Today I learned that a lot of parishioners at St. Patrick’s Parish have difficulty parallel-parking. And that Charlie Chaplin’s moustache, for which Adolf Hitler is so well-known, is back in style at St. Pat’s. I also learned that their 7 a.m. Sunday morning mass is not particularly well-attended, and that suits me just fine. In that respect, yesterday afternoon was very similar, and I expect that is the case for most Saturdays. I could tell people were going into the building, but they kept it dark inside, the way the pentecostal church used to keep us high school seniors in the dark (literally and figuratively) in our age-specific outreach groups on Friday nights.
So I got out there today at 6:30 a.m., on just two hours of sleep and an empty stomach. It was still dark and it was as windy and rainy as it had been all night. Parishioners very obviously avoided even looking in my direction as they entered their Sunday morning mass at 7 and then again at 9 a.m., and many were headed inside just before 11 a.m. when I finally needed to leave. I was able to stay out there for four solid hours until the rain had completely soaked through every layer of clothing I was wearing (except for my tight and bright underwear), leaving me on the verge of shivering from the cold. As much as I wanted to remain for another two hours, it just wasn’t going to happen. I spent a lot of that four hours thinking about the tactics anti-choice groups employ, including derailing the issue of campaigning to dictate to women what should and should not happen to their bodies with arguments about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. So I’m going to spend some time writing today about the conclusions I reached in that thought process.
Freedom of Speech
The right to freedom of speech isn’t as simple as “I can say whatever I want!” It never has been, and it never will be, because all ideas are not equal. Yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre is an example of something that, even with freedom of speech, you just can’t say without facing severe repercussions. Child pornography isn’t protected as a form of free speech, and the reasons for this are plainly obvious. One can be sued for libel or slander for writing or saying things aloud that — even if true — are considered both harmful to the reputation of the person being written or spoken about, and simply a malicious attempt to smear that person, in that there was no motive present to protect other people in the act of spreading that information. Some people who fail to see the bigger picture in my extensive writing about a recent series of investigations into a local RCMP officer, who used to be a friend of mine until he showed me what kind of person he really is, have tried to argue that I put myself at risk of serious repercussions by blowing the whistle on him and three other people in such a public forum. They also fail to see that I have multiple legitimate defenses if those repercussions should ever come to fruition, and that I am possibly the only person involved who could take the risk to blow the whistle, because I have nothing to lose by doing so (including my own reputation).
So what exactly does freedom of speech have to do with picketing an abortion clinic with the explicit goal of publicly shaming all women? And what does it have to do with me picketing a church that is home to two such organizations, to demand that they stop picketing abortion clinics? Well, freedom of speech gives both the anti-choice extremists who show up in front of abortion clinics, and myself, the right to express our political alliances with written and spoken word. But it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will respect what either I or anti-choice extremists have to say. A critical component of free speech is the right to express dissent, or we wouldn’t be able to even have this conversation. An equally critical component of free speech is the right to live with the repercussions for exercising it — those repercussions include dissent from people who are exposed to your choice of written or spoken message, finding yourself being counter-picketed through various tactics that may annoy the ever-loving snot out of you but are nonetheless legal and democratic, being slapped with a lawsuit, being arrested, and even being sentenced to prison time (for the record, I believe anyone making threats to another person should be reported to police and forced to live with the consequences, regardless of their political affiliations — that’s what’s so frustrating about not being taken seriously by local authorities when a man threatened me with battery and two of my friends were assaulted by anti-choicers at a pro-choice counter-picket).
So when someone stands outside an abortion clinic at a “weekly prayer meeting” and picks up a sandwich board that explicitly targets women for shaming, whether or not they’ve even had an abortion, would consider it an option if they became pregnant, or are in fact, just as strongly opposed to it all together, they are inviting dissent upon themselves. This is not the same as inviting a debate or creating an opportunity for one — they’ve already made up their minds and are committed to the point of preparing to give sermons to complete strangers about what they should and should not do with their own bodies. They would have to be either lying to your face or fooling themselves to their very core, if they claimed any other motivation apart from trying to incense passersby. This is not characteristic of free speech. This is characteristic of hate speech.
