How to spot an anti-choice bill

Three women standing in a field with their arms on each other's backs
Private member's bills are proposed laws introduced by Members of Parliament (MPs) who are not part of the government.

While government bills, which are proposed by Cabinet Ministers, often take precedence and receive more attention and resources, private member's bills can still influence the legal landscape.

Over the years, there have been a number of private member's bills introduced that seek to regulate and/or restrict abortion and undermine long-settled law. As of June 2023, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has identified at least 48 anti-choice private member bills or motions introduced in Canada’s Parliament since 1987. They have all failed to pass. 

Even though unsuccessful, these bills seek to shape societal views on abortion and, over time, the anti-choice movement has used several tactics to try and make the Canadian public more supportive of restrictions to abortion access. 

The anti-choice movement started to strategically employ human rights and feminist language to further their agendas and advance restrictions on abortion around 2003. As societal attitudes towards sexuality and reproductive rights become more progressive and arguments based on shaming sexuality lose ground, the anti-choice movement has adapted its messaging to stay relevant and counteract advancements in sexual and reproductive freedom. This tactic is a form of "semantic activism," where anti-abortion advocates use the language and rhetoric of human rights and feminism to frame their arguments and gain legitimacy. 

Here's how this cooptation of human rights and feminist language works: 

1. Reframing the Debate: By adopting human rights and feminist language, anti-choice activists reframe the abortion debate. They present themselves as defenders of

or of vulnerable populations, and claim to protect the rights of the unborn. This leads to framing abortion restrictions as a means of safeguarding women's and fetal rights as well as the rights of vulnerable people generally. 

2. Appealing to Empathy: Using feminist language, anti-choice advocates seek to appeal to empathy and solidarity. They may argue that abortion restrictions are meant to protect women from alleged harm or exploitation, suggesting that they are acting in the best interest of women's health and wellbeing. Usually, they will appeal to people’s natural concern in ensuring safety, especially in medical settings, to argue for restrictions to services that they claim are not looking after women’s best interests.

3. Creating Confusion: By utilizing human rights discourse, anti-choice activists aim to create confusion and ambiguity around the issue of abortion. This tactic can make it harder for pro-choice advocates to disentangle correct information from mis/disinformation to counter their arguments effectively.

4. Securing Political Support: Presenting abortion restrictions as a matter of human rights or women's rights can garner political support from individuals or groups who may not fully understand the complexity of the issue. It allows anti-choice activists to build alliances beyond their traditional base. This is particularly effective when issues like violence against women or sex-selective abortion are used to tap into legitimate needs for better safeguards against violence, for increased safety, or to address the devaluation of girls and women.

5. Accessing International Platforms: Framing their agenda as a matter of human rights can enable anti-choice advocates to gain access to international platforms and engage with global discussions on human rights, giving them an opportunity to influence policies beyond their national borders.

A Black woman sitting at a table using her laptop, looking serious.

Specifically, it is important to recognize these larger themes:

Violence against women

Anti-abortion bills that claim to address violence against women as a tactic to gain support for abortion restrictions often do so by highlighting cases of violence and claiming that these are reasons to impose stricter regulations or bans on abortion. Here's how this tactic works: 

  1. Exploiting Emotional Appeal: Anti-choice proponents might use high-profile cases of violence against pregnant women, particularly cases where the assailant intentionally targets the woman's pregnancy, to evoke strong emotional responses. These cases can be deeply distressing and provoke sympathy and outrage. It becomes easier to shame those who do not support the bill as morally questionable, and not having a strong enough response to violence against women. 
  1. Framing Fetal Rights: Using the concept of "fetal rights" or "unborn victims of violence," anti-choice rhetoric may portray the fetus as a separate victim, even if a bill purports to simply protect pregnant women from violence. This tactic serves to advance anti-choice views by using any potential success to impose ever-greater restrictions on the right to abortion. 
  1. Expanding the Definition of Personhood: Some anti-abortion bills include language that extends legal personhood and rights to the fetus from the moment of conception. The intention is to portray the fetus as an independent entity while obscuring the fact that it is inside another person’s body. This tactic aims to erode the distinction between the rights of the pregnant person and the rights of the fetus, making it easier to justify restrictions on abortion in other settings. 
  1. Creating Sympathy for the Anti-Choice Agenda: By using violence against women as a tactic, anti-choice advocates aim to garner sympathy and support from the public, framing their restrictive policies as necessary measures to protect women and their pregnancies. 

Using stories of violence against women exploits sensitive and distressing situations to advance a very specific anti-abortion agenda. Violence against pregnant women is a serious issue that should be addressed through comprehensive policies, yet using these cases in arguments to restrict abortion access ultimately undermines the rights and autonomy of pregnant individuals. 

