Pushy Pilgrims

Pope's followers gear up for abortion protests

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It’s easy to miss the aid to women office on Gerrard east of Parliament. The front door doesn’t face the street it’s tucked at the top of a narrow flight of stairs away from the sidewalk. There are no signs announcing the presence of the self-described alternative-to-abortion facility except for a barely visible piece of white paper taped to the wall.

On this steamy Friday afternoon, Robert Hinchey, soldier of Christ, veteran of the anti-abortion wars, is nowhere to be seen. This is unusual, since he’s usually a fixture outside, preaching salvation and asking for urine samples from women on their way next door to the Scott Clinic.

Physicians and staff at the Scott say they’ve noticed an increase in Hinchey’s activities and other anti-abortionists’ in the lead-up to the Pope’s visit and World Youth Day events, which officially get underway this week.

Clinic workers fear the more radical elements among the hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims who’ll be in town for World Youth Day, particularly those from the U.S., where anti-abortion forces have been given a boost since George W. Bush’s rise to power.

They believe some are planning to use the Pope’s visit to put the abortion issue front and centre — and are willing to risk arrest to do it.

The prayer vigils that became a rarity after an injunction by the courts restricted activities outside the Scott Clinic, are now occurring more often. A chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a group generally not associated with anti-abortion activities, recently held its own prayer vigil.

Some veterans of the late-1980s anti-abortion wars have also been coming out of the woodwork.

Hinchey himself, according to staff at the Scott, showed up recently with a group of young people in tow and pointed out to them the security cameras outside the clinic.

“We’ve contacted police,” says Maria Corsillo. “We have a large window that looks out to the street. It’s very intimidating for staff.”

In a telephone interview later, Hinchey tells NOW that any suggestion that big protest plans are in the offing “is just rhetoric. You can be pretty much assured that whatever witnessing there is will be prayerful and peaceful.”

Other local abortion providers have also noticed increased activity around their clinics. The Morgantaler Clinic has boosted security.

Adding to the anxiety of staff at the Scott and other clinics is the “pro-life” events lineup posted on the Web by groups participating in World Youth Day.

The Web posting says there will be “many other informal opportunities throughout the week for pilgrims to take part in direct action educational projects in different parts of the city.” The details of these actions “will be available beforehand, while others will be organized during the week.”

Carolyn Egan, a spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics (OCAC), says “direct action educational projects” signal a return to the language used by anti-abortionists of the late 80s, who blocked access to abortion clinics by chaining themselves to the front doors.

Natalie Hudson, executive director of Right to Life, doesn’t deny that demonstrations are being planned but says they don’t include “obstructing people going into abortion clinics… other than perhaps handing out pamphlets. I think the fears are unwarranted.”

Hudson agrees that it may be difficult to stop those with very strong anti-abortion feelings from taking matters into their own hands. But she makes a distinction between those people and members of her group. She says the reference to “direct action educational projects didn’t come from us,” even though her organization is one of two listed as contacts on the Web site in question. National Campus Life Network is the other.

Paul Kilbertus, director of communications for World Youth Day, says NCLN, an official World Youth Day participant, has been asked to remove the offending wording from the Web — just in case anybody gets the wrong idea.

“It does have that connotation of potentially violent activity,” he says.

NCLN’s executive director, Kevin Belgrave, a Ryerson management student, says the group has not dropped the wording but agreed to stipulate that it does not intend to obstruct access to abortion clinics.

“We’re an educational organization,” Belgrave says.

Court injunctions require anti-abortionists to stay a certain distance away from abortion clinics — or risk arrest.

The details are sketchy, but word from the pro-choice National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., is that anti-abortionists gathering in Dallas for an event there will be heading up to Toronto next week to join anti-abortionists here.

Another anti-abortion youth group connected to some of the more extreme elements in the U.S. movement — including a group linked to the death of at least one abortion doctor — is also said to be headed to T.O. for World Youth Day.

“When all of a sudden you have a city full of like-minded people, they get a little braver, there’s a little more energy for the cause,” says Corsillo.

OCAC’s Egan has asked for assurances from World Youth Day organizers that their clinics will not be affected by anti-choice activities.

“The clinics are providing a necessary health service protected by law, and we ask that a woman’s right to choose be respected,” she says.

But Kilbertus says World Youth Day organizers can’t control the actions of groups that are not official event participants.

“We’re not interested in anyone who would want to be involved in any kind of protest activities, because that’s not what World Youth Day is about,” he says. enzom@nowtoronto.com

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