York U abortion debate back on

By  Tony Gosgnach, Catholic Register Special
  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - An on-again, off-again debate on abortion that was thought to be of interest to only a few dozen students at York University, but later ended up receiving headlines in major newspapers across the country, is apparently on again.

The latest pronouncement from the office of York University’s vice-president of student affairs, Robert Tiffin, indicated the debate was scheduled for March 19 from 5:30-7 p.m. at a campus location yet to be determined. But, with several stops and starts already having taken place, no one was holding their breath that the event would indeed happen as planned.

The saga began when Students for Bioethical Awareness, a registered campus student organization, arranged an event for Feb. 28 entitled, “Abortion Debate: A Woman’s Right or a Moral Wrong?” with Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists at York. It was to be moderated by the York Debating Society.

Jose Ruba of the Calgary-based Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform was to speak for the pro-life side. He was driving into Toronto that day from the University of Waterloo, where he had been engaged in another debate the evening before, when a cellphone call came in advising him that the York event had suddenly and inexplicably been cancelled.

“No explanation,” said Ruba. “There was a notice on the door that the York Federation of Students had cancelled the debate, period … Apparently, about 50 students had shown up to participate and view the debate. They were all turned away.”

In a statement afterward, the student federation said it cancelled the event over what it characterized as the pro-life movement’s contribution to an “environment of intimidation” against women on campus. It also asserted that it would not allow student resources to be used to “further their campaign of intimidation and harassment.”

Kelly Holloway, vice-chair of the student centre where the debate was to be held, told media there was “no need for an event, organized by ‘anti-choice’ campaigners, that is disguised as a debate.” She likened a debate over abortion to ones over whether black students should be able to attend university or whether homosexuality should be illegal. She also suggested Ruba’s organization displays fake or tampered abortion images.

But Ruba responded that Holloway and York’s student federation are engaged in hypocrisy of the first order by protesting the suppression of an Israeli Apartheid Week by administration at Hamilton’s McMaster University while censoring free speech on their own campus.

“The irony of it all befuddles me,” he said. “Posters had been up about a week-and-a-half before this debate was supposed to happen and they were stamped by the student federation … There was even a poster beside the student federation door.”

As for the allegation that the CCBR uses fake imagery, Ruba said a former abortion provider has testified on the organization’s web site that the images are real and accurate depictions of abortions.

“Ultimately, this shows me these students have no confidence in their perspective, if they have to ban everybody who disagrees with them,” he said.

Maria Smolkova, co-president of Students for Bioethical Awareness, said her organization has been in existence for several years and focuses on raising issues concerning life, including abortion, stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization and euthanasia. It was involved in an abortion debate on campus a couple of years ago without incident. This time, “It was just the student federation that had an issue with it,” she said.

The York University imbroglio comes in the wake of a number of controversies involving pro-life associations at other campuses across Canada. In 2007, pro-life students at Capilano College in British Columbia were denied official status and took their case to the province’s human rights tribunal, while a pro-life group at Memorial University of Newfoundland was disallowed recognition.

The same year, the student union at the University of British Columbia’s Kelowna campus refused club status to pro-life students and Carleton University’s Students’ Association denied official status to a pro-life group.

More recently, representatives of the Canadian Federation of Students have compared pro-life student groups to white supremacists and announced their intention to support student unions that ban pro-life clubs anywhere in Canada.

The Catholic Civil Rights League issued a statement March 3 urging university administrations to do as much as they can to foster environments of free speech on their campuses.

“The one-sided policies of numerous student unions should be all the proof they need that something has gone very wrong with the ability of some students to understand the roles of genuine academic inquiry or debate in a democracy,” the league said.

(Gosgnach is a freelance writer in Hamilton, Ont.)

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