How Canada’s growing anti-abortion movement plans to swing the next federal election

Anti-abortion lobbyists cheered Ontario’s election as evidence of success. Next up: an ambitious strategy for 2019.

When Doug Ford, newly minted as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, took the stage at the party’s leadership convention last March, he conspicuously thanked one person standing behind him: Tanya Granic Allen, an outspoken social conservative and leadership hopeful. Ford spoke of his intent “to return our province to where it belongs” before making a show of shaking Granic Allen’s hand. It was a small gesture with big import that would have been missed by many: Ford’s debt to “socons” and, specifically, the anti-abortion lobby that enabled his win.

Granic Allen was the top choice of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national group that works to nominate and elect candidates who oppose abortion at all levels of government, CLC vice-president Jeff Gunnarson tells Maclean’s. It sold more than 9,000 PC party memberships to support her. (Granic Allen did not respond to Maclean’s interview request.) Ford was the CLC’s second choice. There were initial doubts, Gunnarson says: “We knew he’d lean to our side of things but not with any strong conviction.” (Ford identifies as “pro-life” but condones abortion in cases of incest or rape.) The group was reassured by a February conference call with Ford and his people, in which the coalition laid out its demands: defund abortion; require parental consent before a minor receives an abortion; uphold “conscience rights” that allow medical professionals not to refer a patient needing abortion or assisted suicide; scrap the sex-ed curriculum of Kathleen Wynne’s government. “Those were our big asks,” Gunnarson says. “Ford and his team assured us they’d all be supported.” (The premier’s office declined Maclean’s request for confirmation or details of the conversation: “I’m not going to be commenting on this,” Laryssa Waler Hetmanczuk, executive director of communications wrote via email.)

Scott Hayward, co-founder of two-year-old RightNow, which bills itself as “Canada’s newest political pro-life organization,” also worked the convention floor. He calculates that anti-abortion operatives put Ford over the top. RightNow got at least 800 supporters out to vote, he says: “Ford beat Christine Elliott by 153 points, or roughly 768 votes on the final ballot.” 

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Both groups were active in June’s Ontario provincial election, which swept the Progressive Conservatives to a majority. The CLC, which grades candidates “pro-life” and “pro-family,” green-lit 12 PC candidates; nine were elected; of its list of eight “educable” candidates, which included Ford, four were elected. RightNow supported 16 candidates; 11 won, including then-20-year-old Sam Oosterhoff, named parliamentary assistant to the minister of education, who has said he’d vote to defund abortion clinics. 

Such backstage manoeuvring would explain Ford’s bold, unexpected foray into abortion politics, long a political no-fly zone. Since the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling R v Morgentaler declared that the existing abortion law was unconstitutional, abortion has been treated as a medical issue between doctor and patient, with most Canadians—some 77 per cent, according to a 2017 Ipsos poll—agreeing it should be legal.

Even politicians who personally identify as “pro-life” refuse to change the status quo; a 2014 Conservative Party of Canada resolution that “A Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion” was upheld at its recent convention, albeit narrowly. 

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Yet here was Ford voicing support for parental consent, a legislative change that would pit him against the Supreme Court, as well as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which requires doctors to obtain consent to treatment from “capable” minors. Ford went further in an interview with RightNow, saying he’d “welcome any member who wanted to bring [abortion] forward in the legislature.” Doing so would have potentially big consequences, aside from making abortion appear a far more divisive issue than it is. Provinces control health care spending, and thus have the power to restrict access to abortion, to defund it, and to refuse to cover the cost of the abortion pill, RU-486.

The Campaign Life Coalition booth at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Aug. 25, 2018. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Only two years ago, the premier of Canada’s largest province stoking debate over abortion would have been unthinkable. But the stage has shifted. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale sits back atop bestseller lists and the repeal of Roe v Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion federally in that country, is a possibility. There is also a new mobilization of Canada’s anti-abortion political lobby, which is stronger and more strategic than ever: targeting winnable ridings and vulnerable candidates, and isolating winnable issues such as parental consent. 

The CLC, working in the political sphere since 1983, is the old guard. “We’ve upped our game in the last 10 years,” Gunnarson says. Membership stands at 200,000, double a decade ago. The Edmonton-based Wilberforce Project, formerly Alberta Pro-Life, rebranded itself in 2012 to recruit anti-abortion candidates. It also shaped resolutions for that province’s United Conservative Party’s (UCP) first annual meeting last May, says Wilberforce executive director Stephanie Fennelly. They included implementing parental consent and telling parents if their child is involved in gay-straight alliances. RightNow has participated in five leadership nominations since 2016 and is prepping for the October PC leadership race in Nova Scotia. The Calgary-based Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), known for distributing images of aborted fetuses, launched a national “education campaign” in 2011 and has expanded from a handful of staff in the past few years to 20 full-time staff and 20 to 30 interns, with a second office in Mississauga, Ont., says Cameron Côté, its Western outreach director. 

