Graphic Anti-Abortion Signs Feel Like Visual Terrorism, But Should They Be Banned?

*Trigger Warning: This article discusses the graphic imagery used by some anti-abortion protesters*

(Photo: Getty Images)

It was a typical Friday afternoon in July for Apiecalypse Now! owner Jennifer Bundock. The vegan pizzeria owner was driving to her east end Toronto location when she received a text from the manager of her west end location: “We’ve got a situation.”

Anti-abortion activists had set up shop in front of the restaurant with graphic signs. She pulled a U-turn and headed back to the Bloor Street spot, passing the old Honest Ed’s lot and pulling up 10 minutes later in front of her restaurant. Then she started live-streaming on Instagram. In a now-viral video, Bundock exits her car and confronts a group of anti-abortion activists, who were standing outside of her restaurant in plain view of the front window, holding large signs depicting dismembered and bloody fetuses. What the video didn’t show? Bundock’s customers, who were attempting to stand in front of the protestors’ signs when she arrived, trying to shield the images from passersby as well as the daycare and Girl Scout office around the corner.  Other customers, who she says were visibly distressed, stood at the window watching and asking the activists to leave. After 15 minutes, during which Bundock continued to challenge them, they left. “People will say that I reacted to them protesting peacefully,” Bundock tells FLARE. “[But there’s nothing] peaceful about those signs.”

By now, you probably know the signs she’s referring to. Stationed at the corner of Yonge and Dundas in the heart of Toronto, one solitary (and longstanding) sign on the Hill in Ottawa and on university campuses across Canada, they feature graphic images, which anti-abortion activists claim are aborted fetuses. They’re disturbing and can even be dangerous—for many women, not only those who have had abortions, seeing them can be triggering and can have lasting psychological effects. And that’s definitely a problem.

Those signs can be triggering—and not just for the people you might think

“I would classify these images as an act of violence,” Holly Yager says. Yager, a Vancouver-based counsellor, owns Well Woman Counselling and works with women and couples in the area of reproductive health concerns. She sees women both pre- and post-procedure, talking them through what she says is one of the hardest decisions they’ll have to make. But frequently, these anti-abortion signs feature in conversations with her other clients, too: those trying to get pregnant, who’ve suffered a miscarriage or are just plain unsettled by the graphic images. “It comes up,” she says. “Definitely with those who are unexpectedly pregnant and trying to make a decision, but even for other women—it comes up. Because it just triggers people so much when they see those signs and protestors.”

While some people may think it’s misleading to talk about photos being violent, Yager disagrees and compares it to gender-based violence. “When you look at domestic abuse, a lot of people don’t consider it abuse if it’s not physical or sexual,” she says. “But it’s still abuse if it’s financial, emotional or verbal. There’s all kinds of abuse, so there’s all kinds of violence.”

For those who have had an abortion, seeing these images—and the comments from protestors that often go along with them—can be infuriating and psychologically traumatizing. Yager says these encounters can bring back memories of their loss and the trauma of making the difficult decision. Especially because “these images aren’t accurate,” she explains. According to the most recent Canadian statistics, 89.4% of abortions happen before the twelve-week mark. “[The posters] are showing pictures of full-term or near-full-term fetuses, when a lot of women that are going in for a termination are doing so very, very early in the pregnancy, so it would look nothing like the posters. That’s upsetting to people.”  

And these images can provoke memories of any past trauma in people of all genders. “A lot of people have experienced violence or abuse in other ways, oppression in other ways, and this can be another example of that,” Yager says. “You have people who have absolutely no knowledge of your life or what you’re going through, lecturing and yelling and using hatred to try to coerce you to change your mind. That alone can be traumatizing, never mind the topic of what it’s for.”

For some, this qualifies them as hate speech

Yager says a large part of the problem may be the aggressiveness of the signs. They’re in your face, a spatial and visual violation as you walk down the street minding your own business. “No one needs to be confronted with that.”

For Bundock, this was one of the most upsetting aspects of her encounter. Since opening her first restaurant just over four years ago, she’s worked hard to create a safe space for people in the community—she’s told friends who’ve lost a baby or had to terminate to drop by and eat for free, “because I know that people don’t eat when they’re grieving,” she says. “The whole way over, all I could think of was those people I had told to come to my restaurant to heal, seeing that stuff on their way in.” That’s where her rage came from.  

For Joyce Arthur, this rage is justified. Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, says these images aren’t only a form of emotional and psychological violence, but a human right’s violation. “These signs actually qualify as hate speech against women,” she says. According to Yager, 40% of Canadian women have had or are expected to have an abortion in their lifetime. That’s a lot of people who are walking by feeling very targeted—and that’s exactly what this is, Arthur says: targeted.

In this case, women are being singled out and shamed. “That’s basically calling [a lot of women] out as murderers, and it’s very insulting and upsetting.” While the term “murderers” may sound hyperbolic, it’s not. The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR)—one of Canada’s largest anti-abortion organizations—uses similar terminology, referring to abortion clinics as “killing centres” and vowing to “put an end to the slaughter.”

