Convivium’s Rebecca Atkinson talks to producer Mike Schouten about The Missing Project documentary, which fills in the blanks on the 50 years since Canada’s abortion law was overturned and then abandoned entirely.
Rebecca Atkinson: Can you tell me about The Missing Project?
Mike Schouten: The thought process started about 18 months ago when a number of us working in the pro-life movement were reflecting on the fact we were coming up to the 50-year anniversary of the original law that was brought into Canada that legalized abortion: May 14, 1969. We were reflecting on and somewhat bemoaning the fact pro-choice activists would likely be celebrating it as a grand milestone, so we were thinking, how do we get Canadians' stories out there?
We were thinking, obviously, about the missing pre-born children. But how has abortion impacted families who have taken in babies given up for adoption? How has it influenced pro-life legislators who wanted to change legal framework? How has it affected young women who found themselves in an unplanned pregnancy and weren't sure what to do?
We thought it would be good if we could find 50 stories, matching the 50 years of legal abortion, sharing how abortion has affected Canadians. Over time, it became apparent we should be calling this The Missing Project because there is so much missing in addition to the nearly four million pre-born children that have been aborted. There's so much missing in the Canadian context when it comes to a robust debate about women's rights and the right of fetuses.
That was the genesis of the project. At that time, we needed to find a filmmaker – somebody who would be willing to travel the country, document these stories, and put them into film. We visualized a 60 to 90-minute documentary, but as filmmaker and director Ryan Stockert began going across the country, it became clear there was power in the individual stories. We changed the project from just a 60 to 90-minute documentary, to include also a second component, and that was the individual stories he was capturing on film as he traversed the country. So, the project really now is a two-part effort. The first is being rolled out right now. It started on Mother's Day, one story released every single day.
It will conclude on July 1. At that time, we will be releasing an exclusive online screening of the full-length documentary, and we have further plans as to how to release it into the fall and throughout the rest of 2019.
RA: What is your goal in the creation of this project?
The narrative in Canada for so long has been that abortion is the woman's right, and in order for women to be equal to men, they have to have access to abortions.
MS: The primary one is that, through this project, Canadians – especially Canadians in the middle, Canadians who are indifferent, maybe haven't given abortion much thought or would likely call themselves pro-choice if someone asked them – to have them see that abortion since 1988, with its lack of straightforward medical procedure that some people avail themselves of and some people don't, and life goes on as normal. It affects people. It doesn't just impact women. It impacts doctors, it impacts fathers.
The narrative in Canada for so long has been that abortion is the woman's right, and in order for women to be equal to men, they have to have access to abortions. That's the simple fact of the matter, and that's not true. It's far more detailed, not just a procedure, but insofar as the psychological implications of abortion and how it impacts people in general for years and years following the procedure.
The second is that Canadians don't understand our country has a very extreme position when it comes to protecting fetal rights because we're the only country that doesn't protect them at any stage of pregnancy. I'm the producer of The Missing Project, my role is director of the We Need a Law Campaign that's operated by ARPA (Association for Reformed Political Action) Canada, and we have for years now tried to cement that thought into the Canadian psyche. Canada has no abortion law, and we are starting to see that as Canadians find that out, they are rightly disturbed by it.
RA: We see pro-life legislation passing in the United States. What do you think about the conversations happening in Canada now?
MS: What we see going on in the United States has numerous impacts on the narrative here. It's quite fascinating to see how the pro-choice community, they are concerned – if not worried – by what's going on there. It might start to have an impact on the Canadian legal framework. Pro-life Canadians, on the other hand see, what's going on in the United States, and they want it to be the case in Canada.
So, when Alabama passed a law that banned abortion with just one exception, we had a lot of people connecting with us saying, "Look, that's what they did there. That's what we need to do in Canada." They're forgetting that the legal strategies began in the United States 40 or 50 years ago, and we're just catching up. There's no way that we can make the jump from absolutely no law to outlawing abortion. We're going to necessarily have to work incrementally step by step passing any range of minor abortion legal provisions before we would ever get to a point where we could be like Alabama and ban abortion. It's had an impact in that just so many people are talking about, and I think we can't also underestimate the impact of Canadian politicians on this dialogue.
RA: How long does it take for a culture and a society to be able to step forward and help women so that abortion isn't the solution? Fifty years of abortion and attempted legislation in Canada, and still abortion is viewed as the proper solution in many cases for women. I'm curious, what kind of work do you think needs to be done on a cultural level? I know that we talk about legislation, but is legislation the answer that we need right now, or is it something else that needs to change?
MS: Sure. I'll answer that just by sharing a story of my wife and I because it was quite an eye-opening event in the life of our family. We had been doing work with We Need a Law for about three and a half years when I received a call from a friend of mine who runs several pregnancy care centres here in British Columbia.
He said, "Mike, we've got a situation. There's a 14-year-old girl. She's 30 weeks pregnant, and she needs a safe home for the duration of her pregnancy." We connected with a bunch of people we knew and two weeks later, we saw him at a different event and we said, "Hey, Jared. What's going on? How's that going? Did you find a place for this girl?" He said, "My last lead fell through today."
For the next couple of days, my wife and I wrestled with, "Well, maybe this is God saying, 'You take this girl in.'" And we did. We called him up and she joined our family for about two and a half months, and my wife walked with her every step of the way, through all her appointments with her midwife, through the labour and delivery, and through the process of passing on her beautiful daughter to an adoptive family. A few things were very eye opening to us as a family.
One, was that it was like God saying to us, "You can say we need a law all you want but you better be ready to step up and help women because when there's legislation in place, it's not like there's not going to be women who have an unplanned pregnancy. They're going to need help."