In their messaging, the new crop of anti-abortion advocates borrow heavily from progressive social justice movements’ playbooks, with talk of fetal human rights, fetal “genocide” and “gendercide,” freedom of speech and abortion representing age and disability discrimination. Wilberforce is named for William Wilberforce, the 19th-century British abolitionist and evangelical. The CCBR compares its display of bloody fetuses to disturbing imagery used by anti-slavery and anti-Vietnam War movements. Discussion of “pro-woman” female empowerment and “choice” is another theme, with young, telegenic women delivering the message. It’s a cultural reframing charted in the 2015 book The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of ‘Pro-Woman’ Rhetoric in Canada and the United States, by Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon. “We noticed an increase in anti-abortion groups challenging stereotypes in the mid-2000s, around the 20th anniversary of the Morgentaler decision,” says Gordon, an assistant professor of political science at McGill University. 

Celia Posyniak, executive director of Calgary’s Kensington Clinic, where abortions have been performed since 1991, reports an “emboldening” of anti-abortion activists in the past few years. The presence of up to 40 protesters a day at the clinic prompted Posyniak and others to petition for a provincial “bubble law” that sets a no-protest zone around abortion providers. Bill 9 passed in May. A rise in anti-abortion advertising employing graphic images seen in Ontario and Alberta met with a clampdown in Alberta. Lethbridge blocked a controversial Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform ad* featuring an ultrasound image of a fetus with the message “Pre-born Babies Feel Pain. Say No to Abortion” from buses, bus shelters and benches finding it in violation of ad standards; a 2017 Calgary bylaw prevented flyers being delivered to homes.

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Tensions were evident at the 2018 “March for Life” in front of the Edmonton legislature, with counter-protesters dressed in red handmaids’ costumes. One sign: “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual.” The anti-abortion political movement is “fringe,” but can’t be ignored, says Kathy Dawson, a board member of the Alberta Pro-Choice Coalition: “Abortion is a dog whistle, fronting a broader social-conservative agenda,” she says, rhyming off policies many groups oppose: hormonal contraception; comprehensive sexual health education; LGBTQ rights; assisted dying; HPV cancer prevention vaccine programs; embryonic stem cell research; some organ donations.

Concern over anti-abortion groups’ involvement in politics prompted Alberta’s NDP government to send a letter to the province’s elections commissioner in late August. It claimed the Wilberforce Project and the conservative group Alberta Can’t Wait “are actively engaged in political work on behalf of the UCP,” including “canvassing and organizing,” which is forbidden by unregistered third parties. It asked the commissioner to ensure the groups “are not sidestepping the law.” (Fennelly denies the charge: “Wilberforce did not violate any third-party practices,” she says.)

The issue is transparency, says Sarah Hoffman, Alberta’s deputy premier and health minister. “Jason Kenney has yet to disclose his contributions for the leadership race. Albertans have a right to know.” Anti-abortion groups are emboldened, she says: “They feel they have someone who’s going to move the clocks backwards on women’s rights and bodily autonomy.”

Ironically, it’s not Kenney but Canada’s self-described “resolutely pro-choice” Prime Minister whom anti-abortion activists thank for making abortion the subject of controversy again. Justin Trudeau’s 2014 edict as Liberal leader that all candidates must support a women’s right to choose put abortion in headlines for weeks, Gunnarson says. So did the party’s blocking of Conservative MP Rachael Harder as chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women due to her anti-abortion views, and its call for groups applying for funding to “attest” that their core mandates respect “reproductive rights.”

McGill’s Gordon studied media coverage of Trudeau’s 2014 edict: “Most was critical, even from columnists generally sympathetic to the abortion rights movement,” she says. “There’s this idea that he shouldn’t be dictatorial.” That was sort of a win for the movement, she says: “It had very little to do with abortion, but there was a feeling anti-abortion MPs should have their say. It makes them look like a persecuted minority being censored.” Gunnarson speaks of the attestation furor: “Secretly, I think pro-life people loved it because media had to express unhappiness with it.”

