Every once in a while, some guy claiming to be pro-life gets his boxers in a twist when I ask him uncomfortable questions with the explicit aim of distinguishing him from pro-lifers I will likely have to deal with for the rest of my life. A valid response, considering the repercussions of the declaration, “I’m pro-life” when I’m present for the conversation. Although, a mere one or two questions quickly reveal that most of these individuals are simply against abortion. That’s when a few will get even more defensive, and say “But they co-opted the language that I use to describe my political beliefs!”
Well, sir, unless you’re approximately 50 years older than you appear beneath your 30-year-old masculine charms, you are in categorical error about this fact. The term “pro-life” (and the further-reaching dialogue about what constitutes “pro-death” politics by negation; largely if not entirely informed by Catholic ethics) is only about 60 years old. It emerged during the Vietnam War, when Catholic anti-war activists splintered off from a larger anti-war activist community, with what amounts to a collectively shared superiority complex (i.e., “You’re not pro-life enough. I’m going to go my own way and show you what real pro-life looks like.”) And so began the “pro-life” popularity contest; eventually evolving into pickets outside hospitals and clinics providing abortions to women who had the ovaries to stand up to all-male physician panels and demand the right to determine what happens to their own bodies. Even prior to the formation of the now-infamous panels, and more than 20 years before abortion was finally de-criminalized in Canada (in 1989), pro-lifers were organizing to prevent changes to the Criminal Code of Canada that would grant women the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination, while also organizing visible pillars of shame targeting women for even thinking about it. It seems only a natural progression of such a bigoted group, however tragic and unnecessary, that they should begin bombing clinics, killing doctors, and battering people they identify as “abortion providers”.
So no, young men, who are apparently totally ignorant of the history of abortion in Canada. They didn’t co-opt the language you use to express your political beliefs. In fact, if anything, you did it to them. You are in a position of privilege with respect to this issue, and the decision to call yourself “pro-life” when you’re not, then get angry at me for revealing this error to you, is a direct reflection of your privilege. It’s like declaring “reverse sexism” when you tell a pig-headed misogynist anti-joke, or “reverse racism” when you say something ignorant and insensitive about any particular ethnic group, and are met with a challenge to the basic principles on which you formed the thought when you were expecting either silent obedience or boisterous laughter. You aren’t entitled to independently define the meaning of words, as if they existed in a vacuum of time free from all the oppressions they are rooted in, and then get angry at me for breaking your glass bubble instead of pretending that I can read your mind and fully comprehend all the nuances of your unspoken intentions. When you say “I’m pro-life”, I hear “I hate women”, and I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt when I challenge you on the meaning of what you just said.
But there were still other things going on at the same time, that bear significance, that it seems few people ever put together — most certainly not the young men who expect me to be spontaneously reduced to silence when they use the word “co-opted” to mean exactly the opposite.
Canada & The Vietnam War
I suggest anyone reading this post opens and reads this Wikipedia article on Canada and the Vietnam War. Not only did the “pro-life” popularity contest spring entirely from anti-war activism resulting from the Vietnam War, but the timeline of Canada’s two-faced involvement in this major historical event (i.e., providing refuge, both to the people dropping napalm and later to the people it was dropped upon; as well as manufacturing and delivering said chemical weapon to the United States despite declaring it wouldn’t get involved in the conflict) literally runs parallel to absolutely critical changes to Canadian women’s access to abortion. As anti-war activism and the pro-life popularity contest both took off and picked up political momentum in this country, feminist mobilization on the issue of access to abortion did as well. Access to abortion was liberalized in Canada in 1969 (marking the end of a 100-year ban that prevented exactly zero abortions), along with legalization of homosexuality and access to contraception under the same bill. It was exactly 8 days before Canada declared that it would not and could not enquire into the military status of any American immigrant (many draft-dodgers and deserters sought refuge in Canada, as the increasingly dichotomous activist efforts on both sides of the war issue in the United States continued to pick up momentum).
