Outside Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute at lunchtime on Tuesday, a demonstrator calls out to two boys crossing the street.
“What do you think about abortion?”
“People have rights,” one of the boys responds.
“Yeah – babies too, right?”
He is one of eight protestors carrying signs with pictures of aborted fetuses, standing just off the property of the unsuspecting high school. They would have preferred to speak at an assembly, but public schools, they say, tend to be resistant to their message.
This scene has been playing out with regularity on sidewalks and intersections outside Toronto high schools since earlier this year – and the group is set to expand its campaign to schools across the Greater Toronto Area. Anti-abortionists are a familiar sight on university campuses, but lately they are focused on a younger, much more impressionable audience, hoping to recruit a new generation of campaigners. The brazen tactic used by the pro-life group, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, has angered parents and students, and left the Toronto District School Board in an uncomfortable, frustrating position.
“There’s nothing we can do; they stand off school property,” said spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz. “If members of the community take exception to what they’re saying or their tactics, they are absolutely encouraged to phone the police.”
The group has been visiting Toronto high schools five days a week since February, informing students about abortion, said Stephanie Gray, executive director of the pro-life group. They don’t disclose their locations beforehand. Ms. Gray said the strategy of reaching out to young people in high schools has been successful in Calgary, when it began two years ago.
Some Toronto parents are fuming, not only at the presence of the pro-life group but also because the TDSB hasn’t informed them of the group making the rounds outside secondary schools. “They send us a letter home if some kid has lice. They send us a letter home if there’s been a shooting. Why hasn’t anything been sent home saying ‘Just in case you’re not aware, there is a pro-life group that has been picketing various high schools, and we’ve told kids not to engage’?” asked Adriana Christopoulos. The group showed up at her daughter’s school, Vaughan Road Academy, a few weeks back.
Near Danforth Collegiate earlier this week, the demonstrators showed bloody pictures of aborted fetuses in the first trimester with the word “Choice?” displayed on top, “redefining” – as the organizers say – the message of abortion-rights advocates. A police officer shielded a little girl riding her tricycle from the grotesque images. Many students trickling out of the school ignored the group, but a few questioned, listened, agreed. Others, mainly boys, were infuriated by the presence of a pro-life group. As the discussion heated up, school administrators pull them away.
Arthur Morris was so angry, he was shaking. “I don’t have a problem with them protesting. Freedom of speech, I’m all for that. But I have a problem with this, these images, right outside of school,” said the 16-year-old. “Don’t force your religion, and it’s largely a religious thing, don’t force your religion onto others.”
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Hayden McKinnon, 18. He added: “They’re at a high school. They’re showing pictures of dead fetuses right on the corner... I think all women should have a choice.”
Except for an incident in March outside Harbord Collegiate Institute, where a coffee shop owner was reportedly charged with assaulting anti-abortion demonstrators, the visits are generally peaceful. The group has now visited more than 60 TDSB secondary schools. Students, Ms. Gray said, have changed their minds on abortion after speaking with her staff, all between the ages of 19 and 28. She has noticed that on return visits to schools, for example, some of who were pro-choice on a first visit are now pro-life.
“It’s young people speaking with young people about the killing of young people,” Ms. Gray said. “Our philosophy is: old enough to have” – to conceive a baby – “old enough to see.”
Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics at the University of Toronto, worries that vulnerable students are being targeted by a group that is not providing information, but rather using manipulative language and advertising techniques to recruit.
“When you combine the manipulative techniques with a population that is still forming their values and beliefs, I see an ethical red flag going up,” Prof. Bowman said. “You’re really playing to win. It’s not a just a question of informing people about this issue; it’s much more manipulative.”
School boards are in a difficult position, especially when the pro-life message floods their doorstep. Schools do not know how to teach students about the abortion issue, nor would they be considered neutral for debating it in classrooms.
Ms. Christopoulos said schools have a responsibility, however, to inform the community. Her 16-year-old daughter did not think much of the group showing up at her high school. Ms. Christopoulos was furious that her daughter and her friends were being targeted.
“I think it’s inappropriate. If you want to make a point, then I think you should be approaching people who are in a position to be making those kind of decisions,” she said. “I don’t think my 16-year-old daughter is.”