Protecting women and vulnerable people’s safety 

Anti-choice bills that use the safety of women and vulnerable people in their tactics to gain support for restrictions on abortion often frame their arguments around the idea of protecting people's health and well-being. Here's how this tactic works (with some examples drawn from the U.S.): 

  1. Health and Safety Concerns: Anti-choice proponents may highlight potential health risks associated with abortion, emphasizing cases where complications have occurred. They may argue that imposing restrictions is necessary to ensure the safety of those undergoing the procedure. 
  1. Regulating Medical Procedures: Some anti-choice bills focus on regulating abortion providers and clinics under the pretext of protecting people's health. They might require clinics to meet certain medical standards or demand abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, even when such requirements are not medically necessary. They may seek to restrict abortion after a certain gestational time due to the risk of complications rising as the pregnancy advances, or to follow the “international standard” of limiting abortion after the first trimester to protect fetuses as well as women – a restriction that is not science or fact-based. 
  1. Misinformation and Fear-Mongering: Anti-choice advocates may use misleading or exaggerated information about the risks of abortion to instill fear and concern among the public. This tactic aims to sway public opinion towards supporting restrictions on abortion. 
  1. Framing Abortion as Harmful: They may frame abortion as a harmful and dangerous procedure, downplaying its safety record and overall low complication rates. By doing so, they seek to justify the need for restrictive measures. 
  1. Creating a False Narrative of Protection: Anti-choice bills may be presented as protective measures for women and vulnerable people, even if their actual impact is to limit access to abortion services or advance fetal rights. This tactic is designed to garner public support by positioning restrictions as being “common sense” and in the best interest of women's health.   
  1. Emphasizing "Informed Consent": Some anti-choice bills focus on "informed consent" requirements, where women are required to receive specific information about the procedure and its potential risks before obtaining an abortion. Providing accurate information is already an important piece of how abortion takes place. Imposing extra requirements is a tactic used to discourage and delay access to abortion care. This is an example of co-opting a feminist concept and using it in bad faith. 
  1. "Pain-Capable" Fetus Bills: Bills banning abortion after a certain gestational age leverage the idea of a fetus' capacity to feel pain to claim to protect the fetus from experiencing pain during the procedure. This tactic aims to evoke empathy for the fetus and sway public opinion in favor of restrictions. 

While it’s valid to be concerned about health and safety, anti-choice actors maliciously tap into people’s genuine concerns for their loved ones as a pretext to limit access to safe and legal abortion care. In these narratives, women are portrayed as needing protections that erode their agency, and fetuses are portrayed as independent actors entitled to protection by society even though they are not fully developed and won’t be legal persons until birth. Both of these narratives adopt feminist discourse to argue for fundamentally anti-feminist actions in the form of restrictions to abortion that undermine the bodily sovereignty of anyone with the capacity for pregnancy. Understanding these tactics can help advocate for evidence-based policies that truly prioritize health, safety, and reproductive freedom. 

Sex-Selective abortion 

Anti-choice bills that use sex-selective abortion as a tactic to gain support for restrictions on abortion typically aim to exploit concerns about gender-based discrimination and female infanticide. Here's how this tactic works: 

  1. Appeal to Gender Equality: Anti-choice advocates frame their arguments around concerns for gender equality, arguing that sex-selective abortion is a form of gender-based discrimination. They claim that these restrictions are necessary to protect the rights of female fetuses and promote gender equity. 
  1. Cultural and Ethical Concerns: Some anti-choice bills may reference specific cultural practices or societal norms in certain regions where sex-selective abortion has been reported. They use these instances to build moral and ethical arguments against abortion access, particularly in cases where the decision is based on the sex of the fetus. Note that the arguments are not about gender inequity in broader cultural specificity. The ethical concern is specific to female fetuses.  
  1. Emotional Appeals: Using emotional appeals, anti-choice proponents might portray sex-selective abortion as a tragic and harmful practice. They aim to evoke sympathy and concern for female fetuses, framing abortion restrictions as a means to protect potential victims of gender discrimination. 
  1. Raising Doubts about Women's Autonomy: By focusing on sex-selective abortion, anti-abortion advocates focus only on the fetus. They erase the person making decisions about their pregnancy and the social context they live in. This tactic implies that women cannot be trusted to make decisions about their pregnancies, or that they have no agency because others must be coercing them into a sex-selective abortion. They argue that restrictions are necessary to prevent "misuse" of abortion for gender preference. 
  1. Stigmatizing Abortion Access: By associating abortion with gender-based discrimination, these bills seek to stigmatize abortion access and create moral dilemmas around the issue. Moral dilemmas are legitimate, yet they are personal and do not belong in conversations about the imposition of legal restrictions for all. This tactic aims to sway public opinion towards supporting restrictions on abortion, which in itself constitutes gender discrimination. 
  1. Diverting Attention from Broader Reproductive Rights: By focusing on sex-selective abortion, anti-abortion proponents may divert attention from the broader issue of reproductive rights and autonomy, which are pillars of gender equality. This tactic is a strategy that purposefully diminishes the fact that the vast majority of abortions are sought for various personal and medical reasons unrelated to sex selection. The  reasons why some people may choose to end a pregnancy because of the sex of the fetus are not addressed in these conversations. Imposing restrictions on the reproductive rights and bodily autonomy of people exacerbates conditions of inequity, lack of safety, and marginalization.  

While gender-based discrimination is a legitimate concern, these bills may use this issue as a pretext to restrict abortion access more broadly, affecting all pregnant individuals and infringing upon their reproductive rights and decision-making autonomy. We know that restrictions on abortion do not diminish the need for abortion, but increase the incidence of unsafe abortion. Understanding these tactics can help advocate for comprehensive reproductive healthcare that respects individual autonomy and truly reinforces gender equality. 

Overall, it is important to understand this playbook and recognize these tactics as what they are: means to gain public support for restricting abortion and the bodily autonomy of people with the capacity for pregnancy. Understanding how human rights and feminist language can be co-opted helps to distinguish genuine advocacy for human rights and reproductive freedom from attempts to restrict access to abortion and thus restrict reproductive freedom. This knowledge can inform public discourse and policy-making to ensure that reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are upheld for all individuals.

Arrow to the right