Shania Nigli is ready. The 20-year-old health sciences student at Western University in London, Ont. will soon board a bus headed to Parliament Hill from Toronto, alongside other, similar buses heading to Ottawa from Oakville, Bellville, Ajax, Kingston, Walkerton, Guelph, London, Oshawa, Pembroke, Hamilton, Mississauga, Maple and more. She has filled a small white backpack with a water bottle, sunscreen, granola bars, chips, some fruit and an umbrella, just in case. But, she says, the most important thing she packed is her black “pro-life” T-shirt. It has a red-and-white maple leaf emblazoned on the front—and “National March for Life” in large letters underneath.
Nigli is one of the thousands of young Canadians protesting abortion rights at the March for Life, an event that has taken place every spring since 1998. That first year there were about 700 participants; last year there were 15,000, according to Campaign Life Coalition, which organizes the event.
And there are similar marches taking place in cities across the country for those who can’t make it to Ottawa. Bianca Rojo, who just graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor-of-science degree, is organizing a gala after the March for Life in Victoria, B.C. There will be a buffet dinner, speakers, and plenty of networking. “It’s an evening that provides an opportunity for pro-lifers across B.C. to celebrate the movement’s accomplishments,” Rojo says. This is her fifth year participating in the March.
So much for the “woke” generation
Those on both sides of the issue say the anti-abortion movement is gaining a newfound momentum, much of it stemming from the teens and twentysomethings who are educated, motivated—and ready to march. Josie Luetke, community outreach coordinator for Campaign for Life Coalition and one of the organizers of this year’s event, attended her first March when she was in grade nine. “Youth is the present of the pro-life movement, and also its future,” she says, adding that being anti-abortion is the counter culture of today’s society, where the default position is predominantly pro-choice. “Decades ago, being pro-choice was seen as being cool and rebellious and going against the social norm. These days, it’s [being] pro-life.”
It’s an alarming trend for those who adopt a pro-choice position. “The anti-choice movement has started trying to appeal to a younger crowd and I’ve noticed more young people identifying with it,” says Claire LeBlanc, a 22-year-old who, upon learning that Toronto was, for the first time ever, holding its own March for Life this year, immediately set about organizing a counter-event. “Recent examples in politics where ‘heartbeat bills’ or ‘fetal homicide’ laws are being pushed for and passed further indicates the resurgence of the anti-choice movement,” she says. “Our goal for the counter-protest is to show both the March for Life attendees, as well as the GTA community, that anti-choice rhetoric is not welcome in our city or in our country. Anti-choice-ism fights to remove the rights and bodily autonomy of people with uteruses, and we’re going to make our voices heard when we tell them that that mentality is out-dated and unwelcome.”
LeBlanc says she and fellow pro-choice activists plan to disrupt the Toronto March for Life by physically blocking the route, creating noise to drown out anti-choice messages and carrying “content warning signs” to notify bystanders of the “often-gruesome images anti-choicers display on their protest signs.”
Graphic anti-abortion signs are part of the movement’s strategy
Luetke says the Campaign Life Coalition doesn’t bring graphic images to events like the March in order to make sure they’re accessible to everyone and that parents won’t have any reservations about bringing their children. “Our official March signs say things like ‘Life, We Stand on Guard for Thee,’ or have a happy face with the words ‘I’m Pro Life,’” she says. But that doesn’t mean she, or the Coalition, are averse to using graphic images. “Our tactics are no different from any other group raising awareness about human rights issues,” she says. “You see images of Syrian children as victims of war in bus shelters all the time.”
Last fall, Amelia Eaton, a 19-year-old student at the University of Toronto’s Woodsworth College, wrote an op-ed about said signs in the university paper, The Varsity, after she was confronted by demonstrators while taking first-year students on an orientation tour.
“As a political science student, every day I encounter and grapple with views I don’t agree with from my professors and classmates, and I am better for it,” she wrote. “But being exposed to offensive heckling and highly graphic imagery on my way to campus does not make me more informed, more intelligent, or more empathetic. Quite honestly, it just makes me feel sad, scared and targeted.”
Eaton started following other students on Twitter to find out when anti-abortion protests were taking place so she could avoid them on her way to class. Although she’d heard about the March for Life, she didn’t realize how big, or widespread, it had become. “It’s very concerning and disheartening to see my peers taking part in this movement,” she says.
The Campaign Life Coalition isn’t organizing the March for Life in Toronto, but the groups that are, including the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform and Toronto Right to Life, are notoriously fond of pushing graphic imagery on passersby.
The signs are often inaccurate—but are they working?
“I have my bachelor of science in nursing, so I’m a huge advocate for citing your sources and using legitimate data to support claims,” LeBlanc says. “I get very frustrated when I see signs by anti-choicers that make false claims regarding abortion or pregnancy. I often see pictures of two-to-10-month-old babies splattered in stage blood, with someone claiming that it’s an aborted fetus.” Leblanc says the graphic signs she hopes to block at the March just show that anti-abortion protesters don’t believe the general public is educated enough to separate fact from fiction. “I think the best way to combat these tactics is to stay informed, know your scientific studies and don’t fall victim to appeals to emotion or fear-mongering.”
The thing is, fear mongering works—one need only look at the anti-vaxxer movement. It took just one flawed (and eventually retracted) study linking vaccinations with autism, combined with the support of a few B-list celebrities, to instill enough doubt in people that, years later, we no longer have herd immunity from a life-threatening illness like measles in many regions of the country. (According to a 2019 report from UNICEF, 287,000 Canadian children born between 2010 and 2017 haven’t been vaccinated for measles, and there have already been 39 reported cases of measles here this year.)
