If you live, work or play in downtown Ottawa, you have doubtless seen the corner of Bank and Queen Streets crowded with anti-abortion protesters. I ride my bike past this corner every day and, virtually without fail, there is a small handful of people stationed across the street from — and at times directly in front of the door to — the Morgentaler clinic. They are holding signs and rocking an empty cradle, clutching rosaries, their heads bowed solemnly in prayer. Although I disagree vehemently with their message and worry about its impact on reproductive rights in this country, I support the right to free expression and peaceful protest and so, as my blood pressure soars, I cycle by at top speed and go on with my day.
In recent months, however, it has been increasingly difficult — at times impossible — to dismiss, or “cycle through” anti-abortion sentiment in this city. Protesters have kicked things up a notch at Bank and Queen, thanks at least in part to the apparently well-organized Ottawa chapter of the American 40 Days for Life campaign.
These people pray and protest to end abortion around the clock for 40 days and nights straight — we’re talking 960 consecutive hours of anti-abortion action. The “Lifers” fast. They march. They recruit. Last autumn, some estimated that over 700 people participated over the 40 days and nights — not a small number in a city the size of Ottawa. The Lifers embarked on another 40 Days during Lent, when they erected loudspeakers and prayed and sang through the nights.
What struck me about the 40 Days protests is that there was little-to-no visible, vocal counter-protest by us pro-choice folks in Ottawa. Why can so many people from the anti-abortion contingent devote time and energy to their cause, and I, apparently, can not? How did the Lifers manage to organize two 960 hour protests in the course of only six months? What message does this send to the Ottawa community and our already anti-woman Prime Minister? In our current political climate – to say nothing of the growing economic albatross — feminism is and will remain a voice of dissent. As feminists are pulled in so many equally-desperate but disparate directions, I worry that our voices risk increasing fragmentation and, perhaps, silencing, just when feminist criticisms and debates on all fronts are at least as important as ever.
My observation on the lack of counter-protest at the 40 Days for Life events is just that – an observation. It is not intended as a criticism or, if it is, it is one most properly directed inward: if I wanted a counter-protest, if I thought feminist opposition to the anti-abortion it was necessary, why did I not organize one? Perhaps these reflections are also a rallying call, of sorts, a “take notice” of a location — an intersection in Ottawa — where more feminist action is needed. Maybe the point, as Alice Walker has said, is that “hard times require furious dancing,” and we have a lot of dancing to do.