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Conservative Party delegate Alissa Golob at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Saturday, August 25, 2018. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

In January, RightNow co-founder Alissa Golob moved from Ottawa to Calgary to strategize for the 2019 federal election, and the provincial one in Alberta. One campaign, #50ForLife, identifies federal ridings that are potentially winnable by anti-abortion candidates. “Half are out west,” the 31-year-old says. These include Edmonton Mill Woods, currently held by Liberal MP Amarjeet Sohi, minister for natural resources. A video posted on RightNow’s Facebook page notes Sohi won by 80 votes in 2015 (Elections Canada data says 92 votes): “Two pro-life volunteers would have made the difference between Sohi [winning] and a pro-life candidate winning.” 

Electing Kenney as a “pro-life premier” is another goal. As a Conservative MP, Kenney was vocally anti-abortion; as UCP leader he has said he’s not going to legislate on abortion. Posyniak is skeptical: “He’s under a lot of internal pressure to do otherwise,” she says, noting UCP members refused to debate the Bill 9 “bubble law” and walked out on the vote: “It was disturbing and chilling to watch.” Kenney says he’ll “respect the grassroots,” says Fennelly, noting 79 per cent of UCP membership supports parental consent.

Golob and RightNow co-founder Scott Hayward, who worked together at the CLC, saw a need for a new national anti-abortion political group after the 2015 federal election swept the Liberals to majority; anti-abortion MPs were halved in number from 80 to approximately 40. Trudeau was a mobilizing factor, says Golob, who organized a cross-country #No2Trudeau campaign with the CCBR in 2015 “to revitalize the base.” Its bus featured Trudeau’s face with a red slash through it. 

Hayward, an accountant whom Golob jokingly compares to The Matrix’s messianic Neo, sees the challenge as a numbers game. Recruitment is a priority, be it on social media or on the street; Golob signed up hundreds at Calgary’s Southside Victory Church in June. Changing cultural attitudes toward abortion is also a battle played out linguistically, seen in anti-abortion groups’ use of “pre-born,” implying the eventuality of birth, not “unborn.” The anti-abortion movement talks of a “28- to 30-year plan,” Gordon says. “It’s about changing the culture to change the laws.” 

Golob, who grew up in a religious home and attended her first anti-abortion rally at 12, represents its new face: an eloquent woman who argues that “abortion culture” denies women “choice” by pressuring them to abort, and does it with the sort of certitude that makes her a natural for CBC panels. Abortion is “anti-woman,” Golob says: “It tells women that having children is a weakness, that what makes them unique is a problem.” Equal pay, flex time and proper child care are needed, she says, so women don’t need to choose between being parents and having a career: “If women were given viable alternatives, the abortion rate would be less.” 

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“Gender-based” abortion or “gendercide”—terminating pregnancies involving girls—as a tool of misogyny is another talking point. “Sex selection is common in the West to undermine equality,” Golob says. (Canadian Institute of Health Information data, however, indicates that fewer than two per cent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, when gender-determination ultrasounds typically take place.) 

“I think it’s really important for women to have all the facts about their pregnancies, and to be part of the decision,” Golob says. That decision is whether to keep the baby or give it up for adoption. No circumstances, even rape or incest, justify abortion, Golob says: “I don’t believe the child should be punished for the crimes of the father. Or that the child should be put to death and the rapist get a couple of years in prison.” Abortion is traumatic to women, she says: “Stories of women who have an abortion after a sexual assault indicate that they may feel as if they were being raped all over again.” 

“Twenty years ago, women who got abortions were branded as evil,” says Gordon. “Now they’re portrayed as victims needing protection, prone to suicide and depression.” It’s a paternalistic sentiment expressed in RightNow’s motto: “Protecting women and children in Canada.” RightNow is the first Canadian anti-abortion organization to knock on doors between election cycles, Golob says, noting the group uses it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that Canada has no abortion law: “We usually use the ‘late-term abortion’ issue as our opening statement to see where people stand,” she says. “Most people believe there are legal restrictions and are flabbergasted to learn that there aren’t.” 

Ipsos’s 2017 poll indicates that just over half (53 per cent) of Canadians said abortion should be permitted whenever a woman wants it; one in four (24 per cent) favour some limits. “Late-term” abortion is a wedge issue in the U.S., says Frédérique Chabot, director of health promotion at Ottawa-based Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights: “The line is that you can get an abortion until the day you give birth, which is incorrect.” Like any medical procedure, guidelines apply. Canadian abortion clinics not affiliated with a hospital don’t perform abortions past 20 weeks. Close to 90 per cent are performed by 12 weeks, with only 0.6 per cent of abortions occurring after 21 weeks, usually involving a medical emergency.

