Anti-choice battle being waged on Canadian streets

Photo: Jenn Farr

The group 40 days for life has once again set itself up on Bank Street in Ottawa, across the street from the Morgentaler abortion clinic.

An empty baby carriage is symbolically bungeed to a post nearby and Catholic school groups travel from Peterborough to visit "ground zero" (as they refer to the location in front of the clinic). Anti-choice protesters carry signs that read things I'd rather not trigger readers with. Pamphlets are distributed that spew out misinformation already debunked by countless reputable health organizations. Street counsellors, sent by the Helpers of Gods Precious Children, intimidate, harass, and bully women as they enter the building. It's sensationalistic, sexist, shame-based bullshit.

40 days for life is an anti-choice campaign, aimed at "saving the unborn," where prayer vigils take place outside the abortion clinics in every participating city, 24 hours a day , 7 days a week, for 40 days. While the measures of success are questionable, the organizers claim that "the results of the 40 Day Campaigns have been outstanding with hundreds of mother and their babies being rescued from despair and death." The American imported format of 40 days for life started in this city, with four campaigns in Ottawa since the autumn of 2008, and has now spread in front of certain clinics in Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, Montreal, Perth, Toronto, Kitchener, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary.

While this particular form of harassment and intimidation tries to target women, the same groups organizing and participating in the 40 days of harassment and intimidation campaign have also targeted the queer community, sex workers, and young people wanting comprehensive sexual health education. 40 days for life has impressive organization, including co-ordinators, a user-friendly website, and many churches and Catholic schools -- each responsible for one day of harassment. This ensures citywide participation and strong displays of people power.

The campaign is promoted by the haters at Campaign Life Coalition. This group runs many hate-promotion campaigns, which currently include one against comprehensive sexual health education, and another that opposes policy like the Liberal government's Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, which according to CLC "will lead to the normalization of homosexuality." ( I sure hope it does!)

R.E.A.L. Women of Canada actively imposes their supposed "pro-family" stance by endorsing the 40 days for life campaign. This group promotes a traditional wife-and-mother role for women and is stridently anti-feminist and anti-gay. R.E.A.L Women is a cheerleader for social conservative causes and has battled against gay marriage, intervening at court to uphold Canada's harmful prostitution laws, cutting funds to women's groups, and interfering at the United Nations to curtail human rights for women everywhere.

With their "I regret my abortion" signs, the Silent No More campaign is often present on Bank Street. A project by the male-led Anglicans for Life and the Priests for Life to help support various anti-choice "awareness" efforts, they solicit tearful testimonies from guilt-ridden religious women who regret their abortions. Women experience all sorts of emotions following their abortions, relief being the most common one, and few women suffer long-term negative psychological effects from having an abortion. While I would agree that women need more safe spaces to discuss all of their emotions following an abortion, I would also challenge that there is no organization out there with ready-made sandwich boards stating "I regret choosing to parent" and it is unfair to insist that what you experienced will be the same as someone else.

"Join us in this campaign. Help us save more lives. And, eventually, by God's grace and with enough prayer, fasting, peaceful witnessing, and plenty of courage, we can rid our culture of the scourge of abortion forever! What will God accomplish when people of faith across our community and throughout our nation unite for 40 days of prayer and fasting, pulling out all the stops to end the violence of abortion"

Abortion protesters, with their gruesome photos and their rhetoric of blood and murder, disturb the peace, offend public decency, and inflict psychological damage. Their manipulative methods can shock, unnecessarily upset, and even traumatize women who have had an abortion, are about to have one, or may consider one in the future. Their attempts to block access to abortion clinics are against the law and are a violation of privacy. Most alarmingly, many Ottawa anti-choice individuals have engaged in overt violence against providers and clinic staff, most of which is caused or encouraged by protests outside abortion clinics.

As a pro-choice sexual health educator, I've received death threats, and my vehicle was vandalized with the words "there is a bomb inside" as well as "murderer." Anti-Choice groups protesting in front of abortion clinics have a significant detrimental effect on society's efforts to maintain safe and secure access to abortion care. By attempting to prevent access to abortion services, these groups launch direct attacks against women's freedoms.

To comply with the Canada Health Act, as well as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, abortion clinics need to have an accessible, safe and private environment for women seeking their Medicare-funded procedure. However, according to a new study by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, 64 per cent of abortion clinics are currently, right this minute, being picketed. Seventy-three per cent of those clinics have no legal protection against this harassment and intimidation.

The Province of British Columbia with its Access to Abortion Services Act, clinics in Calgary, Toronto, and Hull, to name a few, have recognized the Canada Health Act, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by enforcing a bubble zones/protest-free zones around abortion clinics, hospitals, and the offices and homes of abortion providers. Consistently, rights to freedoms of expression are trumped by rights to access to healthcare.

The Ottawa Morgentaler clinic is one of those clinics without legal protection. Despite the precedent set all over the country, the City of Ottawa instead has sanctioned harassment, bullying and intimidation of women by supplying the  40 days for life campaign with a permit to protest. The men in power have made it abundantly clear that they cannot be bothered by women's rights.

It is also clear that Ottawa Public Health and pro-choice organizations are under-funded and overtaxed, and without the capacity to counter this campaign of misinformation, harassment, and intimidation; they are too busy supporting their current clients. Under a Conservative government, pro-choice organizations are also validly concerned with the security of their funding and charitable statuses, leaving pro-choice activism and advocacy to grassroots organizing.

