Day 6

Canada's anti-abortion movement is rebranding — and pushing for political impact

Canadians might think Alabama's and Georgia's restrictive abortion laws could never happen at home, but Maclean's columnist Anne Kingston says Canada's anti-abortion movement is rebranding and becoming more politically organized.

Alabama is not as far as you think, says Maclean's columnist Anne Kingston

Anti-abortion protesters rally near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia, Friday, May 10, 2019. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

No elected political leader in Canada seems willing to re-open the conversation around abortion, but as laws banning the procedure take hold in the United States, some are worried the same could happen north of the border.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill Wednesday that would ban virtually all abortions in the state, including in cases of rape and incest. 

Anne Kingston, a columnist for Maclean's magazine, reported on the growing anti-abortion movement in Canada last year.

Despite widespread support for abortion access in this country, the small but growing group of anti-abortion activists are now younger and they protest with progressive rhetoric. No longer do they talk about reproductive rights, instead favouring more universal human rights terminology.

They're also well-organized, taking stock of politicians and ridings that may be sympathetic to their anti-abortion cause.

What we're seeing is a desire to completely limit access to abortion. The people I've talked to ... they want to shut it down completely.- Anne Kingston, columnist for Maclean's magazine

Kingston spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what she uncovered in her reporting. Here is part of that conversation.

Why do you think this debate is returning to Canadian politics?

I'd be careful about calling it a debate because that's one of the words, actually, that the anti-abortion lobby likes to use to make it sort of seem like a polarized conversation when, in fact, most Canadians are pretty happy with the status quo. They actually don't want to reopen the debate.

But what we're seeing is a sort of momentum among these very well-organized, politically-savvy groups that are re-branding sort of the whole abortion conversation, as it were, and also very actively trying to elect "pro-life candidates" at every level, from the school boards all the way up to MPs.

And ... they've made great inroads as we've seen in Ontario and Alberta because they were very active in electing both of those premiers.

Anti-abortion protestors have protested at P.E.I. high schools during lunch hours with graphic signs. (Laura Meader/CBC)

If the goal of the movement is to go back to the days before the Supreme Court made their decision on R v. Morgentaler, what are they doing to achieve that?

I would think that they even want to go further back than that because we did have an abortion law in '69 that [the] Morgentaler decision overturned, decriminalizing it and basically making it a procedure between a woman and her doctor.

So what we're seeing is a desire to completely limit access to abortion. The people I've talked to, when I investigated the movement last year, they do not want any access to abortion. They want to shut it down completely.

That seems like it's an unlikely thing, but you can change regulations around abortion because it's regulated through the provinces; every province is different, we already know that. What evidence in your reporting have you found that they've been successful in changing regulations?

At this stage we haven't seen any change in regulation at all. However, it's very clear as I mentioned these groups were very active in both the Ontario and the Alberta elections. And they will be active very active in the federal election coming.

How is the face of this movement in Canada different than how it looked 30 years ago?

It's radically different. We're not seeing any old white guys out in front. We're seeing articulate younger women who are employing the language of the left, interestingly.

They're talking about freedom of expression — that's a very big deal — [and] human rights. The term fetal genocide is used a lot, and also the language of feminism, interestingly, which requires a few kind of mental gymnastics to understand.

But the point is that abortion is harmful for women — that women in a pro-abortion culture are not being given a choice, they're being judged for having a child — and that abortion potentially kills fetuses that could be female. So it's anti-woman.

It's an interesting reframing and it's been quite successful in that regard because these groups are recruiting younger members, for sure. The idea is to completely reframe this conversation and take it out of the sphere of reproductive rights, which is sort of the '70s and '80s, and make it about human rights.

And are the anti-abortion movements in Canada getting support from south of the border, either material support or strategy?

Yeah, definitely. There are links and I think that it's a topic that requires a bit more investigation. But certainly all of the groups have connections of some kind, whether it's in training — going down there for briefings, seminars, et cetera in terms of strategy — and also funding.

A very kind of new, but on-the-ground successful group is connected to the Koch brothers, who are very active in the States funding anti-abortion groups.

Sam Oosterhoff spoke at an anti-abortion rally in Toronto last Thursday and told reporters he hopes abortion will be 'unthinkable in our lifetime'. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

And how does the movement keep track of the politicians that they managed to get elected? Are they able to pressure those politicians, or do they track the votes and the statements that they make, to make sure that they're still in the camp so to speak?

One thing I noticed was just how data driven and organized, in that regard, these groups are in terms of targeting vulnerable ridings that could get someone elected.

But [they] also [create] report cards on [politicians'] views … where they fit on the spectrum: red, green, yellow lights are assigned to various candidates that are [pro-life] and this becomes a tool, I suppose, that the population can use more largely to see if candidates are in sync with the way they think.

So yes, definitely there is Sam Oosterhoff, who is the Ontario MPP, who has been quite outspoken [and who] wants to see abortion unthinkable in our lifetime.

[He] was a star candidate with these groups. He was seen as a young promising hopeful and there's no question that they're tightly allied with with candidates like him.

And if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade — or weakens it significantly, which is what a lot of people think these State laws are aiming to do — what impact do you think that will have on the anti-abortion movement in Canada?

I asked that question directly to a lot of [the anti-abortion] people who I talked to and there's no question that it will fuel, it will energize, it will legitimize their own minds.

And the other thing it will do is bring the conversation here. And that's one of the things that they're hoping for.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Anne Kingston, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.