When Kelly Gordon presents her research, she starts by asking her audience a question.
“What’s the first thing you think of when I say ‘anti-abortion activist?’”
The answers tend to be the same.
“The first thing that everybody says is ‘religious’ — and they’re not saying it in a good way,” Gordon says. “If you ask a Canadian … they’re going to say it’s male (dominated), it’s sexist, it’s anti-woman, it’s just about controlling women.”
But Gordon, a political scientist at McGill University and co-author of The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement, says activists have been working hard to alter that image as part of a deliberate strategy to reach more people.
Gordon says one of the biggest changes has been a move away from emphasis on fetal rights — think “Abortion is murder” slogans or graphic depictions of fetuses — to framing abortion as somehow being anti-feminist and something that harms women. Gordon cited a recent March for Life event in the nation’s capital, where there were women holding signs saying “I regret abortion,” as well as a group named “Feminists for life.”
Following this week’s leaked release of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade draft opinion, which seemingly sets the stage for the landmark law to be overturned in a matter of weeks, some have noted the path anti-abortion activists have taken to try to sway public opinion in the United States — and how such efforts have played out differently in Canada, due to the distinct political reality and religious landscape here.
“Abortion on both sides of the debate in the U.S. is considered kind of a vote-getting strategy. whereas in Canada, politicians have really tried to avoid touching this issue for a very long time,” Gordon says.
In the United States, opposition to abortion is most common among conservative Christians, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Protestants and Mormons. One of the most vocal opponents is the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion in all circumstances. But American Catholics themselves are split, with only 47 per cent opposed to abortion, according to one survey. Canadians appear less attached to faith, generally speaking: A 2020 survey by Research Co. found that 48 per cent of Americans said religion is “very important” to them, compared to only 24 per cent of Canadians.
“The movement in Canada is very aware that they’re kind of on the losing side of this and have been on the losing side for a long time,” Gordon says. “So the argument that we make in that book is that they’ve tried to distance themselves from what they think Canadians find alienating about the anti-abortion movement.”
To this end, Gordon says, the anti-abortion movement has been given a kind of makeover to make it more palatable to Canadians: using friendlier language, distancing itself from religion, and using telegenic, often young women to present its message.
“They tend to talk more about abortion harming women. Sex-selective abortion is a really big issue that they talk about. They’re able to frame it in the language of discrimination against girls and women,” Gordon says.
Gordon says optics have been a significant part of such efforts, perhaps due to the realization of the problems with having a man telling women what to do with their bodies.
“So now, for example, you’ll never see a male anti-abortion activist on TV.”
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But a spokesperson for Campaign Life Coalition, one of the more prominent anti-abortion groups in Canada, says its efforts are less about consciously altering its message to appeal to more people than making space for Canadians who are opposed to abortion but too scared to speak out.
Josie Luetke, a youth co-ordinator for Campaign Life Coalition in Hamilton, says her organization has members of “all generations, all ethnic backgrounds” and says its position has been embraced by many socially conservative immigrants.
The 26-year-old says much of her work is with young women who are opposed to abortion. She says she also works with “a lot of young guys who bought the lies that they can’t have an opinion on this issue at all.”
“And then also even those that are pro-life feel intimidated in terms of getting involved and getting active because they know that they will be absolutely criticized and condemned by a lot of people if they dare to talk about it,” Luetke says.
Luetke says the organization’s goal is to make abortion not only illegal, but “unthinkable.”
“The philosophy is the same. It’s just I think maybe we’re conveying it in a more effective ways … there’s nothing like nefarious or devious about it,” Luetke says. “I think one change that is really important to note is that we’re not (all), you know, old white males.”
Meanwhile, the organization Right Now, which aims to help elect political candidates who are opposed to abortion, argues the government’s position on abortion is out of step with a majority of Canadians who want some kind of restriction on abortion procedures, especially late-term and sex-selective abortions. With that goal, the organization says it sees an avenue for change.
“If 84 per cent of Canadians are against selective abortion, that’s the type of legislation we should be working on, while simultaneously providing crisis pregnancy centres and adoption agencies with more money, more resources, so that women who feel they have no other options can go to other places to get help other than an abortion clinic,” says Alissa Golob, executive director of Right Now.
The same poll suggested that 86 per cent of Canadians believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy.
Some say the anti-abortion movement has, to some extent, distanced itself from religion, perhaps in alignment with the erosion of its importance in Canada, or maybe as a long-term strategy to reach Canadians with different values.
“They know that they’re not going to be able to ban abortion tomorrow,” Gordon says. “And so they’re very focused on creating some kind of a culture change — changing hearts and minds before they can change laws.”
In America, Gordon says the anti-abortion movement has been making gains both on the legal front and cultural front.
“What we see in the 1980s in the U.S. is the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right. What we see in Canada is almost this kind of liberal consensus emerge — the passing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, consecutive Liberal governments. So we’re seeing really different things happening in terms of kind of the impact of religion on politics.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh
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