And when I stand outside a church at a weekly picket I make no efforts to declare as anything other than outright trolling (in real life), and pick up a sign that demands that they stop picketing abortion clinics, I have also already made up my mind about that very simple demand. But unlike trying to dictate to all women, regardless of their political persuasions or religious beliefs, what they should and should not do with their own bodies, my demand is quite simple. Take your hate speech away from abortion clinics. This isn’t a debate about freedom of speech — this is freedom of speech. And unlike the corner where anti-choice extremists show up wearing sandwich boards and spitting heinous things at women, like “You should have been aborted!” or “You deserve to be raped!”, I stand in complete silence. It’s a fairly critical component of freedom of speech that I find many people just don’t take the time to think about: you have the right to exercise silence, and not just when you’re being arrested. If the anti-choice extremists had exercised their right to silence, I probably never would have gotten involved in picketing them in the first place. Which brings me to the other side of this all-too-frequent attempt to derail the issue…
Freedom of Assembly
People love to say “It’s a free country!” to defend their decision to stand in a particular location, even if it’s grossly inappropriate or clearly for the exclusive and express purpose of baiting people into spewing the hatred you’ve incited within them at you, and/or leaving them incensed, triggered, or emotionally agitated. Well, again, it’s not that simple. If it was, there wouldn’t literally be a law in place to prohibit abortion rights pickets (for either the anti-choice or pro-choice “side” of the issue) from anywhere within a 50-meter radius of the front doors of abortion clinics. There wouldn’t be laws protecting the private properties and residences of a given country’s citizens, and there wouldn’t be a series of restrictions on entering air ports and prisons or crossing borders. “It’s a free country!” isn’t going to help you talk your way out of criminal charges for breaking and entering, trespassing, or stalking. And we are all situated in this country on many more than the one condition that we have the “freedom of assembly” — some significantly more than others (e.g., The Indian Act; the live-in caregiver program; refugees fleeing war-ravaged nations) — but all of us are here with an enormous list of obligations that come hand-in-hand with our freedoms (and many don’t have nearly as many freedoms as others).
So what exactly does freedom of assembly have to do with choosing the opposite side of the street from an abortion clinic as the preferred location for a “weekly prayer meeting” of anti-choice extremists? And what does it have to do with choosing the opposite side of the street from a Catholic parish that is home to two such groups organizing these pickets as the preferred location to troll the shit out of those groups and demand that they stop picketing abortion clinics? Once again, freedom of assembly gives both the anti-choice groups the liberty of congregating in a place that is visible from inside the clinic, and pro-choice groups the liberty of doing the same thing to counter-picket. It gives the anti-choice groups the liberty of congregating inside — or even outside — their local parish, and me the liberty to stand on a spot on the sidewalk across the street from their parish in a gesture that exactly mimics what they have been doing in front of every abortion clinic they can find for the past fifty years. But that’s all it grants us. It doesn’t mean my physical presence in front of an abortion clinic or a Catholic church has to be respected by anyone else, and the same is true for the anti-choicers (and their entire congregation).
Thus, when someone stands outside an abortion clinic with the exclusive and express purpose of being a visible pillar of shame against all women, they have the right to re-locate somewhere else if other people freely assemble with the exclusive and express purpose of throwing all that shame right back in their bigoted faces. And when I stand outside the parish that organizes their weekly woman-shaming activities, I have just as much a right to stand there as I have to demand that they take their shaming tactic away from abortion clinics. I would suggest that they do it in front of their parish, or perhaps in front of their fake abortion clinics. Except I guess then they’d be running the risk of directly associating all their hatred of women with their fellow parishioners, their fake pregnancy counselling services, and their “cause”. Presumably, they don’t want to do that. Damn, it must be real rough for them, huh.
Right to Life Vs. Right to Bodily Autonomy
Anti-choicers claim, persistently, that the issue really boils down to the fact that the right to life trumps everything else. I’ve recently been called a “pro-abortionist” by someone I know who is “pro-life”, because I insist that I don’t have to respect how any given “pro-lifer” expresses their political beliefs, for any reason at all. I can respect their right to form their own opinion without also respecting the conclusion they independently reach, and yet, this seems a lost concept among anti-choicers when it comes to extending the same respects and courtesies they demand of all pro-choicers. I was also called a “post-natal supremacist” by a supporter of the CCBR, when I stated that their blog is giving the “pro-life” popularity contest the appearance of a hate movement, one post at a time. And while I actually find it incredibly insulting that simply not respecting anti-choice rhetoric is somehow equivalent to enthusiastically grabbing hold of pregnant women and forcing them to terminate their pregnancies, I will happily take up the label of post-natal supremacist. I believe in real rights for real people (i.e., actual women), and hypothetical rights for hypothetical people (i.e., children who have yet to even be conceived).
The right to life simply cannot be extended as a real right to hypothetical people, because it negates the real rights (i.e., the right to life and the right to bodily autonomy) of the very real people who would hypothetically be carrying them for up to 40 weeks. It’s as simple as that. This isn’t about freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. It’s about distinguishing between what is hypothetical and what is real. As a pro-choicer, I’m happy to declare all the hypothetical entitlement to hypothetical rights any anti-choicer wants for hypothetical people, but I draw the line at turning this into a reality.