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Op-ed: Anti-abortion imagery on campus is an accessibility issue

Paid staff of anti-abortion groups are displaying graphic fetal images on campus
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses experiences surrounding abortion.

Maybe you’ve seen it — groups of people with huge, graphic signs standing on all four corners of an intersection, asking innocuous questions to passersby as though they are holding nothing more than an infographic. In reality, they are holding macabre, bloody pictures of non-viable fetuses as they block the sidewalk, making the images unavoidable as they feign innocence, saying, “How do you feel about abortion?” 

When I lived in London, Ontario, I decided to join the Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition (VDLC) after I found a graphic anti-abortion flyer with visible gruesome images on my living room floor. The distributors of these pamphlets had shoved it through my mail slot, into my house. This graphic, unsolicited pamphlet was pushed into my home and forced upon me. Since the widespread distribution of these pamphlets in London, the VDLC’s mission has been to get Bill 41 — the Viewer Discretion Act (Images of Fetuses) — passed, which would require graphic anti-abortion mail to be in opaque envelopes with a viewer discretion warning.

Every time someone spots graphic anti-abortion signs in London, the rest of the VDLC and I go out with our own signs, blocking the images so that no one has to look at them if they don’t want to. For us, viewer consent matters. 

After moving to Toronto, I hoped to leave the anti-abortion fliers, images, and protests behind me. As a full-time university student, I wanted to focus on my studies. Imagine my horror in discovering that the very same group — the one we have been fighting so hard against in London — regularly parades their signs in the middle of campus. 

The group responsible is the Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform (CCBR). I have seen paid members of their staff holding these signs up on campus and handing out CCBR-branded fliers to pedestrians that contain still more graphic imagery. 

The CCBR justifies these graphic images by claiming, “If the images were ineffective, one would expect abortion advocates to be indifferent to them.” In other words, if these images upset some people, it is not an unfortunate side effect it is their purpose. To them, that is a sign that these images are working, creating the intended effect. 

When someone lets me know that graphic signs are on campus, I drop what I’m doing and pick up my pro-choice signs, run out, and try my best to block the graphic imagery. Sometimes I get help — some people pick up one of the extra signs I have and help me block it. Friends join me.

But we’re all students. There are classes to get to and papers to write. So sometimes I am out there alone in the cold, holding my one pro-choice sign, surrounded by five or six CCBR employees and volunteers holding their own graphic signs.

But why is it on me to block these signs? I am only one sleep-deprived undergrad. This should not be my job. Where is the university?

Graphic pictures are placed on campus for the expressed purpose of upsetting people. For many, it is more than upsetting — it is triggering. Miscarriage affects up to 20 per cent of pregnancies. One in four uterus owners are expected to have an abortion within their childbearing years. 

The VDLC’s own cofounder, Katie Dean, chose to terminate her pregnancy due to a medical anomaly. This was a wanted baby, a loved baby. Her name was Kylie, and she would have lived a very painful life of only a few minutes had she been born. Katie’s eyes still well up every time she talks about it, 18 years later. When I first met her, I listened as she fought the lump in her throat, describing how she had forced herself to look up anti-abortion imagery as exposure therapy, so she could cope with seeing it on the streets.

Is this what students have to do now, in order to cope with walking to class? These images are regularly on campus. The location and time are variable; there is no way to plan around it. Is the goal for students to be having panic attacks in washroom stalls, reliving and being shamed for the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make, the most traumatic moments of their lives — instead of going to class?

This is not a freedom of speech issue. If anti-abortion groups want to stand on street corners holding non-graphic signs, they are welcome to do so, as far as I’m concerned. But they aren’t. They are holding gory displays of fetal remains, not only without regard for the harm it causes, but with the explicit purpose of causing that harm.

Would this harassment and shaming be allowed if it was around any other issue? Would images of any other medical procedure be allowed to be displayed and distributed on school property, for vulnerable people to see? The university campus is not only currently inaccessible to a significant number of students; it is actively hostile.

I am calling on U of T to step up and make campus accessible. It is the right of every student to feel safe and welcome on campus. 

Al Draghici is a second-year history student at St. Michael’s College. They are a board member and the Toronto organizer for the VDLC. If you are interested in the VDLC and what it does, you can go to www.vdlclondon.ca to learn more and sign the petition in support of Bill 41. If you want to volunteer and help Al block graphic anti-abortion signs, or if you see graphic signs anywhere, direct message them on Instagram @vdlc_ontario.