Have you ever wondered why pro-life demonstrations aren’t merely upsetting, but actually enraging? Once you see the answer, you can’t unsee it. It’s an organized hate movement.
Once in a while, someone will publish a daring tell-all piece about how they lost their faith in the movement—often detailing years of social isolation, masterfully executed manipulation and indoctrination, and a general sense of being swept away by the need to act on a crisis situation, all neatly packaged together with powerful political criticisms peppered throughout. These memoirs from the other side are important, because they give the rest of us an inside look into a social movement that operates no differently from an extremist hate-mongering organization or a cult. If you read enough about first-hand accounts of people who have escaped the extremes of neo-Naziism to explore a new way of living while they raise their children, or if you take the time to hear the survivors’ stories from such critical events as the Jonestown massacre and other Earth-shattering horrors that began with a single cult leader, you’ll see a pattern taking shape. And if you look at the history of the pro-life movement in Vancouver — which became so outwardly hostile by the mid-90s that local bylaws were changed for the express purpose of circumventing any further escalation of the public violence enacted by pro-life extremists against abortion clinic doctors, staff, drug reps, patients, and the neighbourhood volunteers who dared to stand in the way — you’ll see that the pro-life movement very effortlessly fits the narrative of an extremist hate movement.
Prior to the barely contained pro-life violence of the 80s and 90s in Vancouver, a local group of women drove a caravan of vehicles (one of which was adorned by a coffin filled with coathangers) clear across the country in the year 1970. It was called the Abortion Caravan, and the women who took part in it were successful in shutting down Canadian Parliament for the first time in its very short history. Members of the caravan, who had all memorized a speech to confront the Prime Minister (for the second time) with the tens of thousands of deaths women suffered in this country every year in “septic obstetrics” wards after seeking black-market abortions, handcuffed themselves to chamber seats. Whenever one of the members was reached by security and her handcuffs were unlocked, another woman would immediately stand up on the other side of the chamber, and start speaking from the very word on which her fellow caravan member had stopped.
Though abortion was decriminalized after 100 years in 1969, it was on the condition that women in need desperately plead their case to a panel of doctors, to literally beg for a safe abortion. These panels remained a deliberate barrier, preventing tens of thousands of women from accessing safe and legal healthcare, for a full twenty years while groups like the Vancouver Women’s Caucus and their allies in the healthcare industry fought against harassment, stalking, and continually escalating violence by pro-life extremists such as Gordon Watson—a man who has actually attempted to incite pro-lifers to form anti-choice “lynch mobs” in the name of protecting the “pre-born”; who has personally resorted to cracking someone’s skull open in the name of the pro-life movement; and who has successfully incited mobs of people to stalk and harass several people who are known to me personally at their private residences, including one former drug rep for oral contraceptives.
I’ve also personally met this man. He took my picture and claimed it would be appearing on the web somewhere. In activist circles, this is part of what’s called “doxxing”; which is an attempt to intimidate people by posting their picture online and soliciting armchair detectives to track down and submit the target’s personal data—such as their phone number or home address. It doesn’t take a fucking rocket surgeon to reasonably anticipate the possibility of further escalations of intimidation, harassment, aggression, or even violence from successful doxxing. Just ask Rebecca Watson about the time photos of her home and workplace began surfacing online after weeks of rape threats and death threats following a conference of skeptic atheists where she attempted to talk about sexual harassment and microaggression. If this isn’t exactly what Gordon Watson and his merry pro-life followers intend whenever they attempt doxxing or publish open letters calling for the formation of “lynch mobs”, then I don’t know what planet these people are from.
Since the bubble zone laws have passed, however, pro-life groups have been forced to be a little more subtle. These grotesque displays we occasionally see in public spaces, of what I prefer to call “abortion porn” (or in the case of Genocide Awareness Project in particular, “genocide porn”), are actually examples of pro-life “activism” turned down several notches. The so-called “choice chains”, which intentionally and vaguely exploit the language of earlier waves of the pro-choice movement to advance a pro-life agenda, are a carefully calculated strategy designed to exploit human psychology on a very primal level. These maliciously jarring displays immediately set off your fight or flight response on sight alone. The organization that creates this pro-life propaganda—Centre for Bioethical Reform—knows this, and intentionally exploits this in its choice of captions on graphic photos of alleged fetal remains. Captions are chosen that are deliberately vague enough while exploiting some aspect of pro-choice language, such as simply the word “CHOICE?” They are also a carefully calculated strategy, designed to illicit spontaneous cognitive dissonance in an extremely narrow window of time.
Centre for Bioethical Reform protocols for engaging the members of the public in discourse about what they are seeing and feeling are yet another manipulation of basic human psychology, which is happily distributed to every prospective volunteer who ever so much as expresses curiosity about participating in these demonstrations. Having my email address once unintentionally added to the mailing list of a local pro-life group that does regular “choice chains”, I started receiving these protocols directly, and they didn’t even know who I was. The protocols explicitly state that due to the graphic nature of the placards they expose to the unsuspecting public, passersby will be in a vulnerable and emotionally agitated state of mind, so their purpose in being there is to start a “debate” and keep it going no matter what it takes. They are told to avoid answering yes or no questions directly, and to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. They are also occasionally approached by pro-life plants who are merely masquerading as interested strangers, who enage with pro-lifers in the inherently disingenuous and often outrageously offensive debates as if they were sincere.
