The Online Mind’s mission is to spread information and ideas. Part of this project is to interview individuals and groups that we agree with, and others that we do not. We sat down with Canada’s most notorious anti-abortion group in order to get a glimpse of their perspective. The Online Mind has left this interview open ended, the statements and opinions are not of our own. We wanted to dive into the minds of one of Canada’s most controversial groups who partake in actions such as using posters with aborted fetuses to spread their message. Here is how Jonathon Van Maren, Communications Director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform has responded to our questions.
(Warning: This article includes graphic imagery.)
The theme of your movement is to “End the Killing”. In what ways do you consider an abortion equal to a killing? When does life begin? Should an abortion be equal to a murder charge?
There’s a few diverse questions there, so let me unpack that. Abortion isn’t “equal to killing,” abortion actually is killing. The abortion procedure violently removes the human being developing in the womb of his or her mother, effectively ending his or her life. That’s what abortion is intended to do.
The question of when human life begins has been a settled one for a long time, and people only pretend that we do not know for strictly ideological purposes. There is no debate, for example, about when a dog becomes a dog. Scientists agree that its life begins at fertilization. They know that any organism that reproduces sexually begins its life at this point.
So it is with our own species. Drs. Keith Moore and T. Persaud’s embryology textbook used by medical students at the University of British Columbia confirms this:
Human development begins at fertilization [emphasis in original], the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell is the beginning of embryonic development.
Just as an adult was once a teenager, toddler, and infant, so too was she once a fetus (Latin term meaning “pre-born offspring” or “little one”), embryo (meaning “growing within”), and zygote (meaning “yoked”). These labels merely identify an age-range reflecting different stages in the development of any organism that begins life at fertilization, including human beings.
Moore and Persaud acknowledge this:
Although human development is usually divided into prenatal (before birth) and postnatal (after birth) periods, development is a continuum that begins at fertilization (conception). Birth is a dramatic event during development, resulting in a change in environment. Development does not stop at birth; important developmental changes occur after birth—development of teeth and female breasts, for example [all emphases in original].
Every embryology textbook confirms that we know when life begins, and even the protestations of abortion activists often gives the game away. They say things like, “The embryo at seven weeks is not a human.” Well, seven weeks from what? Even in the language we use there is clear indication that we do, in fact, know when a human being’s life begins. I would encourage anyone interested in reading more to look up the work of Dr. Maureen Condic, or watch National Geographic’s documentary In the Womb, or look over the fascinating work of the Endowment for Human Development.
As for the legal question of whether or not abortion should be a murder charge, when abortion was illegal—and it may interest many to know that the first anti-abortion campaigners were doctors who were finding out through research that human life was manifesting itself much earlier than they had originally thought—abortionists were generally charged with taking the life of a pre-born human being. In the United Kingdom and other places, for example, abortionists still are criminally charged if they perform abortions past a certain gestation, and that is something I wholeheartedly support.
Some argue that an early stage fetus does not have the developmental consciousness required for awareness. Does consciousness matter when discussing abortions? Or is the mere act of contraception the defining principle?
To deny a pre-born human being his or her human rights based on criteria such as sentience, viability, or life experience is to define it based on one’s level of development. And an individual’s development generally corresponds with her age: The older one gets, the more developed she becomes. The younger she is, the less time has passed for her to develop the structures necessary to perform various functions.
So the question we must consider is this: Do those of us who are older have a right to kill those who are younger? Clearly, to select age-related criteria is arbitrary and discriminatory. It pits older humans against younger ones.
Some abortion advocates may argue they aren’t discriminating based on age, pointing out that some older humans never develop as they should (and should be classified as “non-persons”), and some younger humans develop more rapidly than normal (and should be classified as “persons”).
The question, they may ask, is not, “How old is she?” but instead, “How well does she function?” Even here, though, one identifies discrimination: ability-based discrimination. Why should the able-bodied be allowed to hurt the less capable? And who determines to which degree one is “able” versus “disabled”?
Furthermore, aside from conditions and disabilities which impede normal development, how one functions is usually related to how old someone is: The human species follows a general growth trend where at certain age ranges, a function begins (e.g., a heartbeat begins at 3 weeks following fertilization). So to select a criteria for personhood which someone simply cannot attain because of her age (a day-old embryo is too young to have a heartbeat) is unfair.
