Pro-life students fight for free speech

By  Sara Loftson, Catholic Register
  • October 5, 2006

TORONTO - Pro-life groups on university and college campuses in Canada are struggling to gain official club status.

"It's on university campuses that ideas that oppose life take root and university students will be the world of tomorrow so it's doubly necessary to educate them with life-affirming ideas," said Sarah Buckle, 23. She tried to start a pro-life club on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax before graduating in biology last year and becoming this year's National Campus Life Network executive director.

The National Campus Life Network, a pro-life organization for students run by students to bring the pro-life message to campuses, has sponsored a national symposium the last weekend in September for the past 11 years. This year 45 students active in the pro-life movement on campus met at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto to practise apologetics and network.

But before many pro-life groups on campus can focus on polishing up their apologetics, they must first establish a group in order to be heard.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, six new pro-life clubs gained official status on their university campuses, including: Brock University in St. Catharines, Fanshawe College in London, the University of Lethbridge in Saskatchewan, Queens University in Kingston, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Western Ontario in London. And just this past September the University of Fredericton was added to the list.

This gives hope to five out of the 20 campuses represented at this year's NCLN symposium that do not have official club status, including: Carleton University in Ottawa, Capilano College in North Vancouver B.C., Dalhousie University, the University of Guelph and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

Apathy from pro-life students is one of the main challenges to the campus movement, said Buckle. "People don't want to take on leadership. They don't want to cause any conflict.

Then there are groups on campuses such as Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld., and the University of Winnipeg and Manitoba, which for years have unsuccessfully lobbied to gain official status.

"Two and a half years ago, with the help of National Campus Life Network and the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, we were able to bring the Genocide Awareness Project to the University of Manitoba, which eventually led to the dismissal of our group," said Justin Veenendaal, 22, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Manitoba and Manitoba's NCLC representative.

The Genocide Awareness Project is a visual display of billboards that compares abortion to atrocities like the Holocaust, typically displayed at universities by campus pro-life clubs. It tries to show how the widespread killing of human beings is often rationalized on the basis that the victims are subhuman, inferior and non-persons. These graphic images can be viewed at or at the American affiliate

But taking a more gentle approach to spreading the pro-life message is not in the cards for Stephanie Gray, 26, director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform who runs GAP on campuses and believes wholeheartedly in the project despite its controversial nature.

"It forces open debate," said Gray, who trained students in effective apologetics at the NCLC symposium.

Gray also doesn't hesitate using graphic images even though the pictures may offend people who've had personal involvement with abortion. "We're not helping women by maintaining the lie or keeping secrecy."

"There are those who are pastoral and there are those who are prophetic. The pastoral approach is to get women to one-on-one counselling.... The prophetic arm are typically the ones people don't like, but people can't help but be convinced by the message if the message is true."

GAP has been displayed in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. The University of Calgary generated media attention last year when GAP was displayed on their campus. The controversy from last year is spilling out into this year, said Ryan Wilson, 19, a  biochemistry major at the University of Calgary.

"The university wants us to pay for security. We say if you want security, you have to pay for it."

Wilson said the main criticism he received last year was from people who didn't accept the comparison being made between abortion and genocide.

"At least twice Jewish people said 'you can't compare this to the Holocaust,' " said Wilson.

"I wish we didn't have to display such graphic pictures, but it is displaying (abortion) for what it is," said Leah Hallman, 19, a biology major at the University of Calgary.

The University of Toronto group has also displayed GAP several times on campus, getting protests from the graduate students' union. The university's pro-life club has expanded its reach to Stratford, setting up a GAP display at St. Michael's Catholic high school.

"Words fail us when we try to convey horrors, therefore, visual images are necessary," said Santosh D'Souza, director of external communications of the University of Toronto Students for Life.

Sarah Gleeson, 22, a sociology major at King's College on the University of Western Ontario campus, said displaying GAP would definitely hinder their club from getting ratified.

Last year Gleeson's club was able get around the roadblocks put up by Western's student union by ratifying their club through King's College. However, their presence is limited to the Catholic college.

Gray plans to expand the graphic image display to the sides of large trucks, similar to the approach taken by the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform in the United States.

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