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Sunday, August 21, 2016
Blinded by the right: My past as an anti-abortion activist
This piece was originally published as a guest blog on Michael Laxer's Blog and then on rabble.ca. It is a very powerful account of Natalie Lochwin's family's involvement in the anti-choice movement when she was a teenager.
It is soon to be featured in an upcoming book, Without Apology from Athabasca University Press.
To start, I didn't want to write this. So I searched hoping to find someone that had a similar experience to share and to read their take on their progression from "pro-life/anti-choice/anti- abortion" to believing in and advocating for abortion rights. I'm sharing this story of my past anti-choice activism because it is a past I have been ashamed of. Yet it also shaped me and is part of what, ironically, made me who I am today.
This, in the end, is a story about how destructive an influence this movement can be not only socially, but to individuals as well.
In the late 80's, when I was 16, my mother had decided to move the family away from the inner 'rough' city of Toronto and to take us to live, tucked away, in safe, clean, boring suburbia.
The day Canada's abortion law was struck down I recall my mother watching the news and listening to the reaction from the public. She was motivated to do something and to get involved. Determined to take a stand. I didn't really know or care about this issue. I was still a kid really, in high school, geeky, blessed with an awkward nature and teenaged skin.
My mother, however, decided that we (my mom, my sisters, and I) would go down and picket the hospital circuit with our home made anti-choice signs and hand out pamphlets spouting anti-abortion propaganda. Regularly after school we would travel down with her from Etobicoke, grab some veggie pitas en route and protest the "killing"of the unborn in front of the hospitals. I'd beg to do something else after school, to go out with friends, but the answer was always no. There was no other option. Picketing and homework were my lot.
We had become Born Again Christians. My mother had believed that this would save her crumbling marriage and stop her kids from turning into wayward anarchist heathens. To my mother Christianity and Pro-life activism changed everything. It delivered us from skull earrings, sprouting multicoloured hair and from 'satanic' black nail polish. We were saved!
We began to "fellowship" with other like-minded folks, as is done in movements like this. We were going to church and youth events all the time.
I grew to like the attention, negative or positive. We became known and somewhat famous in the anti-choice movement as an "activist family". At one point Toronto Life magazine even featured us in a piece.
A sick and paranoid mythology was part of anti-choice ideology. We'd heard about the evil "pro-aborts", how they hated children, how they'd get pregnant and intentionally have abortions. They really believed "feminazis", as they called feminists, were evil, and that they sacrificed fetuses in some sort of satanic ceremony. Clinics were rumored to sell fetal parts for medical experiments and to meat processing plants and fancy cosmetics companies for the collagen. They claimed there were experiments on "living" fetuses, decapitated fetuses and so forth.
We'd hang out at Aid to Women, an anti-choice, "counseling" organization that was littered with Christian propaganda and expressed a truly extremist anti-abortion ideology. The atmosphere was extremely oppressive and very controlling. According to them, the mainstream, secular media were all liars and any stats or information that seemed to contradict their views were lies or government conspiracies. Followers were always strongly encouraged to follow Christian or Catholic sources and to avoid mainstream media. The world presented through their eyes was a very ugly place.
In addition to being very good at controlling their followers, all of whom were religious, it must be noted that few, if any, were involved who were not Catholic, Born Again or some faction of Christianity. Their stated goal was to save babies. But their broader agenda was to "save the world" from the secular, non-Christian agenda, and they had an over the top anti-gay (homosexuals were seen as "aids carriers" who were out to "get the family") and anti-woman manifesto of beliefs and works. Ultimately abortion is just a stepping stone into their paranoid, homophobic, hate-filled world.
Accosting female patients on their way to abortion clinics was just like a game for them. My mother had begun to regularly sidewalk counsel and did convince a young, nineteen year-old woman from Grenada whom she met in the alley not to have an abortion. She dragged her into the fake "pregnancy counseling centre", the one beside The Morgentaler clinic on Harbord St., and shoved a bunch of pamphlets and a plastic fetus in her face asking her why she wanted to "kill her baby". The young woman began to weep. This was a "victory" for her and made her the envy of other, more experienced, sidewalk "counselors" as they lamented "why do you get to save a baby, I've been doing this longer than you."
Ultimately, we joined Campaign Life Coalition (CLC). My mother was rather generously supporting them, back in the days when they had charitable status, with donations to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. We became involved with many, truly extreme characters. There was Vlad, a Soviet defector, who actually lived at their Dundas St. headquarters. He was an eccentric who worked in the office and was devoutly religious. He would accompany us on regular trips to Buffalo to participate in their Operation Rescue efforts. He hated abortion providers. Asking him once why he would never traditionally protest, he answered me that he would kill the doctors if he saw them. I don't think I brought it up with him again.
We also came to know Ken Campbell, who was a prominent anti-choice Evangelical Christian who spewed his own special brand of reactionary hate via a Christian radio show in the early 90's. He would pontificate on air at great length, often with the blessings and dollars of his faithful listeners, which included my parents. They, sadly, donated tens of thousands of dollars to him as well.
