Paul Tuns

Earlier this year, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall introduced Bill C-233 that would have outlawed sex-selective abortion which was defeated. As disheartening as the legislative loss was, how little public debate there was over the practice of prenatal gendercide. If this was a failing, it was not the fault of Wagantall; the problem was with the pro-life movement. While pro-life organizations sent out emails encouraging their supporters to back the bill and shared stories about it from pro-life sources through social media, there was little engagement with the broader public. We asked representatives of six pro-life organizations what the pro-life movement could do to reach beyond our existing circle of supporters to spark conversations and thought about abortion in Canada.

Pete Baklinski, communications director of Campaign Life Coalition, said most private members’ bills do not become law but that introducing pro-life legislation, even if it is defeated, “serves an almost prophetic role in bringing citizens’ attention to the startling fact that preborn children are being killed in our country daily by the hundreds” and that “there is no law protecting their lives.” He said the “uproar from abortion activists” to pro-life legislation “is a great testimony as to the effectiveness of introducing pro-life bills.” He said that a pro-life bill needs the “right circumstances and right timing” to “one day become law.”

Blaise Alleyne, eastern outreach director of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) and founder of Toronto Against Abortion, agreed that pro-life bills “contribute to the public debate and draw awareness to the fact that Canada has no abortion laws,” and that he would like to see more pro-life MPs bringing the issue forward in the House of Commons. But, he added, “private members’ bills should not be seen as a primary method to initiate public discussion about abortion.” Alleyne said, “The best way to initiate public debate is to take the debate to the public directly … with the truth about abortion.”

Jakki Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, said she does not see private member’s bills being effective to spur public discussion: “What I see is the pro-life community talking about it one way or another but not really much discussion in the public arena.”

Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for We Need a Law, disagreed. Ewert said C-233 “undoubtedly” moved the needle “in terms of the conversation” as the first restriction on abortion debated in Parliament in 15 years. “Admittedly, it wasn’t as widespread of a conversation among Canadians as we would like, but it was a step forward,” she explained. Ewert said that the pro-life movement should have “realistic expectations” and “we aren’t going to change the culture overnight.” What is needed, she argued, was “to consistently, faithfully push forward where we can in a direction to protecting all pre-born children by our law.”

Jeffs said the pro-life movement should take the lead on anti-abortion legislation. “At the moment I believe that politicians are calling the shots rather than the pro-life movement” because “we are being told what they are prepared to present rather than us sitting down to discuss what we believe it is important to address.” She said, “what is possible should not be a criterion for what we plan – but what is the right thing to do – given our mission.”

Patricia Maloney, who blogs at Run with Life, said, “the only way any bills might make a ripple is if they are ‘extreme’,” like banning abortion or ending public funding of abortion. 

Jeffs and Laura Klassen, founder of Choice42 (Choice for two), both reiterated that pro-lifers must be clear that they can only support efforts to outlaw all abortions — that the pro-life ethic must be clear. Klassen said that the sex-selection abortion ban was an attempt to discuss abortion in Parliament, but the public is not ready for that debate.

Klassen said the mainstream media “does want to bring attention to this human rights violation” and thus downplay or ignore pro-life legislative efforts like Wagantall’s private member’s bill. She said that abortion opponents must find ways to bypass media gatekeepers to speak directly to the public.

The pro-life leaders had different takes on how to handle media bias. Jeffs said complaints about media bias, including ignoring the abortion issue, should be taken to ownership who could be presented with the facts of abortion to try to wake them up with the problem coverage or lack of coverage. She said it was time pro-lifers “stop bemoaning” media bias and challenge it directly. Baklinski urged pro-lifers to infiltrate media and eventually (“decades”) take it over with time. But Alleyne said is a “mistake” to worry too much about the mainstream media. “Pro-lifers should be focused on what we can and must do — which is to reach the public directly with the truth about abortion” by “exercising our Charter rights to reach the publicly directly” ourselves.  Ewert said there is no reason to “expect the mainstream media to champion our cause” but that “conversations are happening everyday about abortion” even without media coverage.

Baklinksi said another successful strategy is to use the sympathetic media that already exists, “such as The Interim, LifeSiteNews, The Rebel, Epoch Times, The Daily Wire, Breitbart News, and others” – and the new ones that will be created in the future – “that will cover the news accurately when it comes to life and family issues.” He said these news sources “collectively already reach untold millions with their content and changing the narrative on abortion.” 

Each of the pro-life organizations has different ways of reaching the public directly, including well-known annual demonstrations such as the National March for Life and the provincial marches for life, LifeChain, and 40 Days for Life. 