We shouldn’t have to classify signs as violence or terrorism to justify regulating them

But not everyone is comfortable with classifying these signs as violent. One person who is hesitant to do so is Emmett Macfarlane. A politics professor at the University of Waterloo, Macfarlane’s work focuses on the intersection of constitutional law and public policy. “I do worry about expanding our understanding of violence beyonds acts of physical violence,” he says. “I don’t know that we need to characterize these images as actual violence or terrorism in order to justify legal restrictions on their dissemination in the public sphere.”

While he’s careful to consider the rights anti-abortion activists have to free speech, this freedom of expression can only extend to the point where it starts to harm someone else. And those graphic signs? They are at the margins of what we’d consider acceptable. “Exposing people to those images, effectively against their will [and] in the public sphere, butts up against defensible rights-oriented approach to freedom of expression,” Macfarlane says. 

But that doesn’t mean the solution is to silence them completely. No one is asking these protestors to go away or stop sharing their beliefs—they’re just asking them to do so without harmful images. “You’re perfectly free to articulate anti-choice or pro-life expressions, to use all sorts of images and words to make those expressions,” Macfarlane says. “But that graphic, violent imagery should not be displayed and put upon people in public view who don’t want to see it.” While there aren’t currently any active legal cases targeting these signs, Macfarlane says a carefully tailored law—which means no general or vague restrictions—would most likely be seen as reasonable and not challenge the Charter.

Macfarlane’s not so sure we’ll get there, though. In 2016, Calgary passed a bylaw penalizing the distribution of graphic anti-abortion flyers at private residences, and in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, “bubble zones” ensure that protestors must stand 50 metres away from abortion clinics. But little has been done to actually restrict these images in public spaces. A July 2018 motion put forward by Toronto city councillors Janis Davis and Sarah Doucette is requesting a reassessment of city bylaws to prevent any group displaying graphic images from obstructing the use of public streets and sidewalks. But Macfarlane says it’ll take a large and vocal outcry from the public to incite legal change.

Anti-abortion activists know these images are harmful, so why do they use them?

“We recognize the profound impact that these images can have on those who have been impacted by an abortion experience,” Rachel Dalcin, the volunteer coordinator for the Calgary branch of CCBR, says via email. So while their group attempts to connect women with resources to combat this trauma, the graphic images are kind of the point. Dalcin says the group looked to previous social reform movements for inspiration, and that’s where the sign strategy came from. “These images are the most effective tools of defending [unborn children] that we know of, and it is our responsibility to use these tools,” she says. “Abortion victim photography shows that the pre-born child is a living human being and that abortion kills them.”

Arthur has another theory. “It’s a sign of desperation,” she says. “They know they’re losing the battle of public opinion, [so] they’re panicking and that’s why they’re trying to hit people over the head with it, and putting it in our faces.” But Arthur says she thinks these images hurt the anti-abortion movement, by dividing and marginalizing them further—as extremists. “They think if someone sees a picture of an aborted fetus, it’s going to convince them that abortion is wrong,” she says. “That might happen occasionally, but for most people it just turns them off that tactic and they see these people as fanatics.” (The data seems to support Arthur: since the CCBR was founded in 2001, graphic imagery has been an integral part of their strategy, but a 2017 Ipsos poll found that the majority of Canadians still support abortion. Only 12% are against it, up only 1% from 2016 and below the global average.)

Bundock has seen this firsthand. In the days after her confrontation went viral, she had an outpouring of support both online and in person, receiving donations to put towards women services and opening her restaurant to a line around the corner the following day. “It’s strengthened us and other pro-choice groups as well,” Arthur says of the signs.

Do anti-abortion signs really change behaviour?

Dalcin says the signs have been effective for the anti-abortion movement, at least anecdotally. “Our staff and volunteers have had countless conversations with individuals who shifted in their position or even become fully pro-life because of the images that they have encountered,” she says.

This includes pregnant mothers, who Dalcin says will recount cancelling their abortion appointments after seeing their posters. But this is a claim counsellor Holly Yager refutes. Unlike the titular character in Juno, she says IRL, the signs don’t typically deter a woman’s decision to abort. “I haven’t seen it ever deter someone,” Yager says. “No one makes that decision lightly. If that were all it would take to change someone’s mind, they wouldn’t be there at the clinic in the first place. There’s other reasons they’re making that decision.”

“But,” she continues, “I’ve for sure seen it really trigger, upset and traumatize.”

It’s for this reason that Apiecalypse Now!’s Bundock decided to confront the anti-abortion activists in the first place, and it’s the reason she says she would do it again. “For me, being pro-choice has come from a profound respect for motherhood, a profound respect for children, and a profound respect for people’s beliefs and body autonomy and them knowing their situations and trusting them,” she says. “I’m pro-choice because I trust women to know if they can bring someone into this world and if that’s the right thing to do.” She continues, “You don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-choice—you can be both.”


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