The Pro-Choice Coalition of Ottawa is a small and dedicated group of sexual justice activists. In response to the 40 days of harassment and intimidation, PCCO-CPCO organized an online petition and letter writing campaign demanding that the City revoke the anti-choicers' permit. We believe that women should not have to run a gauntlet of anti-choice activists in order to access legal, rightful health services. We believe that the City of Ottawa must immediately revoke the permit given to the "40 days for life" campaign in order to respect the dignity, privacy, and legal rights of women to unimpeded access to health services at the Morgentaler Clinic.

PCCO-CPCO also organized a fundraiser for Canadians for Choice's abortion access fund, called Bodies of Dissent: a panel on building radical support for our sexual justice movements. When abortion services are mostly in urban centres, only offered in 15.9 per cent of all Canadian hospitals, and half of these hospitals only provide abortion services up to 13 weeks gestation, with wait times of up to six weeks and judgemental gatekeepers who impose their moralistic misinformed ideas, abortion is most certainly not as accessible as it should be.

When it was confirmed that the 40 days campaign would still be allowed to take place in Ottawa this fall, the pro-choice community came together to respond to the Morgentaler Clinic's request to organize volunteers who would stand outside in front of the clinic. Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO) and Canadians for Choice (CFC) collaborated to train volunteers to provide pro-choice support and accompaniment. The role of the volunteers is mainly to act as a peaceful pro-choice presence for clinic patients, and to protect patients from the harassment of anti-choice "street counsellors" if necessary.

When I did my first two-hour shift at the Morgentaler Clinic, wearing a bright pink t-shirt, about 16 people came up to thank us. One woman just wanted to talk and another got off the bus just to come and thank us (which led to a longer conversation on sexual justice). One man also stopped, presenting himself as a lawyer and asking why we didn't already have a bubble zone in Ottawa. Why don't we have a bubble zone in Ottawa?

Along with fighting the antis on Bank Street, the pro-choice community is also fighting them on Parliament Hill. Bill C-510 is a private member's bill that would amend the Criminal Code to prohibit coercing a woman into an abortion via physical or financial threats, illegal acts, or through "argumentative and rancorous badgering or importunity". It was introduced in April by the chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus, Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge of Winnipeg South.

This bill promotes abortion stigma, paternalizes women, and puts abortion providers at risk. The bill is redundant and misguided. The bill patronizes women by implying they are frequently coerced into abortion, when the vast majority of women make their own decision to have an abortion, and abortion clinics ensure that women are making an uncoerced choice. If coercion is present, it's usually in the context of domestic violence. While purporting this bill as a means of protecting women from abusive partners, this Conservative government has shown its misogynistic colors. It is shameful to have a prime minister who believes that Canada has no history of colonization, and that women have reached equity. The repercussions of this ideology are plenty. Examples can be read here, here, here, here, and here.

Activists at PCCO are frustrated with constantly reacting to well-funded and well-established anti-choice actions. And while the Pro-Choice community is supporting those traumatized by sexist and intimidation-based campaigns like the 40 days, we are moving too slowly on dismantling the forces that drive poverty, racism, colonialism, classism, homophobia, ableism, capitalism, and apathy. It is the reproductive justice movement that takes things much further, moving us to reflect on the limits of the pro-choice movement.
As sexual health activist Jessica Yee puts it in her article Reproductive justice -- for real, for me, for you, for now, "RJ goes beyond the usual rhetoric of ‘pro-choice' to just focus on abortion, and it addresses the systemic oppression of women of colour and Indigenous women who have historically been excluded from the movement and whose realities are far too often ignored.... the very concept of RJ has allowed us to take a stand and resist the hierarchal imperialism of state manufactured healthcare by centring our self-determination to decide what's best for our bodies, communities, and human rights in a way that acknowledges where this all went wrong in the first place."

Exploitation, appropriation, racism and white supremacy continue to feed mainstream feminism. PCCO is not immune to this. Instead of actively confronting the harmful impacts of these systems in women's real daily lives, too many in the women's movement seem satisfied with good intentions, which tend to be very harmful. "Saving women" is so second wave. The pro-choice community -- and feminism -- loses credibility when it continues to solely function from a discourse of white, middle-class, cisbodied, heterosexual framework. Convenient erasures of indigenous women, women of color, trans women, older women, women living with disabilities, poor women, teenagers and queer women's work and agency keeps white feminists as saviors. And the same old pattern goes on; voices and perspectives are tokenized (and silenced), and issues much less addressed.

With self-determination and true choice in sight, reproductive freedom fighters must reflect and be critical of where and how we choose to organize. When we are invested in defeating sexist anti-choice rhetoric, we have to invest in reproductive justice in our everyday, in our every action, in our every social justice movement. Enough with the theorizing, "let's get real. " Reproductive Justice or RJ might be new words for some of us, but its practice is certainly not new. The whole point is to honour that.

Mélanie Stafford works for the Pro-Choice Coalition of Ottawa/Coalition pro-choix d'Ottawa. She describes herself as a lover and a fighter, and an agitator, facilitator and educator in matters of sexual health.Get in touch with her at .

A version of this article was originally published on linchpin.ca.

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