He would rant on-and-on about the "pro-aborts" and how anti-family they were. He was also extremely fixated on homosexuality, oddly so for someone so hateful to gays. He related stories of how he was tormented by gay men in his dreams! Every broadcast Campbell made was a call to action against the supposed anti-family, anti-traditional marriage, homosexual agenda. Then, of course, he would beg for money.
Eventually my mother had a falling out with him when he kept pushing for more and more money. The last straw was when he showed up at our home with prearranged loan papers all ready for them to sign. Fortunately, they declined.
Operation Rescue & the Exploitation of the Young
Lots of exciting things were happening in the Anti-Choice movement in the USA, led by the Christian hardline fanatic pastor Randall Terry, whose "Operation Rescue" movement appropriated civil rights activist tactics and then dared to compare itself with the civil rights movement, even going so far as to sing their songs and twist their slogans. "They ended slavery, we're ending slavery in the womb!", they would say. Randall Terry embraced the role of "prophet" that his followers cast him in. He, and others, worked everyone up to a frenzy in Washington in the early 90's with calls to take action against the murderous doctors. Unfortunately, some of those followers did.
In 1994 the Morgentaler clinic in Toronto was bombed. In private in the movement the anonymous cowards who did this were seen as heroes and extolled as noble. They had obeyed a higher law. Morgentaler was said to "deserve" it. They would make comments on how it was ironic he had survived the holocaust only to now kill North American babies.
Emulating the USA, in Canada we started to block clinics too. The movement's male leaders, preferring to lead by words, not example, never put their neck on the line. Often the front line activists at the clinics; Morgentaler's, the Scott, the Cabbagetown clinic, were kids and teens. My 10 and 14 year old sisters were arrested as were many other children. Time after time, kids and teens were encouraged by the anti-abortion adults to do this as they liked the media attention we got.
Sometimes we'd attach our necks with Kryptonite locks to gates or to each other. We were imitating the Lambs of Christ (an extremist American anti-abortion group at the time). A good family friend of ours was a "Lamb". He was a single 40 year old who wanted nothing more, as he put it, than to die in service to the lord. He also had ties to the Army of God who were Christian anti-choice terrorists. He was proud of his explicit Army of God manual, (an underground instruction manual for vandalism and violence against abortion clinics and providers). He was such a fanatic that his father had taken out a million dollar life insurance policy on him. He would accompany my mother and sisters on their strange and confusing "missions" to many U.S. cities campaigning against Christians using birth control. Sometimes she'd suggest that I marry him. Given that I was 17 at the time, I have always hoped she was joking!
A big part of being a pro-life youth involved socializing and attending various conferences across Ontario and the USA. But this was all a part of of socialization into extremism and their ideology of control.
At one Human Life International conference my sister and I were "shamed" for being vegetarians as this meant we were going against the Bible and against our parent's wishes. Our vegetarianism was deemed anti-Christian.
At our Evangelical church there were people who spoke in tongues "chosen" to convey a special message from "the Lord". It was, of course, always the same two people who "received" and interpreted. One of the tongue speakers looked me over one time and proclaimed to my mother that she detected witchcraft. This started a whole mess of trouble for me, and my mother got rid of the palm reading books that I had along with many other things.
No matter what, I felt like I could do nothing right. Any thoughts, especially anything sexual, normal for a 16 year old girl to have, were sinful. We were taught we could not trust a single natural thought. Everything about being a teenage girl was evil and unclean. I was convinced and constantly reminded at church and at home that God would judge us and that His vengeance would be visited upon us.
My mother would inquire about our sexuality and remind us that masturbation was wrong and sinful. We were to practice chastity until marriage. Their answers to teenaged hormones were lame. "I'm worth waiting for" buttons were thrust into our palms. The movement and Christian churches had a fundamental mistrust of youth and felt that all of us were in grave danger of becoming sex crazed animals and drug addicts. It is like they simply forgot, or never knew, what it means to be human, to be a young adult, and were unwilling to accept that it is an awkward age meant for discovering and learning about who and what you are.
Why did I go along? I think for a young person it was about the attention at this point. The excitement of the lead up to an Operation Rescue action, the camaraderie, the police, the media interest, and all of the people. Then to get arrested, to go to jail for a few weeks for a tactic that you aren't even entirely sure makes sense anymore and to get even more attention from those within the cult; much more because of your youth and "dedication". I'd been involved for a few years now and the magic number 18 wasn't too far off, which would mean the end of my Young Offender charges and sentences. Soon I would be in adult court. Just how dedicated was I?
If I could speak to my long-dead mother now, I might ask her why she let us do this? It destroyed our already fractured family. All we did was obsess over "the cause" and it ate up every weekend and all our free time. It became our focus and it was as though a stranger had moved into our lives.
What did the "pro-life" movement teach us as kids and young adults? It taught us that god's "law" overrides any other laws or rights. These were the anti-social "values" they instilled. Their family values involved showing graphic and misleading imagery to kids and violating the rights of women repeatedly. It involved invading privacy, doing insane acts like stealing clinic garbage to scrounge for fetal parts, picketing escort's homes, committing vandalism and the condoning and even encouraging of violence against abortion providers and their property. They taught us that there was to be no concern for anyone's rights or property because we were obeying a higher law, and we answered only to our "god".
