News  The abortion debate in context

After a year of controversy, Choose Life will re-chart its course for the coming year. The Daily's Stephen Davis reflects on what we've learned from the club, and the debate.

In 1987, Harper’s published an article by a writer named Sally Tisdale, who had worked as a nurse in an abortion clinic. Tisdale explained how, “In abortion, the absolute must always be tempered by the contextual.” There are no absolute answers to the moral question of abortion, she argued, because our values should always be contingent on context.

For the large part of this year, McGill’s fledgling pro-life group, Choose Life, has opted to deal in moral absolutes, rather than acknowledging the lived experiences of the students around them. And this might be why they haven’t accomplished much of what they set out to do.

Their moral absolutes led them to pursue shock tactics – forget the individual women, they seem to be saying, there is a greater truth here: abortion is killing, killing is wrong, and we will do whatever it takes to spread these truths.

After a year clouded in controversy, they’ve re-plotted their course. But it remains to be seen where next year will lead.

The club’s history: digest version
Choose Life gained interim club status in October 2008. And after holding some successful events and jumping through a few administrative hoops, they gained official club status at a Council meeting in February 2009. Official club status comes with certain privileges, including the ability to book rooms and set up displays on campus.

Students were anxious and frustrated. At the October Council meeting, a student called the pro-life perspective “inherently violent against women and against human rights.” The February meeting was the most well-attended Council session in almost a year.

The anxieties expressed at Council did not go unaddressed. The group was subject to certain restrictions, including a prohibition on the use of graphic imagery.

In the lead-up to gaining official status, the group had proven itself to be a polarizing force on campus. Despite the restrictions on imagery, they tabled at the crossroads with pictures of fetal development in November 2008. Then they invited Mary Meehan, a speaker who compared abortion to eugenics. The audience in the room was literally divided, with pro-lifers on one side and Choose Life’s opponents on the other.

In September 2009, the club hosted the Silent No More Awareness campaign. Demonstrators stood on campus with signs reading “I Regret My Abortion” – actions which some criticized as intentionally targeting women who’ve had abortions to make them feel ashamed. Fliers handed out at the event made the dubious assertion that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.

Things became tense on campus, but Choose Life pushed forward. In October, they invited a speaker who compares the language used to justify abortion to the language that has been used to justify genocide. The Students’ Society censured the event, fearing it would create a hostile environment on campus.

Choose Life went ahead with the event. Student protesters shut it down. Police escorted two protesters out in handcuffs. At a Senate meeting, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said the protests had cast a “dark cloud” over campus by trying to censor the group.

Soon after, SSMU Council voted to suspend Choose Life’s club status. Over the coming months, members of the club’s executive met with the Society’s Equity Committee to discuss how Choose Life could conform to the Society’s Equity Policy. This document binds the Society to “Creating, promoting, and engaging its membership in an environment that fosters respect.” After a few meetings and agreements on new restrictions for the group, a vote at Council in early April reinstated Choose Life as an official SSMU club.

The promise of dialogue
When you speak with Choose Life president Natalie Fohl, she talks about a lot of things – women’s rights, Canadian law, and freedom of speech.

But more than anything else, Fohl’s preferred topic is dialogue. I’ve interviewed her several times this year – after the group’s first event of the year, in the lead-up to their suspension, and following Choose Life’s reinstatement.

At the Silent No More event, three speakers – two women and one man – shared stories of how abortion affected their lives.

Afterward, when protesters had packed up their signs and guitars and left, Fohl told me that the event was “a great opportunity for dialogue.”

In January, Fohl was tabling at the crossroads and speaking with students about abortion. Her club was still suspended, so she wasn’t allowed to be tabling under the name Choose Life. But she contacted Conservative McGill, and they booked a table under their name. Late in the day, someone came along and flipped over Fohl’s table. But she was optimistic, and said that Choose Life, as always, was “here to raise awareness but also to promote discussion.”

And recently, with her club’s status reinstated, she said “We do try and have a variety of events to make sure that a lot of different people are engaged in…dialogue.”

Fohl’s professed love for dialogue is bizarre, since for a brief period this year, it seemed that Choose Life’s tactics had destroyed any hope of a meaningful discussion of reproductive rights on campus. When you confront a woman with a sign reading, “I regret my abortion,” for instance, you cannot expect students to eagerly engage in dialogue.

Fohl seems to have realized this. Her plans for the club have shifted away from inviting incendiary speakers and toward research and activism.

She explained that future initiatives would include a research group that will assess the resources available for parents and pregnant students at McGill.

“We’re going to compile that information, [first] to make it available, but also to assess the situation, see if it’s adequate, and, if it’s not, advocate for changes,” Fohl said.

After a rocky year, she seems more aware than ever that pregnancy is a particularly weighty issue for students, one that the administration fails to address.

“If I were to get pregnant, randomly, unexpectedly…that would be my school career, all of my plans, out the window. And I don’t think that needs to be the case…. The University structure should be set up to accommodate that and make it so that women don’t have to choose between their studies and their child’s life,” Fohl said.

She didn’t mention any concrete plans Choose Life has to accomplish these goals – and they have their reputation working against them. Their rhetoric earlier this year was divisive – not the kind of talk that encourages students to get involved with any sort of grassroots initiative advocating for pregnant students. Through their actions – their signs, their underhanded tactics, their shock tactics – Choose Life has alienated the very people they want to advocate for.

A look ahead
I recently read a Maisonneuve article in which the pseudonymous author wrote about her own abortion. She mentions Tisdale’s piece, and toward the end, she quotes British writer Fay Weldon:
“Abortion is sometimes necessary, sometimes not, always sad. It is to the woman as war is to the man – a living sacrifice in a cause justified or not justified, as the observer may decide. It is the making of hard decisions – that this one must die so that one can live in honor and decency and comfort. Women have no leaders, of course; a woman’s conscience must be her General. There are no stirring songs to make the task of killing easier, no victory marches and medals handed around afterwards, merely a sense of loss.”

The Maisonneuve writer goes on to say that women who choose to obtain abortions open up an aftermath that they must face alone. So far, Choose Life has only made the situation worse, reinforcing the view that abortion is absolutely wrong, but the factors that compel women to make that choice aren’t worth challenging.

After Council voted to impose new restrictions on Choose Life, Fohl accused the Society of applying a double standard. Choose Life is the only club on campus that must abide by such stringent guidelines, she said. This is true. But no other club on campus deals with issues with as much potential to alienate students as abortion. As VP (University Affairs) Rebecca Dooley said after the vote, “You can’t talk about this issue and not talk about women’s bodies. You can’t talk about this issue and not talk about a difficult experience.”

Choose Life VP (Internal) Paul Cernek told me that, “We have the best interests of everyone at heart, including women.” If this is true, Choose Life should acknowledge that women who choose to end their pregnancies do so for reasons that a campus club could actively combat. They must focus less on the how of abortion – the surgical procedures, the gory details – and more on the why: those factors that compel a woman to seek an abortion.

If women are ending pregnancies because they must choose between a child and paying rent, the group could campaign for improved access to social housing. Or they could advocate for McGill post-doctoral students to receive benefits like subsidized child-care or paid maternity leave. Currently, maternity leave is negotiated with the post-doc’s supervisor. And then there’s contraception and sex education, both of which are lacking across the country and around the world.

As a SSMU club, they stand to benefit from the funds that the Society collects from its members (all undergrads and law students). Choose Life owes students more. If they are as concerned about women’s welfare as they claim to be, they need to prove it next year.