Features  A threat to choice

The author explores the larger implications of the abortion debate on campus

Until 1969, the leading cause of hospitalization and death for Canadian women under the age of 30 was botched self-induced abortions, and today, the lack of safe, legal abortions continues to claim lives. According to the World Health Organization, 70,000 women die worldwide every year because of self-induced abortions. The Lancet’s study “Unsafe abortion: The preventable pandemic,” demonstrated that most of the women affected in Canada and the U.S. live in rural areas or are poor, immigrants, or aboriginals. The laws that protect the right to choose protect bodies, not political ideologies. This is not a philosophical debate or a matter of opinion. So long as people are dying, this is an issue of safety and public health.

Judy Rebick, a matriarch of Canadian feminism, is not surprised that young women are taking their reproductive rights for granted: “We got the first Morgentaler clinic open in 1981 and they didn’t change the law until 1989. In ‘69 you could only get a safe abortion if the doctor wrote a note saying your life was in danger. So you basically had to convince a man you were ready to kill yourself. Of course this was really classist and racist as well, because most poor women weren’t connected to the right doctors. So women were dying all the time or being forced to bear unwanted, vulnerable children. I don’t think young women realize what a long and painful battle it was. I’m worried because we, who remember, will be gone soon and young women are not aware or active.”

Last winter amidst a flurry of free speech rhetoric, SSMU councilors gave full club status to an anti-abortion activist group called Choose Life. The group aims to reignite the debate around women’s reproductive rights, to convince women not to have abortions, and to help the powerful anti-abortion lobby groups, who are their affiliates, gain legitimacy. Choose Life’s status seemed to have been granted in the absence of any real research into the club or the organizations that fund it, neglecting the fact that Choose Life is a part of an aggressive movement that threatens female reproductive rights in Canada.

The club’s mandate and tactics also threaten student safety. On October 2, 2008, when it was decided to grant Choose Life interim club status, several students came forth and implored SSMU to reconsider. One woman said from the gallery: “This is a club which wants to spread ideas on campus that make me feel unsafe.” Perhaps because they were afraid to address this significant point, or perhaps because they were running out of time, no councillor paid heed to what the members of the gallery were saying, although 2008-09 VP External Devin Alfaro did offer this promise: “If something like that happens, we will act quickly to shut that down. There is a place of discussion, but if anything happens that interferes with students’ space, we know it is unacceptable.”

During Choose Life’s three-month probationary period as an interim club, three equity complaints were issued against it. These complaints were addressed and brushed aside during the Council meeting on February 12 as SSMU granted Choose Life full-club status. No other probationary club has had three equity complaints brought against it and still managed to successfully obtain full-club status.

The remainder of this meeting focused on whether the club had fulfilled its constitutional requirements and the fact that SSMU has no right to discriminate against a club based on ideology. There is no document that mandates SSMU to treat all ideologies equally, but there is a document that mandates SSMU to be anti-oppressive and to maintain an environment of respect and safety for students. Choose Life’s proliferation of graphic images of fetuses compromises the campus as a safe space for students, and specifically targets pregnant women. A uterus is not public space, and to see it used as a site for a political or philosophical debate makes many women feel harassed.

Behind SSMU’s preferential treatment is the misguided assertion that Choose Life is just another club. Behind this assertion is a subconscious desire to normalize and de-politicize a historic struggle for reproductive freedom. It is easy for privileged “post-feminist” young people to behave condescendingly toward activists who, they might feel, are hyperbolizing their sentiments for the sake of left-wing politics. However, their concerns are hardly hyperbolic: female reproductive rights are more vulnerable than many realize.

Three clicks away from Choose Life’s web site is a group called REAL Women. They call themselves an alternative women’s movement and their enemies are homosexuality, feminism, and abortion. REAL Women is one of the most powerful federal and provincial lobby groups in Canada. Due to their influence (millions of dollars’ worth of donations from REAL Women’s members go to the Conservative Party of Canada), Stephen Harper slashed 43 per cent of the operating budget of the Status of Women Canada (a federal government organization that promotes gender equality), in his first months in power. As a direct result, feminists and pro-choice organizations are barely staying afloat. Harper knows that the fight against abortion cannot be won in the Supreme Court, but that it can be crippled by misogynist policy.

Abortion clinics have been closing, and hospitals that once performed abortions no longer do. According to the federal study “Reality Check” conducted last year by Canadians for Choice, women’s access to the abortion procedure is steadily on the decline. The province of New Brunswick will only allow abortions to be performed in a hospital if two doctors deem it necessary, and in Prince Edward Island, abortions are not performed at all. Nearly all Canadian abortion clinics are within 150 kilometres of the American border, leaving most rural Canadian women without reasonable access.

When you type any word into a search engine pertaining to abortion, pregnancy, or pro-choice in Canada, the first ten pages that come up are carefully disguised anti-abortion propaganda because incredibly wealthy, international right-wing religious groups have purchased the right to dominate Google. Choose Life is not independent. It exists in the context of something much larger.

By continuing to allow Choose Life to exist on campus, SSMU is complicit with this larger movement that aims to limit women’s reproductive rights – their choice to be apolitical has political implications. Instead of worrying about ideological relativism, they should take constructive action.

Jeanette Ducet is the Executive Chair of Planned Parenthood Canada, an organization that receives absolutely no government funding. She talked to me about why abortion rights are so easily eroded in Canada: “It’s because abortion was decriminalized, but not granted as a right, so this left a legal vacuum that can be filled with small bits of anti-abortion legislation.”

Ducet was one of two women who debated a notorious anti-abortion preacher from the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform named Jose Ruba last year at Carleton University.

Two weeks after this “debate,” Ducet learned that Carleton University revoked their pro-life club’s status. This angered Ducet because she felt that members of the student body who had invited her to debate knew in advance the kind of harassment she and the other women in the room would bear. She believes that they wanted the outrageous event to occur so that they would have an excuse to get rid of their anti-abortion club.

At last Thursday’s SSMU council meeting, a motion was passed by overwhelming majority to censure Choose Life’s event “Echoes of The Holocaust.” While it is a shame that it required an invocation of the Holocaust for SSMU to realize that they have an obligation to protect students from offensive material, it’s fortunate that students at McGill were not subjected to the offensive event Ducet regrettably described.

Councillor Sarah Woolf made the most sense in Thursday’s debate when she stated that Choose Life directly violates SSMU’s own equity policy and that SSMU, being beholden to that policy, has no choice but to condemn the club’s event. In fact, SSMU was beholden to their equity policy when they created the club. The club should never have been allowed to exist in the first place. In any case, SSMU has now backed itself in to a corner where the only safe recourse will be to revoke the club’s official status.