When I read about current anti-choice activists, or when I see them at demonstrations or in their propaganda videos, they seem so sincere. Yet many are full of hatred and are sickened by the sight of women standing for reproductive-rights. They see us as the enemy and as bloodthirsty 'baby killers'.
I see familiar faces, like the McCash's, Jim Hughes, Linda Gibbons and others. I see those who I once stood alongside and who now involve their offspring, creating future generations of activists in the sole cause of quashing women's reproductive autonomy and carrying out their reactionary agenda.
Painting a false portrait of abortion rights activists is key to their movement. This portrayal must be as ugly and paranoid as possible to succeed with their flock. Hence their over the top literature, as demonstrated by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) or Lifesite News. The lies the anti-choice perpetuate and the tactics they use are fundamentally wrong-headed. They are controlling, anti-woman and fundamentally anti-family.
Their agenda reaches far beyond abortion. The beliefs they hold dear are part of an unholy trinity of hate that is anti-abortion, anti-homosexual and anti-feminist. They work tirelessly at scheming new ways to complete or promote their agenda, of which abortion is only a way to draw people in. This is why Campaign Life was also so prominent in opposing Bill-13 in Ontario, and Gay-Straight alliances in general, even though they have nothing at all to do with abortion.
Their vision is of a world where women are happy breeders, at home making dinner and raising their children, fulfilled by their duty as baby-makers with no selfish thoughts of education, career or personal achievement. Pregnancy was viewed as a duty, a must, and a completely natural and necessary rite of passage. They believe that making-babies is for everyone. Whether you are a 15 year old girl who just had sex once and got pregnant, or if you're a rape victim. Married, single sinning "sluts", or even if you have cancer. To them the circumstances are irrelevant.
It would make sense that such a movement, if it was actually about the love of "unborn babies" would be concerned with the well being of pregnant women and the potential life they carry. You might think that these activists would support a government that would fund daycare, prenatal programs, affordable housing, programs to assist single parent families, or fight for an end to hunger and poverty in our country so women might be in a position more often to be able to safely, when they wanted to, bring a new life into the world. This is not so at all. Anti-abortionists are encouraged to vote according to one issue: abortion and abortion alone. They are fixated, paranoid and poisoned with an anti-female ideology.
This is why their heroes are the Mitt Romneys, Rush Limbaughs and Michael Corens of the world. They are not at all concerned with children or women. Only with fetuses.
It is a truly cult-like movement. Cutting ties if one wants to is not simple as so many of your friends are anti-choice, Evangelical or Catholic. They make sure of that. Weekend retreats and pro-chastity, anti-abortion conferences were held in out of town locations, far from most attendees homes. This made them a great opportunity for bonding and brainwashing. You really believed that when you blocked clinics you were doing something good. Doing the right thing. We believed we were involved in the noble cause of saving women and babies from being dragged to a horrible fate.
Seeing the Light
I can't exactly say what opened my eyes. It wasn't one specific incident but rather several. The shootings and anti-abortion violence helped to wake me up of course.
Then there was anti-choice hysteria surrounding the Nancy Cruzan case in Missouri. She was a woman who after a terrible car accident was in a coma (persistent vegetative state) and whose family requested that she be removed from life support after several years. They believed they were following what would have been her wishes. The Right to Life (RTL) movement in the United States and Canada went berserk, hatching plans to go and 'rescue' her. They claimed that she showed signs of brain activity and that her doctors and family were out to kill her. There were protests. The court ruled in favour of her family and Nancy was finally allowed to die. The movement's heartless action around Nancy and her family were pivotal in changing my mind and the case stayed with me.
I'd happened to watch an incredible Frontline documentary "The Death of Nancy Cruzan". The tenderness and love that her father showed for Nancy really moved me. I wondered why the "right to life" movement didn't talk about this? Surely they could see how much her family loved her and see their pain watching this once vibrant young woman who was brought back by "roadside heroics" to be an empty shell. The real Nancy was never coming back. Her body, now pale and bloated would be unrecognizable to her former self. This was not living with dignity.
I was in art school now, and was being exposed to liberal thinking. I flourished. My best friend was a wonderful gay man and we became kindred spirits. I read authors like Toni Morrison and experienced the arts education I'd only dreamed of. And yet I would avoid intimate relationships, drinking, and most types of socializing. Feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, unable and unwilling to connect in a healthy, non-paranoid way because I was so used to having a movement and a religion looking over my shoulder.
Fortunately the next twenty years would take me on a new personal and political journey.
Having become a feminist and socialist, as well as the proud mother of a daughter I hope will embrace the freedoms her foremothers fought for, I now see things very differently. I understand that the anti-choice see the world through hate tinted glasses. They are the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing. Their ugly construct of women and the world bears no resemblance to reality.
See also: Anti-choice extremists target Trudeau and women's reproductive rights