'It's not about saving kids': Handmaids founder vows to take fight to all 'forced birth candidates'

A citizen group which says the anti-abortion stance taken by Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, and a wave of anti-abortion bills in the United States, gave rise to its formation, is vowing to take its fight to all "forced birth candidates" at both the provincial and federal level.

Citizen group now has 3,000 members and 12 chapters across Canada, Jennifer Botari says

Women dressed as handmaids protest during an event on Saturday, May 18. They are members of the lobby group Handmaids Local 905, which is vowing to take its fight to all 'forced birth candidates' at both the provincial and federal level. (Submitted by Jen Figueiredo)

A citizen group says Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff's anti-abortion stance along with a wave of anti-abortion bills in the United States gave rise to its formation, and it's vowing to take its fight to all "forced birth candidates" at both the provincial and federal level.

Jennifer Botari, who founded Handmaids Local 905, says the "fight" is against the forced birth movements spreading out after it started in the U.S. with "draconian bills" put forward recently.

She says a subsequent anti-abortion rally in Queen's Park demonstrated "we can't risk complacency in Canada either.  It has become a hidden plank in the conservative agenda on both sides of the border."

Botari said her Handmaids movement has seen unprecedented growth in just a matter of days.

"What started as three people on Wednesday, May 15 has now grown to more than 3,000," Botari told CBC News. "We have 12 chapters from coast to coast right now. In four days, we've put together a team of thousands of people that are organizing at the grassroots level. They're literally popping up...faster than I can keep track of them."

Women dressed as handmaids have become popular at protests in recent times, a spin-off from the television series, The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian, near-future tale about a totalitarian state called Gilead that has overthrown the U.S. The series is based on a 1985 book by acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Botari said she chose the name Handmaids because it's been in the press and has become recognized a symbol of female subjugation.  

While acknowledging that it's not a perfect symbol, Botari asked: "In a political climate where thoughtful conversations are reduced to soundbites the size of a tweet, how do you find one picture that's worth the millions of words the issue really requires?"

Botari said recent anti-abortion rallies in front of Queen's Park in Toronto and at Parliament Hill in Ottawa; as well anti-abortion legislation put forward in the U.S. last week, pushed her to take action.

Handmaids Local 905 founder Jennifer Botari says the anti-abortion stance taken by Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff and a wave of anti-abortion bills in the United States gave rise to the group's formation. (Submitted by Jen Figueiredo)

Georgia, Mississipi, Ohio and Kentucky have all passed so-called heartbeat laws this year, making abortion illegal as early as six weeks into pregnancy, believed to be the earliest a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Missouri is expected to vote on a similar bill, HB-126. Many other states are considering similar moves.

At the anti-abortion rally in Toronto on Thursday, Oosterhoff vowed to make abortion "unthinkable."

"I'm pro-life. I believe children should be allowed to live, no matter how small they are," said Oosterhoff. "We have survived 50 years of abortion in Canada and we pledge to fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime."

Oosterhoff was one of three Progressive Conservative MPPs to take the stage at the rally. Christina Mitas, MPP for Scarborough Centre, and Will Bouma, MPP for Brantford-Brant, were alongside him.

It's not an accident . . .it is a coordinated move to disenfranchise half the population."- Jennifer Botari, Handmaids Loal 905 founder

Botari said the Handmaids hope to have a firm presence wherever such sentiments exist.

"We are coming together and growing so fast. We have our list of forced birth candidates both at the provincial and at the federal level and we are now watching the incoming candidates," Botari said.

"This forced birth legislation is a hidden plank in every one of the conservative races, and it is a hidden plank in the Republican races south of the border. It's not an accident, it's not just a few outliers. It is a coordinated move to disenfranchise half the population."

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff pledged at an anti-abortion rally in Toronto on Thursday to make abortion 'unthinkable.' (Lisa Xing/CBC)

'An issue that marginalizes entire communities'

Botari said abortion is not as simple as a women's reproductive rights issue; neither is it specifically about the childbearing population's right to choose.

"It's not about saving kids. If it were, we'd be doing more for the ones that are alive and among us. It is an issue that marginalizes entire communities and it's felt more further and further down the privilege ladder that we go," she told CBC News.

"I am a white, middle-aged woman and we're very late to the race. There are people below us on the privilege ladder. There are black, Indigenous, people of colour, our trans, our LGBTQ, disabled, sex workers who have been out there on the battlefields screaming that they were being erased for generations. So we're late to the party but we do have an obligation to use the platform that the red coat gave us to call out."

With files from Laura Clementson and Lisa Xing