W hen Choose Life first appeared on campus last year, a significant portion of the student body reacted strongly against their application for club status. In a Hyde Park that appeared in The Daily in November 2008, the Union for Gender Empowerment Collective wrote that “by condemning abortion as an option, pro-life propaganda is targeting, alienating, and shaming a minority group within the student body – those who have had or are considering abortion” (“Pro-life education will endanger students”).
When Choose Life gained club status and they revealed themselves as everything we were afraid they’d be, some students demanded the revocation of their club status – others even called for a ban against all future pro-life groups. The basic argument has stayed the same: that all pro-life groups, not just Choose Life, endanger the safety of certain students.
Over the past few months, The Daily’s editorial board has said little on the topic, but has quietly opposed this movement in the student body. Sadly, we have done so in a disingenuous and inadequate fashion. We’ve either ignored or set up sham arguments in response to the anti-Choose Lifers’ concerns, and it’s been easy for us, since we hold the more widely accepted opinion. Take, for example, our condemnation of the Anti-Discriminatory Groups general assembly (GA) motion in November.
According to The Daily, “this motion makes the faulty leap of logic that all pro-life groups are the same” (“The Daily’s GA Recommendations,” February 7). It is true that this generalization was made in the resolution. But we ignored the essence of this generalization – that pro-life groups aren’t just all “the same,” but are inherently discriminatory and hateful. As Liam Olson-Mayes, who co-wrote the motion, told me, “The term ‘pro-life’ is seriously rooted in this historical, political context, which has very much occupied itself with legal struggles and efforts to criminalize abortion.” By ignoring this premise and the varying implications of the term “pro-life,” we gave ourselves the freedom to speak in patronizing tones about “leaps in logic,” without engaging with the argument behind these connections. If The Daily doesn’t believe that pro-life groups are inherently dangerous to students, we need to explain why.
More importantly though, this is an argument which ignores and thereby silences the anti-Choose Lifers. By opposing their positions but not engaging with any of their arguments, we eliminate them from the discourse.
All along, anti-Choose Lifers have argued that pro-life groups are unacceptable on campus, not just for their actions, but for the very premise of their existence – that women should “choose life.”
“I think that there shouldn’t be any organization [at McGill] that can advocate for this change in social conditions that would lead to the widespread death of women. I think that that’s totally inappropriate, and is not up for discussion,” Olson-Mayes said. “By having this organization, which is legitimated as it exists as a SSMU club, to me that’s just totally bizarre and totally wrong – that what we’re actually going to represent one side of the debate which is advocating for social conditions under which women are going to die en masse.” No matter your politics, if a group engages in a politics of hate, it’s not okay for our student society to be giving them a home – even if they’re quiet about it.
The Daily has yet to come up with a meaningful response to this argument. We said in our GA endorsements that “a pro-life group could exist on campus that respects students’ safety and provides beneficial medical services.” That’s not the point. According to anti-Choose Lifers, the problem isn’t just what pro-life groups do – it’s what they are. The very premise of their existence is hateful.
Now, three months later, we’re making the same mistakes. This past week, in our referendum endorsements (Editorial, March 8), we again wallowed in the comfort of representing the status quo, instead of engaging with those who say we are wrong. Without qualification, we wrote that “if approved by students, [the motion on body sovereignty] should not be used as a way to categorically ban either pro-life or pro-choice groups.” Such a connection would likely be controversial and unpopular on campus. But why would it be illegitimate? We have to start providing the other side with some answers, not just telling them to shut up.
As an editor with nearly three years of experience with The Daily and having seen the paper go through some nasty political scraps, I have found our handling of this issue especially disappointing. We usually find ourselves strongly on one side of an issue, not, as we are now, standing in a position of political moderation, lecturing the fringes. Dailyites know better than anybody that there is nothing more stifling or frustrating in political discourse than coming up against the blank, indifferent wall of majority opinion. Yet as soon as The Daily has found itself in a moderate position, we’ve engaged in the exact same tactics that we always rail against.
I did not write this article with the intention of advocating a ban of pro-life groups. I’m writing because I feel that regardless of the issues, my paper has engaged in institutional cowardice. The Daily’s moderate position may be tenable – but we have yet to justify it. We all know that abortion is a political minefield, and the easiest thing to do in debates surrounding it is to disengage or play the middle ground. But if students on campus are saying, loudly and clearly, that they feel they are being endangered and that marginalized groups are being discriminated against, we’d better have some pretty serious answers for them if we’re not going to back them up.
Our response to this issue is not only a matter of abortion politics, it’s a matter of rhetorical domination and political suppression. The anti-Choose Lifers are advocating a marginalized and apparently unpopular opinion. By glossing over their concerns and failing to respond to the questions they have raised, The Daily has not only disagreed with them, we’ve silenced them. Although The Daily often advocates for marginalized groups, we occupy a position of considerable power on campus. It’s absolutely crucial that we don’t use this position to rob the less powerful of their dissenting voices by not entering into dialogue with their concerns. Maddie Ritts, who wrote the GA motion with Olson-Mayes, told me that she found The Daily’s impact on the discourse around pro-life groups this year “really scary.”
Having spent close to 40 hours a week with them since the beginning of the year, I can’t overstate my respect for this year’s editorial staff. But I do feel that in this instance, we’ve behaved irresponsibly and ignored the effects of our actions. I hope the anti-Choose Lifers continue to make their voices heard in our paper, and I hope that when they do, we as an editorial board will have the courage to engage with them. I can’t help but feel that doing so would make us change our position. At the very least, though, we have to stop making members of our paper feel like they’re yelling at a wall.
Ian Beattie is a U2 English literature student. He’s also one of The Daily’s Culture editors. Engage with his views in a way that doesn’t marginalize or silence them at firstname.lastname@example.org.