Commentary | Seeking: a new approach to anti-abortion activism

I speak for many of my pro-choice colleagues when I say that we must gracefully decline Kathryn Sawyer’s invitation to be the pro-choice champion for McGill University’s campus abortion debate. While pro-life clubs all over this country yearn to debate resolutions like “abortion is morally wrong,” many of us who support a woman’s right to choose abortion are too busy working on providing sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services. We don’t have time to spare on debates so often orchestrated to become media spectacles.

After all, debating abortion is a no-win situation for both sides. The typical premise of “for abortion” versus “against abortion” is at fault. Anti-abortion groups always seem to assume that pro-choice advocates are “for abortion.” If they want a black and white debate framed in this fashion, they will wait a very long time for a willing opponent.

If debating “for” or “against” abortion is a useless pursuit, what might be of value is a commitment to contemplative dialogue around the issue. The word contemplative means to take a long, compassionate look at the real. And what is real about abortion? It is part of women’s lived experience.

Women have chosen to manage their fertility in various ways, including through abortion, since human history began, and they will continue to do so until human history ends. Neither legal status nor public opinion impact women’s decisions. Consider a study by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization published in October 2007 by the journal Lancet. It found that abortion rates in countries worldwide are similar regardless of whether the procedure is legal or not. “The legal status of abortion has never dissuaded women and couples, who, for whatever reason, seek to end pregnancy,” said Beth Fredrick of the International Women’s Health Coalition commenting on the study.

McGill’s pro-life club might also want to rethink the person they’ve chosen as their anti-abortion champion. Jose Ruba is from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, the organization responsible for bringing the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) to university campuses. Even Catholic bishops and anti-abortion commentators like Barbara Kay of the National Post do not support this kind of anti-abortion activism. The GAP is offensive to many; it is all about spectacle.

If you read Canadian newspapers, it would have been hard to miss stories about the trouble University of Calgary (U of C) pro-life club members are in for violating the university’s request to turn the GAP display inward so students and staff could make a choice about whether or not to view the graphic images. The students go to trial on trespassing charges this November. It is and was a spectacle, all about media coverage and free speech.

What I suggest is that pro-life clubs – and those on campuses who oppose them – consider taking a different approach with their activism. Here’s another story from U of C that never made the papers.

A volunteer for our organization, Sexual Health Access Alberta (SHAA), planned a film series hosted by U of C Women’s Resource Centre. In April 2008, two films about abortion were offered. The screenings coincided with the controversial GAP display on campus, sparking interest in the film event. Several pro-life club members came to see The Abortion Diaries. The post-screening facilitator skillfully guided the discussion around the pre-determined question: What are barriers to access to abortion services and sexual health education in Canada? An evening that could have ended in confrontation turned out to be one of respectful dialogue. Pro-life attendees urged improved access to support for young parents, while pro-choice participants advocated for better access to sexual health education and services. Both perspectives on abortion were presented and heard by all participants. Jose Ruba was there. There was no debate.

Maybe it’s time for campus pro-life clubs to eschew public debate in favour of smaller, quieter discussions of mutually agreed upon questions about abortion. They might actually find some pro-choice champions willing to sit down and talk with them.

Laura Wershler is the executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta in Calgary. Pursue polite dialogue with her at