Campus pro-life ban curbs free speech

  • June 5, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - A student government decision to ban support for anti-choice clubs on campus at Toronto’s York University has left many Catholic and pro-life groups fearing they will be shut out of campus life.

The York Student Federation met June 1 and unanimously voted to to deny resources and funding to student clubs or individuals “whose primary or sole purpose is anti-choice activity.”

At a time when the majority of students are off-campus for summer break, the vote was perceived by some as a secretive motion to curb the freedom of speech by those on the pro-life side of the abortion debate.

“I was really upset that they did not contact me,” said Margaret Fung, outgoing president for the campus club Students for Bioethical Awareness, which hosted a debate on abortion in March, which the student federation shut down before the school’s administration stepped in to allow the debate to happen. Two guests invited to argue the pro-life side used graphic videos and pictures of aborted fetuses to argue their stance, which caused some tension from students who deemed them offensive.

Fung said, however, that the bioethics club does not use these images on campus outside the debate doors.

“We are an educational club and we want to raise awareness on a variety of bioethical issues, not just the abortion debate,” Fung said. “What better place to raise these issues (than the university) because they affect us politically and ethically.”

Fung said she worries that next year the club could be prevented from hosting debates in student space on other important issues if it is deemed “anti-choice.” She said the federation needs to clarify what is meant by “anti-choice.”

A number of similar controversies have enveloped campuses across Canada over the past year. Pro-life groups at Capilano College, the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, Lakehead University and Carleton University have been stripped of official club status and funding. Some clubs have regained status, including the Pro-life Heartbeat Club at Capilano College, which will be recognized in the fall after a three-year battle. Other groups have appealed their cases to human rights commissions.

Gilary Massa, vice-president of the York Student Federation, said the federation felt its resources should go to places and groups where women and other minority groups will feel safe. Massa said that “anti-choice” groups shouldn’t receive funding because they oppress women and promote hatred towards women who choose to have abortions.

“We were elected with a mandate to work on an anti-oppressive framework and on serving minority communities,” she said. “This is not a ban of anti-choice groups.”

Massa said the federation does not have the authority to prevent “anti-choice” groups from meeting on campus because the school administration has the final say. She said clubs will also not be prevented from gaining official club status. The main point, she said, is the issue of funding and other resources usually allotted to campus clubs. Although no groups are pinpointed at this time, because all clubs re-apply for club status and funding in the fall, she did say the vote to ban anti-choice groups stems from the contention surrounding the abortion debate because it provided heavy “anti-choice” themes.

“In this case, when anti-choice groups come on campus, they come heavily funded,” she said. “In March, students complained that it wasn’t a fair debate and that the pro-choice were given less time to present their arguments.”

Theresa Matters, executive director of National Campus Life Network, an umbrella group providing informational support to campus pro-life groups across the country, attended the debate. She said groups promoting pro-life arguments are not illegitimate candidates for debate and students who are pro-life but are not confident voicing their concerns will simply keep quiet from the fear of being ostracized, preventing healthy debate of an issue that a majority of Canadians consider a grey area.

“Despite the fact that we have no law on abortion in Canada, it doesn’t mean the issue is settled,” Matters said. “What’s great about (the March debate) was that people were able to discuss it without violence.

“The purpose is not to make women feel that they are hated or oppressed. The pro-life position is recognizing that the mother and the unborn child are equals and need to be treated with love and support.”

When asked about the graphic images of aborted fetuses used in debate, Matters said it’s simply a case of informing people about the realities of abortion.

The Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada also condemned the federation’s move.

“This is a straightforward attempt to stifle free speech on campus, and particularly troubling since universities are places where our basic freedoms are expected to be particularly upheld and valued,” said the League in a May 29 news release.

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