The other one was that through that entire process, we became aware of how everything is in place. The infrastructure is in place, the programs are in place in our country to facilitate this. In other words, you don't need to see abortion as the only solution to an unplanned pregnancy. There are other solutions that are actually very effective at ensuring the life of the woman can continue and the life of her child can continue. Now this 14-year-old, whenever she gets into a permanent relationship and she desires to start a family, has a positive birthing experience, not always looking back on having that experience of an abortion and wondering where her child is and what happened and what if, and it was just beautiful to experience that firsthand.
I think there's always more we can do to come alongside women in their time of need if the law says they can't have an abortion, but that infrastructure and those processes are in place. We will need people to live selflessly and sacrifice their time and resources to come alongside these women.
RA: I think an argument that I have often heard from those who are pro-choice is that pro-lifers are really pro-birth, not pro-life; they only care about the baby until it’s born.
MS: We hear that all the time, and at a certain level, it upsets me. Here's why. Predominantly, this is not just an attack on the pro-life, it also becomes an attack on Christians and people of faith, and when we look at the world today, we can observe that if Christians have done anything well, it's caring for born human beings. When we think of places like New Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, Covenant House, all of the downtown kitchen and soup ministries that help those in need: predominantly faith-based. These people are doing this because of their faith. Their faith motivates them to care for others. Women's shelters, pregnancy care centers, these are all run by people motivated by and through their faith. If there’s something we haven't done as well, it is caring for pre-born children.
Look at the status quo in Canada – and we can get into my thoughts on why we have 50 years of legal abortion, 30-plus years with no law at all – a big part of the responsibility lies with the pro-life movement itself and its ineptness to think politically or think strategically. That's actually a different component of The Missing Project itself.
RA: Can you elaborate on that component?
MS: The full-length documentary includes one section that runs for about eight to ten minutes on Bill C-43. This was a bill that Brian Mulroney's government put forward after the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law, which was passed in 1969. Mulroney's government was tasked with putting forward new legislation, and it was a compromise bill. The attempt was to satisfy both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, but it was actually pro-lifers who worked the hardest to ensure the bill didn't pass because it was not perfect enough for them. In the film, there is this incredibly powerful scene where an assistant for an MP shares his experience as working with a co-chair of this committee that Brian Mulroney put together to draft this legislation.
He says in the film that he will never forget the day the bill came up to the Senate for a vote. He was sitting in the gallery watching the vote, and in front of him were three women who were the head of Canada's pro-choice organizations, and just a bit farther down the bench, were three women who were the heads of prominent national pro-life organizations.
When the vote came and it was a tie, he said there was a bit of a misunderstanding with the Speaker. The Speaker was consulting as to what to do, and the process was that in a tie vote the speaker doesn't vote. But if the bill is defeated, the status quo remains. When he announced that the bill had been defeated, the three pro-choice women and the three pro-life women all jumped up and cheered. He said it haunts him to this day to know that it wasn't the pro-choice movement that brought the bill down. It was the pro-life movement.
There are still remnants of that today, of many Canadians who are working in the political side of the pro-life movement who are working hard to ensure that no compromise bill ever gets put forward, and it's not better to save some. It's one of my frustrations as director of We Need a Law because our organization is very much built on an incremental approach that there's an incredible amount of common ground in Canada when it comes to the need to regulate abortion. For example, later term abortion or partial-birth abortion. There are still Canadians, people of faith, who will work against that to ensure that something like that would not pass in the House of Commons, and, yeah, that's a fascinating part of the 50 years of history. I think it's not unique to Canada. We read about and see debates going on in the United States between absolutists, the people who are all or nothing, and then the incremental people who are willing to work step-by-step.
I pray that when a bill is finally introduced in Canada, it won't be pro-lifers that are working as hard as pro-choicers to defeat it. I'm not entirely convinced of that yet, based on what we're observing now, but that is the reality we're living with and working with.
RA: Have you had any backlash, has there been any negative reaction to the film, or do you anticipate any as the full-length is released in July?
MS: I mean, minor criticisms here and there, but no direct opposition. When the full-length documentary is released, I think there will be some people who are opposed to it. People on the extreme side of the pro-choice movement are increasingly resorting to censorship to stop us or prevent us from getting any message out. It doesn't matter what it is so I expect that there will be some efforts to censor us. They won't be successful in censoring this film, but I also expect some disagreement from some within the pro-life movement as to how the film, for example, portrays even that Bill C-43 time frame, and then the last part of the film talks about moving forward and why we're optimistic and what we're excited about. There will be people who are in disagreement because of the political approach that some groups like ours will take.
That won't be very vocal or loud opposition. The film does a really, good job, and in fact, that's what we're so excited about because Ryan Stockert was a complete outsider to everything involved with the pro-life movement. He's a born-again Christian, not that recently, but he had no idea about the 50-year history. And we've put him into contact with all kinds of different people, and as he interviewed them, in his own mind, a narrative was developing, and he used his creative intuitions to put together the full-length documentary. I think that speaks to its credibility. It's not agenda-driven. It's simply sharing the story of 50 years of history here.
One of the greatest enemies or threats to the advancement of pre-born human rights is apathy. After 50 years of really making no progress – in fact, going backwards if you're a pro-life person – and seeing regress instead of progress, you become a bit disinterested. You tend to say, "Why are we doing this? What's the point? We never seem to get anywhere anyway." So, this film is an effort to say, "This is still important. Look how it's impacted all of these people," and then obviously conclude with an optimistic, inspirational component to encourage people to remain or to get involved again.
This article was published in Convivium.