We need to talk about those anti-abortion posters

There's growing support behind banning anti-choice protestors in public spaces, but there's a deeper discussion to be had


It seems almost an inevitable experience. One moment you’re walking along a city street, the next you unsuspectingly encounter a group of anti-choice protesters, clustered on the corner – usually near abortion clinics or school – clutching large placards depicting grisly, blown-up images of bloodied, dismembered fetuses.

Now, momentum is growing to stop this from happening. City councillors are among the increasing list of officials throwing their support behind a ban. 

In a letter to Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, councillors Paula Fletcher (Ward 30), Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29) and Toronto District School Board Trustee Jennifer Story (Ward 15) urge the government to enact an injunction that would put an end to the distribution of anti-abortion material to homes and on public streets.

“We are writing to you on behalf of the residents of our community to ask for your immediate action,” the letter begins. They go on to write, “Our concern is to protect children and adults who would be traumatized by distribution or display of these images.”

In Calgary, where the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform – the group responsible for the imagery – is based, changes to bylaws were made last year that now include anti-choice flyers as part of its ban on junk mail. 

While incremental, the stir around anti-abortion imagery is also an encouraging step towards protecting women’s health. This comes only after, as many city councillors have pointed out anecdotally, a slew of letters from members of the community concerned by the potential harm to children. 

When news began circulating around legislation signed by Donald Trump that would defund organizations like Planned Parenthood, who provide abortions as well as other family planning services, the issue of women’s reproductive rights warranted revisiting. Even for Canadians, it was a reminder that, like our attitudes towards race, we are not any more socially evolved than the U.S. 

“Somehow there’s no recognition that providers are taking a risk, even when it’s legal and they should be protected,” says a doctor at the Bloor West Village Women’s Clinic who has provided abortions for over 25 years. She asked that NOW withhold her name to protect her identity. “I knew personally two people who have been injured or killed by anti-choice protesters.”

She recounted the times she and her colleagues have gone to court in order to testify against protesters who, she says, frequently storm their clinic and harass patients. Providing abortion services, she emphasizes, has meant personal “consequences” for staff who describe “stressful times” resulting from the circulation of their names and identities among anti-choice groups online.

The outcry calling for the removal of gruesome anti-choice posters falls short of condemning these images for the hate-inciting tools they are. For every person these groups hoped to terrify into thinking twice about abortion, was a potential supporter – outraged by the grisly images and emboldened by the group’s strong message. 

On August 31, councillors Paula Fletcher and Peter Tabuns hosted a community meeting to discuss their letter to the provincial government and ways to “take action.” 

Hopefully, the meeting and the momentum behind blocking graphic anti-choice images spurs a conversation addressing the stigma around abortion. 

There’s still some reluctance that reflects this sort of process of getting from a stance of illegality to a stance of ‘this is women taking care of themselves,'” says the Toronto physician.

After all, the “pro-life” brigade is waged against women who seek nothing more, and alarming people with shocking images in public spaces is no way to make a point about a person’s right to choose. 

shantalo@nowtoronto.com | @Shantal_Ot

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