1969 was also the year of the infamous Stonewall riots and lesser-acknowledged but equally important Compton’s Cafeteria riot in the United States. It is in every way remarkable that to identify oneself as “pro-life” has been historically synonymous with announcing categorical intolerance of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality (in addition to war and euthanasia); and arguably, little if anything has changed. To this day, the Catholic standpoint in relation to homosexuality remains at “Well there’s nothing wrong with being gay — it’s just that you can’t be gay, because that’s wrong.” It is hardly a coincidence that one bill simultaneously de-criminalized or legalized three major landmarks (that word has more uses than you may realize) of bodily autonomy in this country, flying directly in the face of the “pro-life” popularity contest’s efforts to institutionalize bigotry against women and LGBTQs. The “pro-life” response incensed hundreds of women to drive from Vancouver to Ottawa to picket and disrupt Canadian Parliament in the Abortion Caravan of 1970. They successfully shut down the House of Commons at the climax of their demonstration: the first time this had ever happened in Canadian Parliament.
Canada & Anti-Asian Discrimination
Approximately 30 years prior to the Vietnam War, Canada and the United States formally institutionalized blatant racism against people of Asian descent into our respective governments, through an organization called the Asiatic Exclusion League (formed in 1907 in Canada as the “Anti-Asiatic League”). In 1923, the federal government of Canada essentially banned all immigration of Chinese people (even those who were already British subjects). It just wasn’t enough that they had already been enslaved to build the railways that connected opposite ends of the country, treated essentially as disposable commodities rather than human beings whose lives were of innate worth, and systematically trampled down by existing widespread racism (that continues to persist to this very day, though somewhat reduced in magnitude) that interfered with their ability to maintain gainful employment and/or participate in their traditional way of life and culture (is this starting to sound like how Canada still treats its aboriginal population?)
But I digress — the effects of the AAL continued to influence Canadian immigration politics for a full 20 years after the formal creation of Canadian Citizenship on January 1, 1947. The AAL also significantly influenced Japanese access to fishing and forestry licenses — essentially threatening to starve the entire population out — and limited the number of passports issued to Japanese Canadians, and prohibited them from voting. It’s all mentioned under the heading “Pre-war conditions” on this Wikipedia page about Japanese-Canadian Internment during WWII. The particularly painful irony is that the influence of the AAL in institutionalizing transparently racist double-standards, even though many of these double-standards were later formally abandoned (i.e., repealed through legislation amendments; though informally, creating lasting effects for decades to come), the AAL would generate a labour shortage in one of the very industries it sought to prevent Asian communities from “taking away” from whites. This deficit was filled by slave labour of interned Japanese Canadian citizens during WWII. Liberalization of all immigration, including from Asian countries, and thus the beginning of eradicating everything influenced by the AAL in Canadian legislation, finally occurred in 1967.
A Funnel of Hatred
Within just a few years of releasing the Japanese from internment camps, Canada got involved (i.e., But Not Really Involved, K Guys?™) in bombing Vietnam into oblivion (i.e., “We’re not really doing it, we’re just supplying the bombs, amirite?”) We still hadn’t even begun as a nation to address what we had perpetuated against the Chinese and Japanese (and still wouldn’t, for decades), and as such, our dominant culture was (and in many ways still is) a turbulent funnel of anti-Asiatic racism and hatred. As anti-war activism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the first major pushes toward LGBTQ equality all simultaneously began confronting and challenging ideas that had previously led to institutionalizing transparent double-standards against people of colour and similarly oppressed sexual minorities, the hatred exposed at the root of slavery and other forms of oppression would either diffuse itself or continue funneling itself into some other outlet. What more convenient and visibly identifiable group of people could there possibly be, than one every middle class white man — who is suddenly no longer tolerated for projecting deep-seated hatred towards people of colour — can find in his own home and in the parish he calls his second home? Women.
