Do graphic abortion protests actually work?

You’re a UBC student, you’re walking down Main Mall, you come across a group of people standing in front of signs showing pictures of aborted fetuses next to the Nazi flag and photos of the Cambodian genocide.

Last week, UBC Lifeline, an anti-abortion club, did just that as they partnered with the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) once again to set up the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) — a graphic anti-abortion display likening the practice of abortion to genocide.

Ethics aside, the question is whether they are really convincing anyone that abortion is wrong?

The science is murky and a lot of the evidence for and against is anecdotal. However, from what professionals can tell the answer is “probably not.”

According to UBC psychology professor Kalina Christoff, people aren’t likely to be swayed by logic — however scientifically accurate it may or may not be — on emotional positions like whether one is pro-life or pro-choice.

“When presented with arguments, people tend to entrench their positions even more. The research would suggest that none of this would've changed anyone's opinions,” she said.

Christoff also mentioned that — although logic isn’t what changes these hard-and-fast opinions — the graphic imagery isn’t helping. Even though the group is happy to talk to people who have questions, seeing an image of an aborted fetus can set people on edge.

“To the extent that you can create a conversation and lower the emotional charge of both parties, then you have an increased chance of actually convincing the others of your position. Essentially, that protest was doing the opposite of what it would actually take to potentially change other people’s opinions,” she said.

Lifeline and CCBR aren’t claiming that abortion is exactly the same as genocide, only that there are parallels in their opinion of both.

“Abortion is genocidal, in a sense, because preborn children are targeted for extermination at ... killing centres where preborn children are targeted for extermination because they're unwanted or they're too young,” said Mark Goudie, a member of Lifeline.

Christoff noted that the use and misuse of extreme terms when discussing topics like abortion can make people defensive and set barriers against meaningful discussion.

“If you look at what genocide is, it is aggression against a certain subpopulation. Obviously, even if you treat abortion as aggression against fetuses, it's not against all fetuses,” she said. “It's just a complete collapse of any proper use of words. That's where, in addition to the emotional charge that they're creating … they're also creating a barrier by completely overextending any meaning of words in a very particular and negative direction.”

Goudie said that, aside from Lifeline’s main goal of “making abortion unthinkable,” they just want to start a conversation about it on campus.

He mentioned that the slew of letters that descended upon The Ubyssey while the display was set up, coupled with multiple interview requests, were evidence enough that their technique was working. Certainly, the group gets people talking — but about what?

A total of four letters and one news piece were published in over a span of three days — three of the letters discussed freedom of expression and/or whether or not GAP should be allowed to set up on campus. The other one, entitled “Abortion is not genocide,” was dedicated to beating back a claim from Goudie concerning the parallels between abortions and genocide.

There’s no way to sift through and read every article on CCBR’s media coverage page. However, the overwhelming majority of headlines were some variation of, “Canadian city relents, agrees to run ads against abortion on its buses before case could reach court”; “Alberta city considering new bylaw after complaint over graphic abortion images”; and from sites like — for which there are 232 results — “Unborn babies have the right to our defence.”

The evidence seems to mirror The Ubyssey’s experience — GAP doesn’t cause people to talk about abortion, it causes people to talk about GAP.

A study published in Contraception, a reproductive health journal, is the closest we have to hard numbers regarding a similar situation. The survey spoke to 1,000 women at 30 different clinics that perform abortions who had seen and/or heard pro-life protesters outside. Around half of the women felt upset initially by the protests, but it made no difference in the end result. The only women who felt negative emotions within a week after their abortions were the ones who had struggled with the decision from the beginning.

None of this is to say that Lifeline, CCBR or anti-abortion protesters in general have never convinced anyone — there is undisputable anecdotal evidence of individuals being swayed to a more pro-life position. However, until groups that use graphic imagery evolve their tactics they’ll do their cause more harm than good.