Canada·First Person

I grew up attending anti-abortion protests. Today, I am pro-choice

In contrast to her faith community which she says made her feel ashamed for her body and sexual choices, Ann Marie Elpa found acceptance in the pro-choice movement.

I felt shamed in high school for taking birth control

Ann Marie Elpa attended anti-abortion protests as a teenager growing up in Ontario. Today, she is pro-choice. (Submitted by Ann Marie Elpa)

This First Person column is written by Ann Marie Elpa who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I was 16 years old when I felt ashamed for the first time for taking birth control pills. 

It happened at school. On that scorching hot day, I was looking for a way out of my fourth-period French class. So I chose to attend a two-hour assembly by the Campaign Life Coalition, a lobbyist organization that promotes socially conservative ideas. It seemed like a good excuse to doze off.

The woman leading the presentation described in graphic detail what happens during an abortion. She cautioned against pre-marital sex and birth control pills. Although I didn't know it at the time to be false, she also said the contraceptives would cause cancer and infertility. 

I sat near the front row, anxiously fiddling with my hands as I felt her glare in my direction. At that moment, it felt like she knew I was one of the girls who used the pills.

To be clear, I wasn't a sexually active teenager. But I was taking birth control pills to ease my menorrhagia (menstrual bleeding that lasts more than seven days) and cramps so painful I'd have to be sent home from school.

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The woman wrapped her talk by asking students who were taking birth control pills to speak with her. I didn't end up going because I didn't want to be judged by my classmates and teachers. 

The next day, I quit taking the pills much to the detriment of my own health. Instead, I kept quiet and immersed myself in my faith fearing scrutiny from my community. 

I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and volunteered at my local parish as a catechism teacher. I served on my school's student council as part of the liturgical ministry helping to facilitate religious programming. 

At my all-girls high school, aspects of the anti-abortion movement were often included in the health or religion curriculum. I learned about abstinence during health class and signed an agreement to abstain from sex until marriage. Religion class was no different, and we watched films that were described to students as "pro-life."

Ann Marie Elpa attended a March for Life rally in Ottawa in 2017 with other classmates from her Toronto high school. (Submitted by Ann Marie Elpa)

Two years later, I attended a March for Life rally in Ottawa in 2017. We were at Parliament Hill to protest against the landmark R. vs. Morgentaler ruling which decriminalized abortion

I was surprised to see so many fellow students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. We were a sea of young people holding anti-abortion signs against a wave of pro-choice counter-protesters. 

After the rally, we attended a youth conference including a concert by a Christian EDM group and a keynote speech by a prominent anti-abortion activist. We were taught how to engage in debate with pro-choice activists — like pointing out that fetuses have a heartbeat at six weeks. 

Looking back, this was something I'm not proud of but I try not to judge myself too much as I was only in high school. When I started attending university, I suddenly had more freedom to explore ideas. I made new friends with a diverse spectrum of opinions and we debated ideas openly. I went from believing pre-marital sex was a mortal sin to questioning the religious teachings I had accepted out of shame. 

When I decided to become sexually active, I reached out to the Planned Parenthood office near my campus. That was a monumental personal step for me. Within the anti-abortion community, I observed Planned Parenthood painted as an immoral organization that takes advantage of women's liberties by providing abortions and other services for their reproductive health. 

I used to often see those anti-abortion activists on my way to class distributing explicit flyers to elicit a reaction, and I was nervous about going in and unsure of what to expect. 

Ann Marie Elpa snapped this selfie when she attended an anti-abortion conference in Ottawa as a Grade 12 student. (Ann Marie Elpa)
But instead of the shame I had felt in high school, at the anti-abortion rallies, and at my church, the people at Planned Parenthood made me feel like my consent and confidentiality were valued. 

I came to realize the pro-choice movement is founded on inclusivity and that individuals could have barrier-free access to low-cost services such as birth control pills without any judgement. 

Following my initial visit, I began to engage in meaningful conversations with pro-choice activists on campus at the sexual education centre and do my own research. 

I learned how marginalized groups, including women of colour and lower-income women, are disproportionately affected by anti-abortion laws. I learned that the birth control pill reduces the risk of uterine and cervical cancer, and increased risk of breast cancer is small. The pill also does not cause infertility. 

By becoming pro-choice, I acknowledge that women have the liberty to choose what to do with their bodies whether it be choosing to continue their pregnancy, place a child for adoption or get an abortion. 

But taking this stance has come with a price. I have friends who look down on me for "straying from my faith" and developing my views. I've avoided conversations with these individuals, knowing there's no way to engage in civil conversation without an argument. 

My family remains devoutly religious. We still occasionally butt heads on this topic. It makes me feel judged knowing that women, including myself, are shamed for making personal choices about our reproductive health. 

But this discomfort is worth it. Because I've realized the emphasis shouldn't be placed on the quantity of life but rather on the quality of life — and I deserve the freedom to choose the quality of life I want.

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Ann Marie Elpa

Freelance contributor

Ann Marie Elpa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in English and Book and Media Studies. Her work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Refinery29 and HuffPost.