The lack of an abortion law is also framed as anti-human rights, as seen on a billboard erected by Ottawa-based advocacy group We Need a Law: “Three countries offer NO PROTECTION for pre-born children. North Korea. China. Canada.” Gunnarson wants abortion criminalized—“set back to where [the decision] was before the three-doctor panel,” he says, a reference to the 1969 law that legalized abortions approved by a committee of doctors, on the grounds that it was necessary for the woman’s physical or mental well-being. 

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Yet restricting abortion doesn’t reduce its occurrence, according to a 2018 report by the Guttmacher Institute; it only makes procuring one more dangerous. For its part, Wilberforce is focusing on advocating for parental consent, which Fennelly calls a “winning issue,” citing Ford’s success. “Enforcing parental consent is a good example of how access for entire populations can be curtailed without outlawing abortion or closing down clinics,” Chabot says. “Experts who work with youth say their No. 1 priority when it comes to their health, especially sexual or reproductive health care, is privacy and confidentiality.” U.S. legislation—age of consent laws, mandatory waiting periods, forced ultrasounds—show how access to an otherwise legal procedure can be chipped away, Chabot says. “Progress is not linear.” 

Tanya Granic Allen, a social conservative and outspoken opponent of the province’s sex education curriculum, has been taken off the PC ballot in Mississauga Centre just over a month before Ontarians go to the polls. Allen, then an Ontario PC leadership candidate, arrives to participate in a debate in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (Justin Tang/CP)

 A cultural divide between the U.S. and Canada has been laid bare in attitudes to abortion, Gordon says. Enshrining fetal legal rights via “personhood laws” has succeeded in the U.S., but not in Canada, where legal rights are assigned to a human being after birth, she says, adding that religious arguments have little sway here. Where the Canadian anti-abortion movement has won the most sympathy and traction in the past 10 years is through its use of the “freedom of speech” argument, she says. Ford framed his pledge to allow MPPs to craft bills on abortion as a free-speech issue: “I am not here to muzzle people,” he told RightNow. Kenney made a similar point in a 2013 interview with the Daily Caller, the far-right American website. If elected, he’d allow free votes on “contentious social issues” like abortion, he said: “A party leader has no business dictating conscience votes.” 

Despite the cultural divide, Canadian anti-abortion political groups often coordinate with groups south of the border. Gunnarson travels to the U.S. several times a year for “leadership meetings” and says they share tactics. According to Côté, the CCBR takes 20 to 30 young Canadians to Florida during spring reading week for training. RightNow has received support and training from the Leadership Institute, a right-wing U.S. training organization funded by groups affiliated with the Koch Brothers donor network—“along with hundreds of other people,” Golob points out. What happens in the U.S. doesn’t affect Canada, for the most part, Gunnarson notes, though an overturn of Roe v Wade could have a big impact here: “It would motivate pro-life people to rally their troops and make something happen.”

The fact that abortion was a top-line topic at last month’s Conservative Party of Canada’s policy conference in Halifax is another measure of shifting political sentiment. Delegates walking into the main hall passed the CLC’s table and poster: “2018: 46 pro-life MPs. 2019 goals: 170 pro-life MPs.” RightNow hosted a “Life of the Party” hospitality suite and coordinated with We Need A Law and the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association “to ensure that we had young, female, pro-life speakers in the breakout session and the plenary sessions,” Hayward wrote on RightNow’s website. They also provided speakers with prepared texts, helping them to inject their own voices. 

Article 65, which would have deleted the motion dictating that the party will not legislate on abortion, was defeated 53 to 47. It was the first time it was discussed at a convention, says Golob. Hayward ran the numbers: “If 106 extra pro-life delegates attended the convention, then the policy would have passed by a margin of 807-806.” Still, both express satisfaction with the proceedings. “There is no question that the Conservative Party of Canada is far more pro-life after the policy convention than beforehand,” Hayward wrote. Gunnarson calls it “a great success” with nine “pro-life, pro-family, pro-free speech resolutions” passed. These included a ban on funding abortions through maternal and child health aid; condemning compelled speech, promoted as a vote against legislation that extended human rights protections to transgender people; and a pledge to exclude physician-assisted dying from a national palliative care strategy. 

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Policies embraced by the federal Conservatives are theoretical, of course. They’re not in power. Ford, who plays by his own rules, is. Golob sums up the new Ontario status quo proudly: “There are now more pro-life MPPs than [there are] MPPs in the entire Liberal caucus.” As a raw number, it’s small. But it’s the momentum that supporters and critics alike are noting—in celebratory tones or ominous ones—as a reason to shake off complacency.


Editor’s Note: This story has been amended to provide more detail on Lethbridge’s decision to block a Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform advertisement.

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