When it comes to abortion, most Canadians are, as Luetke says, leaning toward pro-choice. A 2017 Ipsos poll found that about 77 per cent of Canadians (more than three out of four) support abortion. But we take a less progressive view than other countries, including Sweden (87 percent), Belgium (87 percent) and France (86 percent).
Pro-choice activists worry that as the anti-abortion movement ramps up its rhetoric, support for abortion rights could erode the way support for vaccinations has. Just as anti-vaxxers link vaccines with autism, some anti-abortion groups link abortions with breast cancer. “Anti-choicers pretend to care about those who have received or may receive an abortion, but in reality they use these falsehoods to bolster their numbers,” LeBlanc says. “I think young people are particularly susceptible to these claims as they may not have the resources or experience to fact-check them.”
Anti-abortion protesters have started using feminist language
Dawson says a tactic that seems to be helping draw people to the anti-abortion cause is the use of “rights-based language” like “pro-woman” to describe the anti-abortion movement. Although Luetke doesn’t go so far as to call herself a feminist, she insists the pro-life movement is pro-woman. “And there are definitely pro-life feminists who feel it’s patriarchal to say that in order for a woman to have a career or to pursue an education we need to kill children.”
One of those pro-life feminists is 18-year-old Kassiani Tzoganakis, who just graduated from high school and is attending the March for Life for the first time this year. “Abortion harms women in more ways than one—physically, mentally and emotionally—and as part of the pro-life movement, which I believe is, in a sense, feminist, I look to support women’s health in every way possible, without sacrificing the life of the unborn as a result.”
LeBlanc, meanwhile, says feminism and anti-abortion sentiments don’t mix. “I don’t think you can call for equal rights while simultaneously demanding that once a person becomes pregnant, they lose their human rights. That seems blatantly conflicting. Anti-choicers value the lives of an unborn fetus over the lives of those who bear them, which, in my opinion, indicates very clearly that they are not ‘pro-woman.’”
That’s why the March matters
Luetke says this March is particularly important because it marks 50 years since Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government passed an omnibus bill allowing abortions in certain circumstances. It’s an opportunity, she says, to send a political message and to encourage votes for pro-life candidates in the coming election. Nigli echoes that sentiment, and says she hopes the March shows pro-life lawmakers that “we’ll stand behind them and encourage them to continue to uphold their moral values, despite the pressure of their colleagues.”
And some politicians are listening, which worries Kathy Dawson, a board member for the Alberta Pro-choice Coalition. “The anti-choice movement has been emboldened by the elections of Trump, Doug Ford and Jason Kenney,” Dawson says. “Canadians must not take our rights for granted as the anti-choice movement has been eroding them for years.” She cites non-legal barriers to accessing abortions, from lack of funding to a dearth of trained doctors, as an example. “In Alberta, we only have abortion access in Edmonton and Calgary and some people are forced to travel great distances and arrange childcare, hotels, time away from work and school to access abortion.”
Although we like to think things are worse south of the border (34 abortion restrictions were enacted across the U.S. in the first four months of 2019 alone), Ontario’s pro-life premier has already taken sex ed back to the ’90s and voiced his support for implementing parental consent laws when it comes to abortion.
This is why the March matters to pro-choice activists, too. “We call abortion activists ‘anti-choice’ because it recognizes their opposition to most pregnancy prevention programs, such as contraception and comprehensive sexual health education,” Dawson says. “These groups are also opposed to many other rights that Canadians take for granted, from LGBTQ2S* and trans rights to safe and private access to healthcare and HPV vaccines. Choice is already denied for many Canadians and we can’t wait until it impacts us personally.”
What’s ahead for the March for Life—and Canada’s abortion debate
As a March newbie, Tzoganakis says she isn’t sure how big a role she wants to play in the anti-abortion movement as a whole (“I honestly struggle with putting myself out there and fighting on the front lines,” she says), but sees participating in the March as one small thing she can do to support it. “The March for Life is hopefully an eye-opener to those who don’t believe how many people are actually part of the pro-life movement—and making a difference through it,” she says. “I hope that this year’s March will succeed in giving everyone who is there more fervour with which to fight the good fight.”
This is Nigli’s fourth march, and she’s now a volunteer for the March for Life Youth Committee. “The first time I marched in Ottawa was truly inspiring,” Nigli says. “My pro-life view wasn’t a popular opinion in most of my high-school classrooms, making me feel isolated and discouraged. It wasn’t until I saw the thousands of people on Parliament Hill marching in solidarity that I felt I wasn’t alone in the fight for the unborn.”
Meanwhile, LeBlanc will be standing in a solidarity of her own, fighting for reproductive rights for cis and transgender women. “I’m grateful for all the support we’ve received with our counter-protest,” she says. “While the anti-choice movement may be growing, the pro-choice movement continues to consistently rise to action without fail, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.”
The sign she’ll be holding reads, “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal.” And she’ll be wearing her own special T-shirt, a purple one with the words “Mind Your Own Uterus” in red letters on the front.
“What I Didn’t Know About Having an Abortion”
Graphic Anti-Abortion Signs Feel Like Visual Terrorism, But Should They Be Banned?
How Canada’s Anti-Abortion Movement Plans to Swing the Next Federal Election