FEMEN: lots of breast, not so much brains (or, that time I interviewed a FEMEN activist)
I had just started to climb the steps on Parliament Hill in Ottawa yesterday to speak to our editor-in-chief, John-Henry Westen, who was taking photos of the speakers. Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec City was explaining to the crowd of some 20,000 pro-life activists that Pope Francis had sent a message of encouragement to the Canadian March for Life.
As Cardinal Lacroix began reading that message, suddenly two women in front of me proceeded to peel off their shirts. I found this a little curious, but before I had time to process what was happening, they had already begun to rush the podium.
The next few moments were a blur of yelled expletives (from the women), and harried attempts by people on the stage to remove them. One of the women planted herself squarely in front of the group of bishops, waving her arms and screaming at them. The other managed to shout a couple words into the microphone before someone pulled her away.
I briefly helped remove one of the women from the stage, but once I realized that others had things under control, I began snapping photos. By this point a few police officers had also arrived to lend a hand.
The two women were kicking and screaming, shouting over (and over, and over, and over…well, you get the point): “F**k your morals.” On their bodies they had scrawled, “Get out of my vagina.” Not exactly profound, but then again, FEMEN isn’t renowned for the profundity of their worldview or tactics. I mean, when your breasts basically constitute the whole of your organization’s public relations strategy, it’s hard to paint yourself in overly intellectual terms.
But then again, you gotta give it to them: it does seem to work. Those media who did show up for the March for Life swarmed the two women. And who can blame them? After all, there’s nothing like a little conflict, preferably accompanied by a healthy dose of nudity, to spice up the 6:00 news. And indeed, the 6:00 news last night was full of FEMEN.
For some reason, once the police removed the two women to the top of the steps behind the podium, they let go of them, at which point they both tried to rush the stage again. They didn’t get very far, but I’m still not entirely sure what the police were thinking. (One of my colleagues later spoke to a police officer to complain about the curiously ineffectual response to the disruption of the rally, and says that the officer told him the women were just expressing their freedom of speech. Well, alright. I guess I’m just not sure I see how pushing your breasts into the face of a cardinal while shouting expletives amounts to anything like “speech.”)
In any case, eventually the two women were hauled away in the back of a police van. Meanwhile a third woman who was standing nearby and who had kept her shirt on announced that she was with FEMEN Canada, along with the other two women. She was immediately surrounded by media.
"We're here to protest against those religious groups that think that abortion should be banned," said Laurence Bergeron-Michaud, expressing her horror that in the 21st century there should still be so many people so backwards that they would be against abortion. “Women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies,” she said.
Since none of the other media seemed inclined to ask Ms. Bergeron-Michaud any challenging questions, I thought I’d give her a try. “The pro-lifers here would say that it’s not your body, it’s a baby, and so abortion is killing a baby. What is FEMEN’s response to that?” I asked.
“Well,” she hemmed, “what are we going to say next, that you can’t kill a fish? It’s absurd.”
“Sure. But the activists out there,” I said, pointing towards Parliament Hill, “would say that it’s not a fish, it’s a human being, that human life begins at conception.”
I thought this was a pretty basic point, but the notion seemed to take Ms. Bergeron-Michaud entirely off guard. She shifted about uncomfortably, “Where’s the evidence…” she said, waving her hands vaguely, then trailing off. I was about to suggest that she try reading just about any biology textbook, but before I could, she abruptly added, “I have to go.”
And so she turned around and walked away.
I shrugged my shoulders. To me it’s pretty obvious that it's the only question that matters: is the fetus a human being, and if it is, doesn’t that change everything? But to Bergeron-Michaud the question seemed to be a distraction. In fact, she appeared so caught off guard that I wondered if she had ever even given the question more than a moment's thought. And so, sadly, it is with many professional abortion activists: at the end of the day, they want abortion to be right because their lifestyle demands it, and so they will have it, even if that means ignoring the most fundamental question of all...even, that is, if killing another human being, their very own child, is the price of their freedom.
The only thing I regret was that I was not able to speak to the other two women, to let them know that I would be praying for them. It was painful watching them. I’ve seen it before, every time we’ve reported on FEMEN. The fury in the women’s faces, the irrationality and grotesqueness of their slogans, the pain in their eyes as they are carried away by police: it makes you ache for them. I was glad when Cardinal Collins took the podium a few moments later, and asked the 20,000 pro-lifers gathered on the Hill to pray for those who are angered by our message, that they will see that the pro-life message is ultimately a message of hope and peace. He didn’t mention FEMEN by name, but it was clear who he was speaking about.
As I turned around to walk away, I noticed Ms. Bergeron-Michaud about fifty feet off, talking with another reporter. I guess she didn’t have to leave so urgently after all.