This is not to suggest that the roots of pervasive misogyny in the dominant culture of this country, and arguably beyond our invisible borders, only goes back to the 50s. Far from it, in fact, as the treatment of women as second-class citizens goes back to the beginning of Western civilization. Women had to fight for the right just to be legally acknowledged as persons under written law, and they only won on appeal. That wasn’t even a hundred years ago as of this writing. But it is no simple matter of coincidence that the same population that formed the AAL (i.e., white middle class men) with the explicit intent to threaten the collective livelihood and community-building of Chinese and Japanese immigrants and citizens in this country, just happens to be one of the core demographics (i.e., young, white, middle class Catholics) of the “pro-life” popularity contest: a pseudo-social-justice movement that continues to neglect the myriad trans-generational devastation of cultural genocide against Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities — despite the obvious and innate contradiction to their proclaimed political leanings — while also finding convenient ways to promote racist stereotypes against Asian people (i.e., claims of horrifically rampant sex-selective abortion); thinly veiled, if so much as a slight modicum of sensitivity is even advanced.
More often than not, the sensitivities of targeted ethnic groups are explicitly targeted rather than spared. Some so-called pro-life organizations such as Genocide Awareness Project and the Centre for Bioethical Reform (as well as its Canadian clone organization, CCBR) even directly compare the private individual decision to pursue access to an abortion — the frequency of which they habitually over-exaggerate, especially when it comes to sex-selective abortion — to ethnic cleansing and genocide; routinely exposing the unsuspecting public to horrific 4-foot-tall or 6-foot-tall photos of mass graves and dismembered corpses found among the rubble of bombed buildings, next to heavily edited images of what they allege are the remains of a terminated pregnancy torn and spread apart across the bloodied palm of an unseen person using their hand as an easel. They claim that they are “exposing the truth of abortion”, and they are prepared to go to extremes to emotionally agitate as many people as possible: if they aren’t standing on your street with these giant placards, they are dropping them in your mailbox, uploading them all over social networking websites, and using every excuse they can manufacture to repeatedly draw you back into this obvious trauma trigger that will disproportionately effect people of colour (especially those from families who have witnessed first-hand, the atrocities of genocide, war, and ethnic cleansing).
Pro-Life is the Name of a Hate Movement
There is no doubt remaining in my mind at this point, after picketing these groups and listening to their rhetoric nearly every week for over five months, that “pro-life” organizations collectively constitute a hate movement. As a nation, Canada is in grave danger of repeating a history of systematic oppression that we have only begun to acknowledge in the open in the past few years. As a nation, we have yet to even stop perpetuating it against indigenous peoples. When it comes to the issue of legal access to abortion, it means putting the necks of half the population of our country up on the chopping blocks. This isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s not about the hypothetical rights of a person that has yet to be conceived, let alone born. It’s about confronting and challenging the principles, ideas, tactics, and goals of an organized hate movement with concentrated cells of bigotry sprinkled all across our landscape. It’s about changing the way we perceive, approach, and engage in the conversation, so that we don’t see proposals like Motion 312 (a proposal, that failed, to re-open the personhood debate, not in a private residence or business, but on the floor of Canadian Parliament) or Motion 408 (a proposal I vehemently oppose, to ban sex-selective abortions, because a single study found that some actually happen in Canada; though they are requested almost exclusively by immigrant women from S. Korea and India) or whatever the next anti-abortion proposal might be, passed into law — the first step in what will no doubt unfold into systematically eradicating all Canadian women’s rights until we are treating them the way we used to treat all Chinese and Japanese Canadians.
When the basic human rights of Canadians of Asian descent were systematically undermined, circumvented, and eradicated, almost no one thought to challenge racism against them. If we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it, and as evidence, we are still repeating it, as a nation, in the same scale and magnitude against indigenous people every day.
The answer to end abortion is not to take women’s rights away — it is to prevent unwanted pregnancies by advancing women’s rights. The single great insanity of the “pro-life” (hate) movement is that they compare themselves to Martin Luther King Jr. while campaigning the government to systematically oppress women.