Take another level of development, self-awareness: whether that ability has not yet been reached because someone is functioning normally but is simply too young, or because someone has a disability, that does not change the nature of that individual; she is still a human being. If that human individual is alive, she is worthy of respect like everyone else. We reject the idea that human beings can be considered less valuable based on their cognitive development as blatant and lethal age discrimination.
As for the “act of contraception being the defining principle,” I’m not quite sure what the question is referring to here. Contraception is irrelevant to the pro-life position. Our position is quite simple: Human beings have human rights. Human rights begin when the human being begins. Science tells us that a new human life begins at fertilization. Thus, abortion is a human rights violation. Contraception is preventing a new life from starting. Abortion is ending a new life that has already begun. Contraception is not a human right issue.
One of the main strategies and controversies of your movement is using images of aborted fetuses in order to spread your message. Have you found this bold method to be effective, do people respond well to this?
At CCBR, our overriding principle is effectiveness. What we have found through thousands of face-to-face conversations on the streets and on campuses and at high schools is that showing the visual evidence of what happens to pre-born children during the abortion procedure is the most powerful persuasive tool we have when seeking to reach an increasingly visual culture. We use our imagery as evidence in the court of public opinion. As my former colleague Stephanie Gray points out in this article, abortion victim photography is necessary to shift public opinion on the issue. We have commissioned polling from an independent polling company to test public opinion before and after we distribute our fliers, for example, and have found that between 40 and 60 percent, depending on the area, shift towards the pro-life position. There is simply no other strategy as effective.
Even abortion rights activists admit that this strategy is effective. For example, two abortion advocates, Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice and Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, revealed that the exposure of the abortion procedure in the public square has created an unparalleled problem for those who defend the procedure. In a Los Angeles Times editorial published in 2008 entitled “Abortion’s battle of messages”, Kissling and Michelman detailed the challenges that they believe abortion advocates face in the ongoing debate. “Advocates of choice,” they admitted, “have had a hard time dealing with the increased visibility of the fetus.” Additionally, they noted, “In recent years the anti-abortion movement successfully put the nitty gritty details of abortion on public display, increasing the belief that abortion is serious business and that some societal involvement is appropriate.” In other words, these abortion advocates admit that graphic visuals have drastically contributed to a shift in public opinion on abortion, which has contributed to scores of pro-life laws being passed across the US.
Prominent pro-abortion feminist Naomi Wolf also addressed the use of graphic visuals in her article “Our Bodies, Our Souls”, a piece published in the New Republic calling for a change in how abortion advocates make their case. She states that: “While images of violent fetal death work magnificently for pro-lifers as a political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this.” In a shockingly honest statement that many in the pro-life movement should take notice of, she adds later that “how can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy.”
Abortion victim photography employed though CCBR projects in Canada have not gone unnoticed by abortion advocates, either. Jane Kirby wrote an extensive article in Briarpatch Magazine entitled “Freedom of (hate) speech” detailing the challenges of confronting graphic images. Kirby notes angrily that while she believes campuses are the “new front line of pro-choice activism”, CCBR’s projects have “anti-choicers setting the terms of debate.” In contrast to past pro-life activism, Kirby notes that “These presentations and displays have provoked a pro-choice response in a way the activities of other anti-choice groups have not.” She then quotes a Ph.D. student in women’s studies from York University, who warns that “one thing that they have been really effective at doing is coming up with messaging that affects the popular discourse, which I think is a really dangerous thing because it will eventually seep into the legislature and the courts.” Those who seek to protect the “right” of a woman to systematically dismember her offspring in her own womb are terrified of the truth. These pictures, which even Naomi Wolf is forced to admit are accurate, force the debate away from “choice” to what is being chosen. The abortion industry fears graphics because they cannot defend themselves from the essential point being made in these images—that their “choice” is actually the choice to destroy a child.
