Niagara's religious right aims to make abortion an election issue

A small group of anti-abortion protesters in the Niagara Region hope to use this election to change how most Canadians think about abortion.
About 200 people gathered in downtown Grimsby, Ont., southeast of Hamilton, in early October to protest Canada's abortion laws. (Colin Cote-Paulette/CBC)

A small group of anti-abortion protesters in the Niagara Region hope to use this election to change how most Canadians think about abortion.

"We hope our voices will be heard and that abortion will be banned," Albert Groothedde said.

He was part, with his wife and their adopted daughter, of a human chain of 200 people in downtown Grimsby, Ont., in early October. That afternoon, two other anti-abortion human chains were formed near Grimsby, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.

"We do not agree with that [abortion]. Abortion kills children," Sarah Groothedde said.

The rally in Grimsby was organized by Daniella DeVries. She says, "Often, pro-life activism is directed at politicians, but people must be convinced in their hearts that abortion kills children ... Like this, people will demand changes."

While the protests remain small in number, they're affecting what women are deciding to do with their bodies, according to Laura Ip, a councillor for the Niagara Region in St. Catharines.

"I think a lot of women who have had an abortion in the area are very quiet about it," Ip says, "because they do not want to face a backlash, because we're in a very religious sector here."

The protesters have an ally in the provincial government. Back in 2016, voters in Niagara West elected Progressive Conservative Sam Oosterhoff to the Ontario Legislature. Oosterhoff, the youngest MPP in Queen's Park history, has called for a return to a ban on abortion.

Ip publicly criticised Oosterhoff for his position on abortion and says she received a lot of hate messages afterwards.

'They are a minority'

According to Shannon Moore, director of the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, only a fraction of the region's population adheres to such beliefs, but the ones that do, go out and vote.

"I think they have a weight," Moore says. "They are in the minority, but they go out to vote on polling day." Moore adds that beliefs are beginning to change in the region as the population diversifies.

Political scientist Larry Savage of Brock University is less convinced of the influence of the religious right in the upcoming election.

"I get the impression that there is more religious conservatism in this region than in the rest of Ontario, but I think it's concentrated in the rural areas and most of those areas are in the riding of Niagara West," says Larry Savage.

The protesters don't yet have a major political party ready to publicly support an abortion ban.

While Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer says he is personally anti-abortion, he said he would vote against any bill designed to restrict access.

Earlier in the election campaign Green Party candidate Marthe Lépine was dropped for her anti-abortion statements on social media while two more Green candidates who had previously opposed abortion were kept on. 
Protesters participate join a "human chain" against abortion in Grimsby, Ont. on October 6, 2019. (Colin Cote-Paulette/CBC)

With files from Colin Cote-Paulette