The National March for Life, Baklinski said, brings pro-lifers together to not only tell “the public that many citizens do not support abortion but lets them know that this movement is here for the long haul and will not go away until babies are protected in the womb.” Even if the march did not reach the public — although it is impossible that elected officials, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and thousands of Ottawa residents and visitors will miss 20,000 pro-life demonstrators in the nation’s capital — the pro-life advocates themselves “certainly need inspiration and encouragement.”

Baklinski said that recent demonstrations following the death of George Floyd or the discovery of indigenous gravesites show that public witnessing can be effective in highlighting social justice issues. He noted that images of a drowned Syrian boy or images of children in “cages” have been used to alter debates on refugees and immigration. He said that the pro-life movement must find the right “flashpoint” to move public opinion on abortion. He noted one flashpoint in the U.S. was journalist David Daleiden’s video footage of Planned Parenthood representatives being involved in the illegal trade of aborted baby body parts which led to Congressional investigations.  “It’s my belief that opportunities will continue to present themselves and the pro-life movement must be prepared to use them to bring justice to the preborn.”

Jeffs said that pro-life demonstrations such as LifeChain and 40 Days for Life are good because they put the pro-life message “in the public square.” She would like to see more demonstrations and Alliance for Life has promoted the concept of an annual LightChain that has lit-up numbers representing the abortion death toll. Where it has been tried, Jeffs reports, “The conversation is quite amazing, citizens look at the numbers and ask what they are, and it goes from there.” Another initiative they are considering for 2022 is a Day of Tears based on the U.S. program, in which churches, schools, community organizations, and city hall fly flags at half mast to commemorate the lives lost to abortion. It would be another visible reminder that abortion takes the lives of actual human beings.

One of the initiatives Alliance for Life Ontario did to try to break out of the pro-life bubble was the Abortion Pill Reversal campaign in response to the abortion drug Mifegymiso being permitted in Canada, with 65 women contacting their website chatline. The campaign was conducted exclusively online. In the past, Alliance for Life Ontario has run television ad campaigns — campaigns that saved lives but cost money.

Klassen said she appreciates the efforts of people who “stand out with graphic images” because “the public needs to see the truth” but she questions pro-life messaging that does not “bring this evil to light.” She explains: “We’re ripping arms and legs off of babies and crushing their skulls. We’re starving and suffocating them to death. We’re injecting poison into their hearts to cause massive heart attacks. That is what we need to focus on.”

Alleyne said that CCBR’s “End the Killing” campaign is geared to make abortion unthinkable in Canada “by taking the two essential components of effective pro-life education — abortion victim photography and human rights apologetics — and bring them directly to the public.” In Toronto, it uses “Choice Chain” to reach people on the streets, door-knocking and post-carding to reach them in their homes, and the Banner Project and Truth Truck to send the message to motorists. He said these are replicable in every community and can either start as new initiatives or be taken up by existing groups. In Toronto, for example, Choice Chain was launched by University of Toronto Students for Life, Campaign Life Coalition Youth and Toronto Right to Life.

Alleyne said, “We don’t necessarily need new pro-life groups, but we do need pro-life groups committed to reaching the public directly with effective pro-life education.”

Alleyne said the use of so-called graphic images alongside conversations using human rights arguments means “Almost every day that our activists are on the streets, we hear about people changing their minds on abortion and becoming pro-life.” He said sometimes it is an abortion-minded mother who cancels her abortion appointment, sometimes it is someone who holds the “pro-choice” position. Alleyne said they “make the case that human rights are for all human beings and should start when the human being starts.” Activists are also trained “to respond to those wounded by the trauma of abortion with empathy, love, and truth.” 

Maloney’s Run with Life blog “reaches people outside the pro-life movement,” especially when she uncovers “startling numbers like the born alive information.” Maloney used Freedom of Information requests to delve into unreported abortion data, and in 2019 she reported that between 2000 and 2009, 491 babies survived abortions and were subsequently left to die. Her report spurred a National Post article and a call by several MPs for the RCMP to investigate.

Choice42 creates videos and releases them on multiple platforms: the more messages and the more media, the more likely the general public is going to be exposed to the pro-life position. Many of their videos go viral, including “The Magical Birth Canal” which mocks the notion that babies become human only after they travel through the birth canal.

Klassen said the biggest obstacle to reaching the general public is that many people who oppose abortion are too “scared” to “take a stand.” She urges those who are opposed to abortion “to get loud and treat this as the horror that it is.” 

Alleyne said the biggest obstacles to getting the message to the public “are people and funding” saying pro-lifers must be “willing to give their time and treasure toward proven methods of persuasion.” He said the pro-life community must “take what works and do it over and over and over again.” That takes “patience, determination, and dedication.”

Part II on messaging, social media and grassroots involvement will appear next month.