A final point I would make is that the strategy employed by CCBR is not our own. We have simply adopted it from social reform movements of the past, who used imagery of victims to sway public opinion against the injustices they were seeking to abolish. William Wilberforce and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade used graphic pictures of slaves and horrifying diagrams of slave ships to dispel the apathy of the British people. Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee used photos of beleaguered and mutilated child laborers to sway American public opinion against these practices. The Civil Rights movement was launched after a graphic photo of a murdered 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, awoke consciences and spurred people to action in 1955 and photos and video footage of white brutality against peaceful marchers dramatically changed how the American people saw segregation. War photographers in Vietnam used their imagery to change public opinion on the Vietnam War. And I could go on—quite simply, every movement that has sought to change public opinion has used effective—and often extremely graphic—imagery to do so. Think only of the anti-smoking crusaders, anti-drugs campaigns, anti-drinking and driving adverts, and graphic ads warning people to use their seatbelts. To change how someone thinks about something, we often must change the way they see something first.
A critique of this method is that often people are offended or disgusted by the images and this causes them to negatively view your movement and members. Do you feel that there is an element of “scaring away” potential new members?
People are often offended by the imagery, yes. Abortion is a horrifying and offensive action, and so this is not surprising. Abortion is also disgusting. But as one pro-choice activist told me, “I hate your images because they turn people off of abortion.” Just like social reformers of the past, we are not trying to use appealing images, because we are trying to turn people off of something rather than draw them towards it. I wrote a column in which I explain that what pro-life activists are fighting is a cognitive dissonance that separates what everyone instinctively and intellectually knows about the baby in the womb—that it is a baby—from what they might culturally believe about abortion—that it is an acceptable response to a crisis pregnancy.
AS for “scaring away potential new members,” we have not found that to be the case. CCBR has grown from five staff members to over 50 in just 5 years, and the reason for that is that our tactics are effective, and so those who join us get to see real change take place every day. Every member of our team can tell stories of people who were pro-choice but changed their mind and became pro-life. This is not even to mention the groups popping up around the country that are trained by CCBR and also utilize our tactics, from Lethbridge to Niagara to Saskatoon to Vancouver.
End the Killing has done demonstrations on highway overpasses in Hamilton. Some argue this is not safe for drivers, is the ultimate message worth it?
Each of our projects is carefully tested for safety concerns. We’ve carefully compiled responses to concerns we have received on our website.
What is your stance on aborting fetuses with severe deformities or illnesses? Should a mother give birth if the fetus likely will not survive the process, or will die shortly after?
We oppose abortion in all circumstances because it directly and intentionally takes the life of a human being. We firmly reject the ableism that underlies the idea that human beings judged “less than perfect” should have their lives violently ended through the abortion process. We have compiled a comprehensive list of responses to different circumstances here.
Do you believe women who were raped should have unwanted pregnancies?
This is a rather loaded question. Sexual assault is a horrifying crime, and is often treated in a far too blasé manner by our justice system. To reword your question to get at what I believe you are asking, we do not think that a child conceived in sexual assault has any less human rights than a child conceived in love. That child is valuable because of who he or she is—a human being—not how he or she came into being. The question we must ask is this: should we be able to end the life of a human being because of a crime his or her father committed? This is not just a hypothetical question, either. I could introduce you to friends of mine who were conceived through rape, and they will tell you of the profound gratitude they feel towards their birth mothers for refusing to discard them for a crime that was not their own. It is the pro-life position that we should not respond to horrifying crimes by proposing another horrifying action.
If all abortions were illegal, this would likely mean that there would be a significant increase in children disowned to foster care and adoption centers. Would you support significant increases in public funding for these programs?
Absolutely. I know many people who have struggled to adopt children from the foster care system and faced many needless barriers. The pro-life movement believes that we should respond to awful circumstances with ethical and humane responses, and ensuring that children have access to loving homes is something we should prioritize as a society. With the sheer length of adoption waiting lists and the huge number of parents seeking to adopt, the concept of the “unwanted child” is not one that we can use as a justification for abortion.
Is your movement primarily religious based? Do you have atheists in your group as well?
We are a secular human rights group containing people of all different backgrounds. We have trained members of Pro-Life Humanists, and worked with a variety of groups on campus and a wide variety of different religious groups. Our message is one of fundamental human rights, and that message resonates with people of all backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs.
Do you have any final comments? Any events or dates be should be paying attention to?
Let us know what you think about this interview in the comments. Agree or disagree?
Edited By Daniel Govedar (August 2016)