Toronto
4 min

The thin facade of civility

Go to a homo church, speaker hisses at Xtra's delegate

Whee. The anti-HLI demo. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

Inside the International Plaza Hotel, where Human Life International is holding its 18th annual world conference, all appears genteel and hospitable. It hardly seems possible that these placid families, the

children brushed and shining, comprise part of a movement that’s been linked to murders of abortion doctors and bombings of clinics.



But HLI, which claims 47,000 members in the US and Canada, is the world’s largest anti-abortion group fighting the “holocaust” against the unborn fetus.



The lengths to which HLI will go to act on its beliefs are often the subject of media speculation; several of its members have criminal convictions and the group’s been linked to rightwing extremists in the US.



Still, it’s hard to connect the welcoming smiles, the gracious ambience, with a reputation that includes distributing hate literature against Jews, Muslims and homosexuals. Surely the honey-eyed blond with the southern smile at reception couldn’t be responsible for refusing Xtra a press pass? (This reporter ended up paying her way as a delegate.)



Surely the frail old priest, who must prop himself up with his microphone to speak about the sin of homosexual relations, is part of a time gone by, his ideas as dusty as his creaky black robe?



It’s true that – among the tables of plastic rosaries, rubber fetuses, and St Francis of Assisi’s Holy Herb Ointment ($9.99 for the 8oz bottle), and down the aisle from the Radio Evangelist Broadcasts Live booth – are racks of pamphlets with titles like Gay Lessons: How Public Funds Are Used To Promote Homosexuality Among Children And Young People; Abortifacient Contraception: The Pharmaceutical Holocaust; and Feminism: Frauds And Fallacies. But these seem too ridiculous for anyone to take seriously, and, so far, it all seems relatively benign.



And all very Roman Catholic.



The essence of feminism is a statement of Lucifer – “I will not serve!” – an impassioned Mrs Babette Francis exhorts from behind a pulpit she can barely see above. (Well, it’s not really a pulpit in the ecclesiastical sense, since women can’t be ordained in the Catholic Church. But neither that fact, nor any other, seems to bother Babette.)



The Australian national and overseas co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc (a corollary of REAL Women Canada), Mrs Francis tells us that the central tenet of feminism is that women are discriminated against. Then she sets about disproving such nonsense.



For starters, fewer women go to prison, and they live longer than men.



When asked to comment on the quality – and not simply biological differences – of women’s lives in comparison to men’s, she says: “The reason women don’t earn as much as men [approximately one-third less] is because they stay home with the children.



“They make that choice.”



That is, unless they get pregnant because HLI discourages them from using contraception. But Mrs Francis has an answer for that too.



All of her eight children were planned using natural family planning methods, she says.



Well, what about the fact that women in the Catholic Church are not allowed to be ordained? There’s a low murmur in the room.



“I don’t understand why women who won’t accept the teachings of the Catholic Church don’t just go elsewhere,” she says. “Go to one of those other churches, those homo churches.”



The message is clear: this is not a forum for discussion; there’s no room for contention here.



I tuck my horns in my ears and turn tail.



Still, despite most speakers’ sheer obduracy in the face of reality, the lectures up until now have been fairly innocuous – fervent appeals to an adulatory audience. The preaching is predictable; the rhetoric regurgitated: “How can we reconcile our opposition to one [fundamentalist Christian] world government?” ponders Father Richard Welch, during his talk on How The Liberal Dissent Agenda Impacts The Pro-Life Movement.



Meanwhile, HLI’s director of Morality Education, Barbara McGuigan, speaking on Raising Pro-Life Children In The Culture Of Death, proselytizes: “There’s no such thing as safe sex because there’s no such thing as safe sin!”



Then there’s Father Matthew Habiger.



The title of Habiger’s talk is Development Or Population Control? He outlines the various aspects of international development – health, education and housing, for example, and then details how, instead of addressing these needs, the World Bank, UNICEF and other aid organizations have instead adopted “anti-natalist policies.”



He argues that these groups have adopted these policies because they see a need to protect the developed world against the encroachment of Africans and Asians.



“Of every 100 babies born, 96 are born in the developing world,” Habiger says. The relief organizations believe all those babies born in places like China, Africa, and Asia mean the developing world will have workers and we won’t, he says.



“[They think] this is bound to change the present balance of [international] power,” he says, concluding that concern about a drop in their own standard of living in the western world is motivating the emphasis of these organizations on birth control.



It’s certainly true that relief organizations working in the developing world do emphasize birth control. But it’s highly unlikely that they do so for the reasons Habiger attributes to them.



But that’s how HLI works – by providing a kernel of truth to wrap its extremist theories around. This approach speaks to HLI’s audience. Those who will be persuaded to adopt its views are people who will accept HLI at face value – people without the knowledge, ability or motivation to discriminate between its selective mix of fact and fiction.



That’s what could make HLI dangerous. Its incendiary diatribes against homosexuals, Jews and Muslims mostly serve to undermine any credibility it may have beyond its own supporters. And its sway is not in any might-versus-legal-right tactics that extremist supporters may employ.



But HLI’s power is in its audience, which is eager to believe everything it’s told. As I walk towards the exit, I spy my case in point – a group of teenagers. Why are they here? Well, aside from the fact that their way here was paid by their local pro-life association, they’re here because they’ve never questioned HLI’s authority.



“I’ve been pro-life since I was a kid,” says one 15-year-old. “It would be unnatural not to be.”



Outside the hotel, protesters are starting to gather. They appear to be a rag tag bunch, a motley group that seems at first uncertain of itself.



Certainly they appear naive and vulnerable compared to the taut team of riot police in their ominous metal helmets. Some of us behind the media gate laugh at their hastily constructed banners and the bravado of the mostly young, straggly crowd. There’s a sense of grudging admiration among us, but it’s difficult to see what effect these earnest, idealistic activists can possibly have.



But then I remember how easy it is to be fooled by appearances. And I hope there’s more here than meets the eye.