Why anti-choice activity should not be supported by universities
Speech given at the University of Victoria, February 8, 2005
By Joyce Arthur
I would like to begin by explaining what being pro-choice really means in our society, because that will help make clear why maintaining a strong pro-choice policy on campus is both important and essential.
A woman's right to choose whether to have a baby or an abortion is a constitutional right. The Supreme Court threw out the old abortion law in 1988 because it violated women's rights to security of the person, liberty, and freedom of conscience. The court also found that the old anti-abortion law was discriminatory against women, especially vulnerable groups of women, such as poor women, young women, and rural women.
Abortion is legal in Canada. Every province in Canada has listed abortion as "medically necessary". Abortion services are endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association and funded under the Canada Health Act. The maintenance of legal abortion services is supported by both federal and provincial governments, and every major political party, including the Conservative Party. No law exists to prohibit a woman's access to this service. In fact, access to required health services is a human right that has been recognized by our courts here in Canada.
Further, international human rights documents recognize that women have a basic right to reproductive healthcare, and related information and education. These documents include the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was ratified by Canada in 1981. [It says that signatory states will take measures to eliminate discrimination by ensuring that women have the same rights as men to "decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights."] And the United Nations Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) states: "Women who have unwanted pregnancies should have ready access to reliable information and compassionate counselling. ... In circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe."
This means that women's basic human rights include the right to unbiased and accurate information about reproductive healthcare services, and the right to access such services, including contraception and abortion (where legal). Pro-choice groups do provide such information and services, but anti-choice groups do not. In fact, the ultimate, implicit goal of all anti-abortion groups is to restrict abortion by law, or change current government policies to make abortion less accessible, or at the very least, advocate against abortion and women's right to access this right.
What this means is that the advocacy work of anti-choice groups is in direct violation of international human rights codes, and the rights of women under our constitution, and it flies in the face of Canada's current law and policy around abortion.
A common assumption is that the pro-choice view is the opposite of the anti-choice view and therefore we have to allow both. This is incorrect. The pro-choice position is the broad, middle-ground view shared by a large majority of Canadians, whether or not they personally agree with abortion. In contrast, anti-choice groups wish to use the law to force women to bring unwanted pregnancies to term (the opposite of that is forced abortion, like in China). The pro-choice view opposes this extremist, discriminatory position, and says that women should have information on and equal access to all pregnancy options, in a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. In fact, pro-choice health care is the professional standard in this country for all health care-patients must be respected as responsible decision-makers, be given unbiased and accurate information on all options, and not be morally judged for the choices they make. Anything less is unethical and unprofessional.
Now, I've looked at the list of student groups at UVic, and Youth Protecting Youth appears to be the only one that promotes an anti-democratic and anti-human rights viewpoint. In my opinion, this makes the group illegitimate and unqualified to be an official student group.
Let me give you some examples of the dangers of having such a discriminatory viewpoint disseminated and promoted on campus. Many of you have probably heard of the Genocide Awareness Project, which has been displayed numerous times at UBC and at some other campuses across Canada, and many in the U.S. The anti-choice student sponsors of this project display extremely offensive photos comparing abortion to holocaust victims and other real victims of genocide. These displays have brought a lot of controversy, student unrest, emotional upset, and divisiveness to campus. There has been violence and vandalism associated with many of the displays, including at UBC. The UBC administration had to take special and extreme measures to ensure student safety while the GAP displays were up. UBC was even sued by GAP for trying to set limits on the display in order to protect student safety. It's worth noting that when the GAP display was vandalized by a pro-choice student at UBC, it was because the display had gone up without the knowledge or permission of the administration, and with zero security measures in place, as required by the administration.
Also, each time that GAP appears at UBC, there is a spike in counseling services, because many women get so upset and angry at the display, they have sought help. Why? It's because women perceive the displays as very personally offensive to themselves. Anti-choice people speak of their concern for fetuses, but a woman's fetus is her business and no-one else's. Any unwanted interference with her pregnancy decision is simply rude and insensitive, especially from strangers. And, if you've had had an abortion or are considering an abortion, or even if you know you might need an abortion someday, it's very insulting to face strangers in public who are blatantly comparing you to a Nazi, and making you feel as guilty as possible for making a very personal and often difficult decision.
This is why pro-choice people believe that GAP displays are actually a form of hate literature. And of course, they're also exploitive and insensitive to real victims of genocide. But much of the other rhetoric and literature coming from anti-abortion groups is also hateful in at least subtle ways. It's just a matter of degree. Because the core beliefs of the anti-choice viewpoint include: abortion is murder, all women should be mothers, women should not have sex for pleasure, and women should not be allowed to have abortions. Those core beliefs tend to lead to some pretty sexist, discriminatory, and inflammatory statements.
At the Pro-Choice Action Network, we frequently get calls or emails from women complaining about an anti-choice display they've seen, or a protest, or just a billboard or a TV ad advertising those anti-choice counseling agencies. These women are truly upset, angry. Because they are being disrespected, and their rights are being attacked. Not just their rights, but their privacy, their integrity, their judgment, their morals, their very humanity, really. Although it may seem extreme to say this, I believe that allowing an anti-choice group to organize and have public displays on campus, even if they don't use those offensive gory pictures, is comparable to allowing a KKK group to organize and display on campus. Women are upset by anti-choice displays in the same way that black people would be upset at a KKK display. There's really no difference.
At universities in particular, I believe that anti-choice displays or information tables should not be allowed. A university has an obligation to provide a safe and positive environment for students that is conducive to learning. Openly public activities on campus that are divisive, discriminatory, hateful, and emotionally upsetting for many students detract from that goal. Also, as we know, when people get very angry and upset, they sometimes become irrational and lose their cool, increasing the risk of violence or vandalism. It happened at UBC, it's happened at many campuses in the U.S. because of GAP, and such risks should not be tolerated at campuses in general. The university administration has an obligation to protect the safety of students, and the right to be safe is a more primary right than the right to freedom of expression.
So - in a nutshell, having a Pro-choice Policy on campus is not only important, it's essential. The pro-choice view is democratic. It respects the constitutional rights of women, their human rights, their autonomy, and their right to access legal medical services. It also respects the rights of anti-choice students because, according to the pro-choice view, if you don't like abortion, you simply don't have to have one.
The UVic Student's Society Policy Manual has a Clubs Policy. I'd like to draw your attention to Section F, Harassment. Under the "Violations" section of the harassment policy, it says that clubs cannot engage in harassment, and one of the forbidden behaviours is anything that "discriminates against a person or group of persons on the basis of race, gender", and so on. Also, anything that "has the effect or purpose of unreasonably creating a hostile or intimidating environment." I'm not a lawyer, but based on everything I've already said, I think you could make a reasonable case that any kind of public activity or advocacy carried out by an anti-abortion group on campus could be interpreted as violating one or both of these two clauses. And if that's the case, then anti-choice groups cannot have official club status.
What are the consequences of diluting your pro-choice policy, or allowing "official" anti-choice expression on campus? I think I've mentioned some of the risks and consequences already: safety concerns, upset and angry students who need counseling services, divisiveness, and the loss of a peaceful and positive learning environment on campus. These are the tangible consequences. The more intangible ones are probably even more important to guard against though. When anti-choice activity is sanctioned on campus, it sends the message that it's ok to dispense with women's rights and equality, it's ok to discriminate against women, it's ok to target women students as a group in order to disrespect them, or upset them, or hold them in contempt. These are not values that a progressive university needs to protect.