It is important to understand the reasons for these strategies as well as Centre for Bioethical Reform does. While a passerby stops and engages them as though the discourse they have to offer is sincere, they are already struggling through cognitive dissonance and a simultaneous flood of adrenaline, all while trying not to be unnecessarily hostile or impolite to this complete stranger in front of them. This is a complex physiological and emotional state in which the subject is experiencing simultaneous confusion with respect to the re-framing of pro-choice language, and strong revolting emotions in response to the nature of the images presented before them. These concurent emotional states are in competition with each other for resolution of the resulting cognitive dissonance, the urgency of which is exaggerated by the competition between the instinctual fight or flight response and the socially nurtured need for decorum and conflict-avoidance. Once you can wrap your head around the psychology, it isn’t in the slightest bit difficult to understand why passersby often revolt in jarring displays of aggression (and even violence) before just as spontaneously moving on—which can at times become (and often is) directed at pro-choice activists who don’t know how to distinguish themselves well enough from the pro-lifers they are picketing (especially if they are inexperienced or impulsive).
Pro-lifers are literally baiting this magnitude of conflict, whether or not they own this fact. They are told in their protocols to be prepared for this to happen, and to do nothing to defend themselves if it does. Centre for Bioethical Reform later uses photos, videos, and descriptions of these events this to claim a sort of collective victimhood as evidence of how bravely they are fighting while the rest of society is on what they believe is the wrong side of history. They often claim that “pro-genocide activists” or “abortion advocates” are responsible for the aggressions and violence they have in fact faced as a direct result of intentionally and maliciously antagonizing as many unprepared people of the public as they possibly can (every action has an equal but opposite reaction). It is especially important to understand this internal manipulation among the pro-life movement because Centre for Bioethical Reform juxtaposes its most egregiously offensive, explicitly race-baiting work — the so-called “Genocide Awareness Project” and other “activist” projects against what it calls “gendercide” — with a self-image as the brave and self-sacrificing white ally taking a beating alongside people of colour in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement of the United States. These persecution narratives are critically essential to convincing people who are vulnerable to the expert manipulation of human psychology that is the pro-life movement, to take a stand and sacrifice themselves to the shouting, spitting, and pushing they will endure in doing so.
Not nearly coincidentally enough, white supremacist hate groups have a similar set of strategies that are relatively well-acknowledged. They just look different doing it. While holding public rallies with their faces covered and their swastikas in full view, they evoke instant terror, triggering the fight or flight response. At the same time, their slogans often vaguely exploit language that typically has a positive association, such as keywords like pride and honour; while they simultaneously promote a convoluted narrative of genocide and oppression against the white man, that throws the vulnerable and uneducated (or poorly educated, as is more commonly the case) into fits of competing cognitive dissonance with an increased sense of urgency due to the adrenaline. Historically, narcissistic cult leaders such as Jim Jones have also gradually gained their status and massive following through similar means of masterful manipulation of basic human psychology. No matter the cause, there have always been and always will be people who are psychologically vulnerable to this type of manipulation and expoitation — and in fact, that population is somewhere around 98% of us. Different movements simply exploit different blind spots. Neo-nazis exploit blind spots created by a lack of culture and community among disenfranchised and inadequately educated whites; and the pro-life movement exploits blind spots that stem from a near-ancient hatred of women’s power, rooted in several brutal waves of colonization going back at least two thousand years through the evolution and development of modern-day WASP culture.
It is with all of this in mind that I issue an unusually serious warning to anyone who sees pro-life movement activity and feels the urgent need to counter-protest them: don’t be a hero. Be an equally methodical, manipulative, malicious, and menacing presence instead. If you don’t think through every single aspect of the psychology of what’s going on in excrutiating detail; and prepare yourself for all of it well in advance with air-tight strategy, militaristic discipline, and cold cunning, you are putting yourself in potentially grave danger. Your enemies in this fight aren’t just the people holding up the abortion porn placards or standing in sandwich boards. The Gordon Watsons of the pro-life movement don’t pick up a placard any more. They don’t even announce themselves before they are already taking your pictures, and they do not appear to be above hiring desperate people on the streets to try and physically intimidate vulnerable activists or start violent altercations with you. And that isn’t all you need to be aware of, because the emotionally agitated general public isn’t giving you the benefit of the doubt, either. When they mistake you for a pro-lifer, yelling pro-choice slogans at them as they walk away is making yourself a target for retributive vitriol that can and often does rapidly escalate—even from people who would probably agree with your politics if they could distinguish you from the people they disagree with while they are so extremely emotionally agitated.
If you still feel like you need to do something after reading all of this, pass out flyers at a safe distance instead. You can even put a link to this blog post on them (the shortlink is http://wp.me/p260C2-Aj), if you think educating other people about what they are experiencing and why could be a productive use of your time (and I promise you it is). Whatever you choose to do, do it safely.