TORONTO—These aren't the best of times for Human Life International in Canada.

At its 18th annual conference in Toronto, hundreds of protesters turned out in force threatening to upstage the regular conference proceedings.

The conference, held April 7-11, attracted more than 1,000 HLI delegates and supporters to a series of workshops and presentations promoting the family and the culture of life.

But it also drew about 300 feminists, abortion advocates and assorted social and political activists who staged a noisy rally outside the west-end Toronto convention site on the opening night of the conference. They gathered to protest what they claimed is HLI's intolerance of homosexuality, reproductive rights and contraception.

Among the protesters were representatives of the Catholics for a Free Choice organization. Spokeswoman Kathleen Howes told fellow demonstrators that the Church opposes the “bigotry” practiced by those attending the conference.

Anti-HLI protesters had been attracting media attention in the weeks leading up to the conference. A number of posters appeared in downtown Toronto urging activists to “fight the HLI bigots.” In addition, two prominent Toronto newspaper columnists attacked HLI's aims and accused the pro-life organization of bringing “hate and intolerance” into Canada. A homosexual weekly in Toronto even described HLI supporters as “nut-bars.”

Much of the demonstrators’ invective was directed against HLI founder Father Paul Marx, who in the past has written that a high proportion of Jewish doctors work as abortionists and support pro-choice aims. These comments are cited to support claims of anti-Semitism against HLI. Defenders, however, say the comments are taken out of context. They point to Father Marx's many assertions that traditional Judaism is among the most pro-life of organized religions. Nonetheless it did not prevent some Jewish and Muslim groups from taking part in a late March press conference describing Father Marx and HLI as anti-Semitic.

The recent protests, however, have been a far cry from the scene in November 1995 when a HLI conference in Montreal was disrupted by a violent protest of nearly 1,000 pro-abortion demonstrators. Then, a procession of HLI delegates from a Montreal cathedral was pelted with eggs, glass-filled condoms and other objects.

The lack of a procession at this year's convention, coupled with the presence of 250 police officers, helped keep this year's protest from getting out of hand. Nonetheless HLI supporters are concerned that the intensity of the protest underscores the difficulty pro-life groups face in bringing their message to the public.

Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of the Toronto-based Catholic Insight magazine, suggested that the mounting protest against pro-life activities is part of a wider campaign to link organized religion with the increase of violence in society. Father de Valk, who led a workshop at the HLI conference on the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, said the tendency to attack religion is an attempt to impose a new moral order.

“With this kind of perspective, the entire moral order is distorted,” Father de Valk said. “Virtue becomes vice, and vice becomes virtue. Witness the media coverage of pro-life events.”

Father de Valk also reacted to insinuations that pro-life supporters and people who hold to a traditional faith promote intolerance and violence. “Why the fury of this crowd?” he asked. “Because deep down, they know they are fighting on the wrong side. The violence is theirs, not prolife's.”

These views were echoed by HLI president Father Richard Welch. Speaking to reporters on the opening night of the conference, Father Welch said the protest greeting HLI activity is a sign of new cultural struggle.

“This is a classic confrontation of what goes on in society between a respect for life and a sterile culture of death,” he said.

Father Welch also said the emotion and bitterness exhibited by protesters suggests that abortion supporters and radical feminists are losing ground on life issues. “This kind of reaction is really a sign of fear,” he said.

For their part, Canada's abortion advocates hold firmly to the view that U.S.-based HLI and its ideals should not enjoy a platform in Canada.

Carolyn Egan, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, attended the anti-HLI rally April 7. She told the Register, “HLI is an organization that wants to legislate an end to the reproductive rights advances Canadian women have won.” Egan, who also attended the HLI protests in Montreal in 1995, said HLI is diametrically opposed to the pluralistic ideals of Canadian society.

Similarly, Marilyn Wilson, executive director of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, suggested some HLI supporters should not have been allowed to enter Canada. “Canadian immigration must prevent members of HLI with criminal records from entering Canada,” Wilson said, adding that “the preachings of HLI are an attempt to take away women's rights to choice in terms of contraception and abortion.”

HLI has a membership of more than 15,000 in the country.

Prior to the conference, Wilson's group sent a letter to all members of Parliament in Canada, denouncing HLI as an anti-Semitic organization that is opposed to the aims of the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The letter also hinted at — but offered no evidence for — a link between HLI and the shooting death of Buffalo, N.Y., abortionist Dr. Barnett Slepian last October.

The letter drew a quick rebuttal from HLI-Canada's executive director Theresa Bell who said the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League and other pro-abortion groups have distorted HLI's work.

“CARAL has consistently refused to accept invitations by members of the public to join with HLI and other leading religious and civil leaders to defend the lives of all babies in the womb and all women from the tragedy of abortion,” Bell said. “Instead, groups like CARAL seemingly need to resort to tactics such as innuendo, deception and downright lies in order to deflect public attention from the important issues at hand. We invite CARAL to deal in the facts and with truthfulness.”

To many pro-life supporters, the HLI conference protest mirrors a pattern in the pro-life and pro-abortion debate. Many have noted a tendency, on the part of abortion advocates, to link pro-life work with extremism and violence. Furthermore, traditional religious belief, which often goes hand in hand with respect-for-life values, is dismissed as supportive of intolerance and bigotry.

One person who rejected that line of reasoning was Father Tom Lynch, professor of moral theology at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto, who was the homilist at the HLI conference's opening Mass.

“How often have people told you, ‘No more pro-life talk!’ How many times are we told to shut up and lie down? How often are we legally or socially or physically gagged?” Father Lynch said. “What threats, injunctions, lawsuits, howling mobs, steely indifference and suffocating apathy have you endured? But we are still called to be witnesses.”

Father Lynch compared the current struggle to the “battle for Mount Sinai” where Moses received the Ten Commandments as an effort to impose a moral order on society. “The people who follow this now — Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals and others — have found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder to defend a common and life-giving heritage and a blueprint for a sane and rational society,” he said.

Among the speakers at the five-day conference were renowned pro-life activist Joan Andrews-Bell; William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights; and Dr. Joel Brind, a leading authority on the abortion-breast cancer link.

Topics discussed included pro-life journalism, population control efforts, euthanasia, and the future of the pro-life movement. The conference also featured special events such as a chastity education forum, a medical professionals day and a seminar on post-abortion syndrome.

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto.