07/13/2019 10:39 EDT | Updated 08/01/2019 20:35 EDT

Will 'Unplanned''s Brand Of Anti-Abortion Activism Work In Canada?

There are cultural differences between anti-abortion movements in Canada and in the U.S.

Unplanned movie
A scene from "Unplanned," which is playing in Canada for one  

Unplanned,” the anti-abortion movie that the Ottawa Citizen characterized as “useless propaganda” and that the Globe and Mail called “a disgusting piece of propaganda that may endanger the health of women,” started screening in Canada on Friday, and will run for a grand total of one week in 60 theatres across the country.

The film was successful in the U.S. and has drawn mixed responses here prior to its opening. Will it have an impact in Canada?

Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, says it’s important to stay aware of anything intended as an assault on women’s rights — particularly given that we’re only a few months away from a federal election.

“The anti-choice movement fully intends to use this movie as a springboard for re-opening the debate, not just in the media but in parliament,” she told HuffPost Canada. “Ultimately, they want to re-criminalize abortion. That’s the goal.”

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press
Counter-protesters at the anti-abortion March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9, 2019.

In a webinar with supporters earlier this month about the movie’s Canadian release, which can be viewed on Facebook, Abby Johnson, whose book inspired the movie, said she hopes the movie has an impact.

“We are moving forward to start draining abortion facilities and hospitals in Canada of your abortion workers, and getting them on the path to healing and getting them into a relationship with Christ,” Johnson said.

But overall, Arthur thinks it’s unlikely that the movie will sway very many people who don’t already oppose abortion.

“I don’t think the anti-choice movement has the power to actually do much,” she said. “I’m more worried about the atmosphere being changed to the extent that suddenly it’s OK to discuss abortion rights with the idea that they can be challenged.

“We’re past that in Canada — we’re way past that.”

Canada might be more susceptible to a cultural rather than a political attack: expert

Unlike in the U.S., the immediate goal for opponents of abortion in Canada probably isn’t to change the laws, says Jessica Shaw, a University of Calgary Social Work professor who serves on the board of directors for Women Help Women. What anti-abortion activists in Canada want to do is to change the culture.

“There has been a shift in activism where anti-abortion activists are no longer trying to make abortion illegal, they’re trying to make abortion unthinkable,” she told HuffPost Canada. “That’s actually an important distinction, because when something is unthinkable, anyone who’s looking for an abortion or providing an abortion becomes a social deviant.” 

Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images
Progressive Conservative MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook, Sam Oosterhoff, takes questions at Queen's Park. During an anti-abortion rally in Toronto, he said he wanted to make abortion "unthinkable."

Shaw’s major concern, she said, “is not so much about legal changes, but about the culture shift.”

“Unthinkable” was the word used by Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff in May, when he attended an anti-abortion protest in Toronto, the city’s first-ever March for Life.

“We pledge to fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime,” he said.

Two other Progressive Conservative Ontario MPPS, Christina Mitas and Will Bouma, were also at the rally. When the NDP questioned Ontario’s PC premier Doug Ford about his own views about abortion, he twice deferred to the energy minister, who responded by talking about the carbon tax.

Watch: Doug Ford dodges abortion question by tapping minister to talk about the carbon tax. Story continues after video.

To Shaw, the word “unthinkable” implies “a cycle of stigma and shame, which ultimately leads to shifting social norms.”

The changing face of Canada’s anti-abortion movement

One of the ways the anti-abortion movement shifts social norms is by updating its messaging — something they’ve been doing quite a bit in the last few years.

A Maclean’s piece from last fall profiled the changing face of Canada’s anti-abortion movement, which is deliberately trying to skew younger and more female. 

An article in Flare, too, detailed the movement’s adoption of feminist language, like describing their activities as “pro-woman.” The article cited people on both sides of the issue who pointed out that teens and twenty-somethings are increasingly flocking to the anti-abortion movement.

Josie Luetke, community outreach coordinator for the anti-abortion group Campaign for Life Coalition, told the outlet that “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.” 

That framing is “deceptive,” Arthur says — her experience of anti-abortion spaces is that they tend to skew “traditional, moralistic, paternalistic.” But she adds that in a strange way, that language is almost encouraging — it indicates that anti-choice activists understand that it’s “right” to be on the side of women.

“They adopt this language so they can appear progressive,” she said. “It really speaks to the prestige and reputation of feminism, and of human rights.”

A legal challenge seems unlikely for now

In a statement, Arthur called the film’s stated goal of changing the law “a non-starter,” given that in Canada, “women and transgender people have a Charter right to abortion based on their rights to bodily autonomy and equality.”

She does, however, worry that the movie could cause harm to abortion providers.

In the months leading up to October’s federal election, as social issues like immigration take centre stage, it will be worth noting if — or how — candidates address abortion rights. 

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has said he would be willing to re-open the abortion debate. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has said he would not re-open the debate, but is still the preferred candidate of Right Now, a group that aims to elect anti-abortion politicians. (They ranked his “pro-life voting record” at 100 per cent.)

Abortion regulation was discussed at last summer’s Conservative Party Convention, leading Campaign Life Coalition to boast about their wins.

Still, a majority of Canadians — 77 per cent — support abortion rights, according to a 2017 Ipsos poll.

And Arthur said she was surprised by the response to the movie — many grassroots protests of theatres showing “Unplanned” popped up around the country, which she hadn’t expected. “It’s energizing to see this kind of momentum and anger and passion from the pro-choice side,” she said.

“We can show the anti-choice movement and the Conservatives and whoever else is listening that we’re strong and we’re not going to take this shit.”

Shaw says she doesn’t see a legal challenge as imminent, but that the incremental cultural change could potentially lead Canada there further down the road.

“There are very well-funded, well-versed groups and individuals in Canada who are working to make sure that this is not a done issue,” she said.

“I think Canadians would be naive to think that there are not concerted efforts to make abortion illegal in Canada.”

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