Graphic and gory images sent to mailboxes and waved in public have long been a tool of anti-abortion campaigns. Does it count as hate propaganda against people who need abortions? Let’s test it against the Supreme Court-endorsed “Hallmarks of Hate.”
By Hazel Woodrow
Across social media platforms, communities warn each other about the presence of graphic anti-abortion propaganda in their neighbourhoods. These conversations often question the legality of stuffing gory pamphlets into strangers’ mailboxes en masse, or of displaying such imagery on banners and placards in busy metropolitan areas.
Search the subreddit for nearly any city across Canada and you’ll find frequent warnings. A Halifax local remarked on the “Extremely graphic anti-abortion flyer in my mailbox.” In Saskatoon, an “Anti-abortion flyers warning” hit the forum. As one Ottawa shares, “I really don't want to see pictures of dead and dismembered babies every day on bank street.”
A “PSA” warns the Hamilton area that “The anti-abortion flyer in the mail today is very, very graphic.” Flyers appeared in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and on and on.
These graphic posters are a form of hate speech. They create significant violence towards cisgender women, trans men, and non-binary people who have abortions and they impede our access to reproductive healthcare.
A truck the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform allegedly toured in British Colombia. Source: Instagram
I was raised in a traditionalist Catholic, fervently anti-abortion household. I learned what abortion was before I even had my First Communion. I used to debate the morality of abortion (as well as homosexuality) with my classmates over lunch. My family had a subscription to Campaign Life Coalition's newspaper, “The Interim,” and for many years I attended CLC's annual nationwide “Life Chain” in my hometown.
Life Chain is a yearly anti-abortion demonstration that takes place in cities and towns all over North America, in which individuals stand in silence along the side of a main roadway, holding non-graphic signs that say things like “Abortion Kills Children” and “Lord, Forgive Us and Our Nation.”
The moment my beliefs about abortion began to change was at one of these events.
I was fourteen and just found out that a friend of mine had an abortion after being raped.
Standing on the side of the road, in a long line of people from my church, each of us held identical "abortion kills children" signs.
And then a car carrying my friend drove by. We were on the right side of the road, and the car passed so close I could have reached out and touched her. I saw her face as she saw my sign.
It was the beginning of the end of my time as a child “pro-life” activist.
According to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the last incidence of severe anti-abortion violence in Canada was in 2000. Abortion care provider Dr. Garson Romalis was stabbed in the back while leaving his medical office — six years after he was shot in his home by a sniper, the first of three attacks suspected to be perpetrated by James Kopp, who is serving a life sentence for murdering an American abortion care provider.
Twenty years later, pro-choice activists, abortion patients, and abortion care providers continue to receive violent threats and fantasies from “pro-life” individuals and groups. For example, in 2019, the Belleville, ON Knights of Columbus Facebook page offered the name and contact information of an “abortionist,” adding in a comment, “If you need a list of baby-killers, I have one.”
Several provinces have passed “safe zone” legislation to combat anti-choice activists’ harassment and intimidation of patients and service providers at reproductive health clinics.
I’m not alone in thinking that graphic anti-abortion signs and inflammatory rhetoric meet the legal definition of hate speech. Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, has echoed the same sentiment about the materials.
Various municipalities have attempted to restrict these graphic displays indirectly with legislation. For example, Calgary has banned advocacy messaging on large signs within 150 metres of a school and Hamilton has banned the hanging of banners over local highways.
However, because these measures target the medium of graphic anti-abortion propaganda, and not the message, they also criminalize the use of these mediums by other groups that do not display graphic anti-choice content.
While this is well-intentioned, we need a different approach. We need there to be a growing recognition that graphic anti-abortion material should be considered hate speech and treated as such by municipalities and the courts.
One major source of graphic anti-abortion material in Canada is the Calgary-based Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, an offshoot of the American Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.
Defending his government’s policy against providing funding through the Canada Summer Jobs Program to anti-abortion and anti-2SLGBTQ+ groups, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically referred to the CCBR’s graphic anti-abortion flyers as “hateful.”
Contrary to the popular “Who decides what is hate speech?” narrative that insinuates that such decisions would be less objective than other judicial rulings, Canada has a clear framework for determining what speech is considered hate propaganda by the courts. The “Hallmarks of Hate” were first defined in Warman v. Kouba, 2006, and were later endorsed by the Supreme Court as a guide on what is and what isn’t hate propaganda.
Since then, the Hallmarks have been applied in at least a dozen other cases.
Graphic anti-abortion material meet some of the hallmarks. The material alleges that the targeted group “preys upon children, aged, the vulnerable, etc,” and the material uses “highly inflammatory language/rhetoric used to create a tone of extreme hatred/contempt.”
In 2018, the CCBR misquoted Joyce Arthur as saying “Showing these pictures is hate speech! You’re calling women murderers!” In reality, it was bioethics professor Christopher Kaposy who told the CBC that CCBR’s graphic anti-abortion signs depict them as murderers. CCBR denied the claim.
“First, the images of abortion victims that we use do not call abortion murder. The words on our signs state merely: Abortion, or ‘Choice,’ along with the gestational age of the aborted child. There is no reference to murder, just an image showing what abortion actually is.”
Source: CCBR’s website
However, the pictures of posters and demonstrations clearly show that they do, in fact, refer to abortion as “killing,” alongside photos that depict bloody, dismembered fetuses.
Gregg Cunningham, the executive director of the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (of which CCBR is an offshoot) is quoted on the CCBR website saying, “The simple fact of the matter is that women who are not more horrified by abortion than they are terrified of the burdens of the pregnancy will kill their babies almost every time.”
Not only do the anti-abortion signs either implicitly or explicitly refer to abortion as an act of “killing,” CCBR itself actively chooses tactics intended to inspire horror; a clear example of “highly inflammatory language/rhetoric.”
There can be no killing without a perpetrator, and CCBR names them.
CCBR refers to both the medical professionals performing abortions, as well as the people having abortions, as killers. However, since the profession is not a protected group under the Canadian Human Rights Code, calling a doctor or nurse a killer is vile, but does not rise to the definition of hate speech. Their hatred towards people exercising their human rights does.
The CCBR has also compared abortion to the Holocaust and to lynchings of Black people, which the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada argues “puts [people who have abortions] on the same moral level as Nazis, the KKK, and other groups that commit atrocities and genocide.”
This may invoke another hallmark of hate: that the targeted group, in this case those exercising their rights, are being alleged to be a “powerful menace to society.”
By advocating for laws to be changed to jail people who have abortions, they tread dangerously close to another: that “banishment, segregation, or eradication of [the targeted] group [is] required”.
While the CCBR maligns people who have abortions as “killers” and compares them to Nazis and the KKK, a disclaimer at the bottom of every page on their website reads: “CCBR condemns all forms of abortion-related violence and will not collaborate with groups or individuals who fail to condemn such violence.”
The one-line disclaimer at the bottom of their web pages isn’t enough to undo the inciting effect of referring to abortion as “murder” and “genocide,” and medical practitioners and the people who need abortions as killers.
Ultimately, widespread acknowledgement that graphic anti-abortion material is hate speech would protect people who both perform and need abortions. It would also protect people who fight for the right to access abortion. Above all else, it would strengthen our understanding of misogyny and reproductive control as aspects of hateful, bigoted ideology.