How the anti-abortion movement changed tack – in Canada and the United States
When Kelly Gordon presents her research, she begins 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 everyone says is ‘religious’ – and they don’t say it in a good way,” Gordon says. “If you ask a Canadian…they’ll say it’s male (dominated), it’s sexist, it’s anti-woman, it’s just to control women.”
But Gordon, a political scientist at McGill University and co-author of The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement, says activists have worked hard to change that image as part of a deliberate strategy to reach more people.
Gordon says one of the biggest changes has been to move away from a focus on fetal rights — think “Abortion is murder” slogans or graphic depictions of fetuses — to showcasing abortion as being somehow 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 called “Feminists for Life.”
Following this week’s leak of the publication of the draft opinion Roe v. Wade of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is apparently setting the stage for the landmark law to be struck down within weeks, some have noted the path taken by anti-abortion activists to try to sway public opinion in the United States. United – and how these 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 United States is seen as a sort of strategy to get votes, whereas in Canada politicians have really tried to avoid touching this issue for a very long time,” says Gordon.
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 divided, with just 47% opposed to abortion, according to a poll. Canadians seem less committed to faith, in general: A 2020 Research Co survey. found that 48% of Americans said religion was “very important” to them, compared to just 24% of Canadians.
“The movement in Canada is very aware that it’s sort of on the losing side and has been on the losing side for a long time,” says Gordon. “So the argument we’re making in this book is that they’ve tried to distance themselves from what they think Canadians find alienating in the anti-abortion movement.”
To that end, says Gordon, the anti-abortion movement has undergone a kind of makeover to make it more palatable to Canadians: using friendlier language, distancing itself from religion, and using telegenic women, often young women, to present his message.
“They tend to talk more about abortion that harms women. Sex-selective abortion is a very big issue that they talk about. They are able to frame it in the language of discrimination against girls and women,” Gordon says.
Gordon says optics played a big role in those efforts, perhaps because of the awareness of issues with 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.”
But a spokesperson for Campaign Life Coalition, one of Canada’s largest anti-abortion groups, says its efforts are less about consciously changing its message to appeal to more people and more about making room for Canadians. who oppose abortion but are too scared to talk. outside.
Josie Luetke, youth coordinator for Campaign Life Coalition in Hamilton, says her organization has members from “all generations, all ethnic backgrounds” and says her position has been embraced by many socially conservative immigrants.
The 26-year-old says much of her work is about young women who oppose abortion. She says she also works with “a lot of young guys who have bought into the lies that they can’t have an opinion on this issue at all.”
“And then even those who are pro-life feel intimidated in terms of getting involved and becoming active because they know they will be absolutely criticized and condemned by a lot of people if they dare to speak out 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 that I think maybe we’re conveying it more effectively…there’s nothing like it’s nefarious or sneaky about it,” Luetke says. “I think one change that’s really important to note is that we’re not (all), you know, old white men.”
Meanwhile, the organization Right Now, which aims to help elect political candidates who oppose abortion, argues that the government’s position on abortion is out of step with a majority of Canadians who want some kind of restrictions on abortion procedures, in particular late abortion procedures and sex-selective abortions. With this goal, the organization says it sees an avenue for change.
“If 84% of Canadians are against sex-selective abortion, this is the kind of legislation we should be working on, while simultaneously providing crisis-stricken pregnancy centers and adoption agencies with more money, more resources , so that women who feel they have no other options can go to other places for help other than an abortion clinic,” says Alissa Golob, executive director of Right Now.
The same poll suggested that 86% of Canadians believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy.
Some say the anti-abortion movement has to some extent drifted away from religion, perhaps due to the erosion of its prominence in Canada, or perhaps as a long-term strategy to join Canadians with different values.
“They know they can’t ban abortion tomorrow,” Gordon says. “And so they’re very focused on creating some kind of culture change – changing hearts and minds before they can change laws.”
In America, Gordon says the anti-abortion movement has made progress on both the legal front and the cultural front.
“What we see in the 1980s in the United States is the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right. What we see in Canada is almost this kind of liberal consensus emerging—passing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, back-to-back Liberal governments. So we see really different things happening in terms of the impact of religion on politics.
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