The Shifting Landscape of the Abortion Debate: An Interview With Prof. Kelly Gordon
Editor-in-Chief Ryan Shah had the opportunity to speak to Professor Kelly Gordon, a new professor in the Department of Political Science who specializes in the study of conservative movements in Canada, about her recently published book The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement and her thoughts on the broader abortion debate and reproductive justice movement in Canada. The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement attempts to chart a reconfiguration of the discourse used by the anti-abortion movement in Canada, one characterized by seemingly pro-women narratives that assert that abortion causes harm to women, rather than fetuses. This interesting observation disrupts the way that the anti-abortion movement is typically thought and talked about and, as Gordon explains, has ramifications for pro-choice movements that wish to continue the expansion of reproductive rights.
Ryan Shah: Could you begin by speaking about your book’s main thesis and how it fits into your larger research project?
Prof. Kelly Gordon: Sure. My larger research looks at conservative movements in Canada, in particular, how they interact with issues of gender and women. Our book, which I wrote with Paul saurette at the University of Ottawa, looks at the strategies of persuasion of the anti-abortion movement. Generally, people have a pretty solid idea of what they think the anti-abortion movement looks like. We call this the “traditional portrait.” When I say anti-abortion movement, or anti-abortion activist, what do you think of?
RS: Angry, screaming, religious men.
KG: Exactly. Religious, aggressively anti-woman, fetal-centric, in that the right to life of the fetus is more important that the right to life of the woman and predominantly male. We argue that this is the traditional portrait of the movement and that it accurately represents many parts of the movement, in particular, the movement in the United States. But in Canada, the anti-abortion movement has been losing for the last 30 years, so our argument is that they are actually changing the ways that they are trying to persuade Canadians by using different arguments and different visuals. For instance, you will never see a male anti-abortion activist on television. They foreground the women in the movement. We argue that the repercussions of this are numerous. The different arguments they make hold the potential of resonating with different segments of the population.
RS: Have these changes in anti-abortion rhetoric been more successful than the more traditional anti-abortion rhetoric you reference?
KG: They haven’t been that successful in many respects. We tracked the different arguments that different activists and parts of the movement make and undertook a big discourse analysis. One of our findings was that the most common argument isn’t that abortion ends a life, it’s that abortion harms women. In Canada, activists are making those arguments and are taking more time to make those arguments than others. I think that the argument about sex selective abortions, for example, will find a lot more traction with the Canadian public than more traditional anti-abortion arguments. They aren’t seeing legislative change, but they are also very conscious of the fact that it won’t come for the long time and that they have to focus on culture change first. These more women friendly arguments certainly speak to women, in particular, and different areas of the population in different ways than a religious argument would.
RS: It sort of reminds me of Milo Yiannopoulos’ advice to the political right that “politics is downstream from culture.” Some commentators have even called some of the emerging right-wing figures “New Gramscians” because of their desire to attain political goals by changing culture.
KG: Totally, there are certain very smart actors in the anti-abortion movement who are very explicit about that fact. For example, there is a really interesting blog called ProWomenProLife run by a conservative named Andrea Mrozek. It’s interesting what has happened to her. She is a very big actor in the conservative movement, she works for the biggest social conservative think tank in the country. Her argument, which comes up time and time again, is that it doesn’t matter if abortion is illegal in a country where people think that abortion is acceptable, so we need to make a culture change, and then laws will follow.
RS: Does this reconfiguration of anti-abortion strategy signify an actual change away from the anti-women and religious convictions of traditional abortion activists?
KG: That’s a really good question. In this iteration of the project we didn’t conduct interviews, so it’s limited what i can say about that. It is something in the future that I would love to do. I think it’s different for different activists. They’re quite outspoken, it’s surprising. If you go to anti-abortion events they often don’t think that there would be someone that disagrees with them there, so they are quite explicit about their strategy. I think it ranges. For some people, more traditional activists who have been involved in the movement for a long time, and use that language, it probably is mostly strategic. But I think that some of the young women coming up in the movement probably have a different relationship to feminism and to gender equality than previous generations. I think that the fact that the movement is increasingly led by women does have an impact on the substantive makeup of the movement. But it is hard for me to say.
RS: More generally, where do you see the abortion debate in Canada heading, especially given the election of the highly socially conservative Andrew Scheer and Trudeau’s recent declaration that Liberal caucus votes on matters of abortion would be whipped to ensure adherence to the Liberal Party’s pro-choice policy?
KG: I think it’s going to be super interesting to see what happens within the conservative party. My feeling is that Andrew Scheer will be very similar to Stephen Harper. I don’t know Andrew Scheer or Stephen Harper, but my impression is that Scheer probably feels more passionate about the anti-abortion cause than Stephen Harper does. I think it goes a little bit deeper. But I think he will probably follow Harper’s strategy which is “don’t bring it up.” That’s what Harper did to get his majority, he had to sanitize his party from these explicitly anti-abortion and anti-women themes. So that will be interesting to see. The [anti-abortion] movement sees Andrew Scheer as a victory. In terms of the abortion rights movement, the last couple of years have seen some big victories, which is exciting. Canada Health approved mifepristone, which is a better medical abortion pill, so that is being rolled out throughout the country. We are seeing provinces fund that at the provincial level, which is great. We are also seeing the expansion of [abortion] access in the maritimes. There was no abortion provider in PEI since the Morgentaler decision, but, now, they are going to start providing abortions on the island. We have also seen expansion in New Brunswick. So, that’s exciting, and they are definitely victories that an abortion rights movement or a reproductive justice movement should celebrate. I think that we are going to continue to see that movement push on access. Women can legally have an abortion, but are not always able to access it. So I think there is going to continue to be mobilization around access. Also, I think that this movement towards reproductive justice, more largely, is going to start to be exciting in Canada, a lot of which is being led by Indigenous youth. This idea of reproductive justice is not just about abortion, it’s about access to IVF, it’s about fertility, it’s about women being able to reproduce and not reproduce. It’s about trans health and larger reproductive and health care questions. I think that is an exciting avenue that the abortion rights movement is going down.
RS: What implications does your book and broader research project have for pro-choice and reproductive justice strategy?
Part of our argument in the book is that the anti-abortion movement is using historically and traditionally feminist and progressive language. Especially language around choice, but also around women’s health and women’s safety. So I think this shows that a choice frame, without any kind of more nuanced approach about what exercising choice actually looks like for different women, is easily appropriated by the right. There is also a kind of attachment to the traditional portrait of anti-abortion activists on the part of feminists and abortion rights activists. This idea that, if we admit that they are using different arguments that talk about women in different ways, that they are treating women in different ways or that there are women involved in the movement, that that means that we are giving up. Especially in our times, where there is increasing polarization, we need to look at what the other side is saying and take them seriously. I think that’s some of the ramifications, we can’t just rely on old strategies that worked in the 1980’s, this is a new context and we need to respond with new strategies and tactics.
The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement can be purchased here.