Anti-choice centres lose lawsuit: What does it all mean?

Has Canada's anti-choice movement been gaining the upper hand over the last few years? It might seem that way sometimes, and a recent in-depth piece in Maisonneuve raises the spectre of a new "culture war" around abortion, led by energetic young "pro-lifers". But there's another way to look at it, especially taking into account some pro-choice victories.

The Christian Advocacy Society of Greater Vancouver (CAS) recently lost a defamation lawsuit they had launched against me personally last fall, for a 2009 report I wrote for the Pro-Choice Action Network with the help of volunteers (the organization is now defunct). The report is entitled Exposing Crisis Pregnancy Centres in British Columbia. The CAS operates two anti-choice "crisis pregnancy centres" (CPCs), one in Vancouver and the other in Burnaby.

After a one-day trial in April at the Supreme Court of BC, Madam Justice Russell dismissed the suit entirely on August 26, concluding that the disputed section of the report (pages 13-16) was not "of and concerning" those two CPCs. That section was a general list of tactics "common to many or most" CPCs in North America, of which there were about 4,200 (in 2009). The judge said: "It is interesting to note that the plaintiffs do not take any issue with respect to the information found in the Report specific to CPCs in British Columbia (pages 3-12). Instead, the plaintiffs take issue with the sections of the Report that discuss CPCs in North America."

The report didn't even mention either of the CPC plaintiffs by name except in a list in Appendix 3. Justice Russell concluded, after rebutting various aspects of the plaintiffs' case: "I find these factors, taken together, do not support the conclusion that an ordinary person, reading the Report as a whole, would believe the impugned statements brought discredit to the plaintiffs' reputation." Central to the case were the report's qualifying words "many or most CPCs," which the judge agreed meant that readers would understand that CPCs vary in their tactics and not all CPCs engage in each activity described.

Of course, the legal strategy that my lawyer employed -- arguing that the report did not specifically say that the two plaintiff CPCs used any of the described tactics from pages 13-16 -- does not necessarily mean they are absolved of all wrongdoing, as the CAS speciously claimed in a press release. One of the most puzzling aspects of the plaintiffs' case, in fact, was their silence regarding Appendices 1 and 2 of the report, which consist of 23 pages of detailed rebuttals of medical misinformation and "counselling abuses" that we found in a Volunteer Training Manual used by the plaintiff (at least until 2006). We had hired a doctor and a professionally trained counsellor to write those sections of the report. The doctor found errors, distortions or exaggerations, and inadequate referencing throughout the training manual, including in the descriptions of pregnancy and fetal development, abortion procedures, abortion risks, post-abortion counselling, and condom efficacy. The counsellor criticized the heavy religious bias of the training manual, which prioritized ideology over patients' needs, such as urging rape victims to carry their pregnancy to term, and advocating a strict, traditional model of sexuality.

The most plausible explanation for the plaintiffs' silence on the training manual is that the CAS chose a general section of the report that they felt would give them the best chance of success in a lawsuit. Indeed, they probably do not engage in "many or most" of the tactics listed on pages 13-16, some of which are horror stories from more extremist CPCs in the U.S. However, I have in my possession various pamphlets obtained directly from both the plaintiff CPCs, promoting such things as a link between abortion and breast cancer -- scientifically disproven since 2003 -- and "post-abortion syndrome," which is not even scientifically recognized. According to the American Psychological Association: "The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy, the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy."

The lawsuit victory is significant. First, close to 200 CPCs operate in Canada, all of them from the premise that abortion is wrong and women should be persuaded to carry to term. That in itself is not necessarily the problem -- the problem is that many of them put up deceptive fronts as secular and professional agencies that promise unbiased help and accurate information on all pregnancy options. It is essential that the pro-choice movement continues to expose these centres. Second, when the judge dismissed the suit, the plaintiff CPCs were ordered to pay all court costs -- a financial setback for the CPCs, and a demoralizing one for the anti-choice movement as a whole.

Returning to the question I raised at the beginning of this article, other pro-choice successes in recent years include the defeat of Motion M-312 in September 2012, the deep-sixing of Bill C-484 by the Conservative government in 2008, and the non-votability coup scored against Motion M-408 this past March.

Further, opinion polls show a strong and increasing pro-choice majority in Canada, unless anti-choice groups or the right-wing polling agency Angus Reid write misleading questions for their own push polls.

One reason that anti-choicers have become more visible and energized in recent years is because Harper and the Conservative government hold the reins of power, which bolstered the movement's strength and morale at least in the early years. However, a positive attitude and an increased public presence do not by themselves translate to political success, and most anti-choicers are now quite disillusioned with Harper because of his refusal to legislate on abortion.

I would argue that another reason the anti-choice movement is more active lately is simply because the pro-choice movement has been fighting harder in recent years against anti-choice bills and other campaigns, causing our opposition to increasingly mobilize in turn. Although this has the side-effect of giving anti-choicers a bigger public platform, they are often quite adept at hanging themselves with their own rope. When they're given mainstream media space, they frequently make offensive or inflammatory remarks that would turn off most ordinary Canadians. The extremist Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is another case in point -- despite the group's bravado, it is losing the battle of public opinion in its campaign to force 250,000 Canadian families (including children) to view graphic postcards showing aborted fetuses.

The defamation lawsuit backfired on the Christian Advocacy Society because, in my view, the anti-choice movement doesn't always have a firm grasp on reality. They tend to be quite insular, and so become convinced their position is far more reasonable and defensible than it actually is.

The anti-choice movement does a pretty good job of disseminating misinformation and promoting abortion stigma, and it's crucial we continue opposing these things, because they have serious real-world effects such as reducing access to abortion. But I also trust that most people can see that the anti-choice movement is religiously based and generally of a fundamentalist persuasion, and Canadians don't like having religion shoved down their throats. Also, most people support women's rights and understand that the fetus-focused view of the anti-choice movement is dangerous for women's health and lives. That could be why anti-choice protesters on the street or in front of abortion clinics typically have to put up with a lot of anger and abuse from passersby. Even when anti-choicers focus their supposed concern on women and the "harms" of abortion to women, much of their rhetoric comes across as patronizing and sexist, which doesn't go over too well with Canadians either.

I hope my lawsuit victory will add to the confidence of the pro-choice movement. Of course, there's no guarantee of success in the face of conservative determination to oppress people, but having truth and justice firmly on our side, as well as public opinion, gives us plenty to be confident about.

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Photo: Jenn Farr/flickr

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