They will fight to protect the unborn, raise their voices against abortion in Canada — and maybe win an iPod.
Pro-lifers will rally on Parliament Hill by the thousands Thursday for the March for Life, an ever-growing annual rally attended by, yes, older activists, but also increasingly by hordes of fresh-faced young people snapping photos, shooting videos and live-tweeting while hoisting signs saying “Justice for the Unborn.”
“There are so many young people, and young people love technology. So I thought, let’s have a viral video contest,” said 25-year-old Alissa Golob, youth recruiter with national pro-life group Campaign Life Coalition.
Golob kept seeing raw videos pop up online after marches, so she launched a competition — make the coolest March for Life video and win an iPod (the runner-up gets $100 from the Apple store).
No longer just grey-haired activists holding signs outside abortion clinics, the pro-life movement has undergone a savvy, youthful makeover. Viral video contests, slick marketing campaigns, podcasts and Facebook groups fly in the face of assumptions that all young people lean left and that opposing abortion is antiquated.
“The young people seem to be taking over all the older groups and it’s hugely re-energizing,” said 23-year-old Jonathon Van Maren, communications director with the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. “And I think that the older generation is recognizing that new tactics, new ideas, new blood in the movement is really what’s going to change it.”
Van Maren’s Calgary-based non-profit may be the best example of that young blood. The 10-year-old organization — whose mandate includes “exposing the reality of abortion” by showing disturbing and graphic images and videos — employs 11 full-time staff, their median age 25.
He says youth have come in “droves” to the movement in the last few years.
“I spoke to a rally of older people and I remember the pro-life leader there said ‘Thank God you guys are taking over, now we can finally die.’ They were very worried there because there weren’t people in the pro-life movement and just in the last couple of years it’s just skyrocketed.”
That assertion tends to be anecdotal. Golob says membership in the CLC Youth group has grown to the thousands, but she doesn’t know precisely how many of those have joined in the last few years.
Rebecca Richmond, executive director for the National Campus Life Network, which supports campus pro-life groups, has seen expansion of the movement on campuses — “not just with our own organization, but more groups, more events, more high-profile guest lecturers.”
Van Maren said in the last six months, 10 youth coalitions have formed across the country to participate in the “Choice Chain,” a campaign that sees youth standing on busy street corners, holding high resolution photos claiming to show post-abortive fetuses.
One group participated in Toronto in March, and it mainly targeted young people, said Golob, who organized the demonstration. She admitted it was a difficult thing for pro-lifers to do since their views are the minority in a city like Toronto.
Joyce Arthur, the executive director of pro-choice group Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, has also noticed the young protesters, whom she calls anti-choice.
“There used to be the perception that people outside the abortion clinics didn’t have any working uteruses, because they were too old, or men,” she said. “That’s still to some extent true, but definitely there is a huge surge in young people being active in the anti-choice movement.”
Arthur attributes that to the “big advantage” the pro-life movement has. In many cases it is tied to religious institutions like schools and churches, making it easier to find recruits, she said.
But since those institutions orchestrate pro-life events, she remains skeptical about motivation. Catholic schools send classes on field trips to the March for Life, so of course young people are there, she said.
Indeed, when asked why he was attending a recent pro-life student conference in Toronto, 17-year-old high-school student John shrugged and said “it’s mandatory.”
But those in the movement say social media is the latest recruitment tool, playing no small part in the growing number of young pro-lifers. It’s often the only exposure they get, some say.
“The media likes to ignore pro-life issues. So the way that we get it out into the Internet sphere is to do our own coverage,” said Golob.
Posting or tweeting articles or videos puts pro-life issues in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise see them. Golob says she’s received messages from former co-workers at McDonald’s or friends from high school, saying “thank you for saying this stuff, I’ve never read this stuff before.”
“I express my pro-life views mainly through social media, particularly Facebook, including posting commentary, links, videos or anything that challenges the mentality that abortion is okay and provokes debate,” said Nadalie Bardowell, a 26-year-old pro-life activist from Markham, told the Star in an email.
Van Maren’s shock-jock voice has been put to good use hosting a weekly podcast, titled End the Killing, that’s aimed at younger listeners and available on iTunes.
The movement even has its own Justin Bieber-style star: Canadian Lia Mills, then 12, was “discovered” after a YouTube video she made garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. Now in her teens, Mills has become a speaker at pro-life rallies and runs a pro-life video blog.
The U.S. pro-life movement has undergone its own hip rejuvenation. Most recently, American pastor Lou Engle — known for his controversial views on homosexuality — held The Esther Call, a faith-based, women-only convention to protest abortion in the U.S. that drew thousands.
The rock-concert setting and young age of attendees led feminist website Jezebel to label it the “new sleekly marketed anti-abortion movement.”
But while that marketing has helped, young pro-lifers in Canada think there’s much more to it: they believe they are “the survivor generation.”
“We grew up since the 1988 Morgentaler decision (when criminal laws regulating abortion were thrown out) and so I think that our generation is starting to question this,” said Richmond. “A quarter of our generation lost their lives to abortion.”
“Anybody born after that considers themselves a survivor in a way,” said Golob.
Wayne Sumner, a University of Toronto professor emeritus specializing in the ethics of human life, including abortion, says young people have been involved in the pro-life movement in every generation — “it’s nothing new,” he said.
What this generation faces, however, is an especially hard battle. While they may have differing opinions on the morals of abortion, most Canadians strongly support a women’s legal right to the procedure.
“There’s no prospect of parliamentary change,” Sumner said. “There’s no practical effect that they can have. What they can’t really do is target some avenue in which things can change.”
Van Maren disagrees. The aim is to change public opinion, he says, which will then lead to changes in public policy.
“The hairline cracks are starting to form in the abortion consensus, and the more young people we throw at it, the bigger the cracks are going to get.”