Toronto neighbourhoods with heavily South Asian demographics were undergoing sex-selective abortion procedures, suggested that 66 per cent of women in Canada believe there should be laws prohibiting gender-selection abortion.

Never mind that the CMA report (and the corresponding Toronto Star coverage that launched the issue into the national spotlight) downplayed the fact that the study’s numbers were only significant when looking at mothers who already had two girls, and that the girls-to-boys ratio for first children in the neighbourhood in question was as natural and normal as can be. The subject matter is, after all, black and white: gender-selection abortion was taking place, and it’s obviously a tragedy, or an indicator of a backwards and savage foreign culture that hasn’t assimilated into Canada.

And so on.

And never mind that this is all coming into the Canadian consciousness at the same time the United States is seeing historic assaults against Roe v. Wade — the 2003 legislation against partial-birth abortion, for example. Or the prevalence of laws like those in Texas and Arizona and just barely backed away from in Virginia: laws not only mandating invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedures but also forcing women to hear descriptions of the fetus and to see the ultrasound. The subject matter is black and white.

And never mind, either, that coercion and humiliation were prevalent rhetorical tactics at the March for Life. Several speakers talked about guilt, regret and shame. One, a speaker from the Silent No More campaign (which consists of women who have undergone abortions and subsequently became opposed to the practice), said that post-abortive women who challenge the campaign are “still trying to justify their decisions,” with the implicit hope that they’d eventually see the error of their ways.

And Millette told me, after being asked what she’d say to women who don’t regret their abortions, that she couldn’t imagine someone not regretting the decision.

As Salon’s Irin Carmon points out, claims of female regret — statistically unproven, although to be fair the Silent No More campaign suggests that it does, indeed, happen — are often used to push through unscientific and denigrating legal measures, e.g. said invasive transvaginal ultrasounds.

These claims, she writes, suggest women “are fragile, emotional, subject to pressure, an idea that simultaneously seeks to draw on earlier feminist criticisms of the medical profession and on essentialist stereotypes, while denying women any agency and seeking to actually coerce them.”

Planned Parenthood board member Denise Fields agrees.

“Having an abortion is not a decision someone would make lightly,” Fields says. “I think a lot of people look at it as someone’s using it as a form of birth control. In most instances it’s not. It is a life-changing decision.

“Sometimes, the regret and all of those things come into play — when you have others throwing it at you and making judgments about you.”

Which reminds me: the March for Life began with a reading of Psalm 144, asking the Lord to rout His enemies and deliver the faithful from their enemies’ swords. One speaker, justifying the ghoulish imagery of the event, invoked Ephesians 5:11, which instructs Christians to not hide from darkness but expose it.

Matthew 7:1, on the other hand, was absent. That’s “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The subject matter is black and white.