Students ponder where to go next after initial pro-life forays

Canadian pro-life student organizations continue to struggle with the age-old question of retaining the talent, enthusiasm and experience of students who are reaching the crossroads in terms of longer-term commitment to right-to-life work.

While many organizations throughout North America have established youth wings and stepped up efforts to solicit student input, they face the ongoing prospect of losing valuable student resources to the natural pull of education, career and family commitments.

As well, some pro-life students have scaled back on front-line work due to disenchantment with the increasingly secular environment in vogue at most university campuses throughout North America. This ties in with the unfortunate view that full-time pro-life work is on the fringe of society and can be dispensed with when something more mainstream – or more lucrative – comes along.

One student, formerly active with a major pro-life organization in Canada, suggested that the overwhelmingly secular environment she encountered at university was a factor in the decision to adopt a more private approach to pro-life objectives. While still firm in her pro-life resolve, this individual found it demoralizing to continually defend a pro-life position that was dismissed by practically all of her contemporaries.

The above example is common to many students who attempt to give voice to pro-life views in the wider marketplace. Many students first become involved in right-to-life work through school groups, particularly in Catholic secondary schools. While their energy and enthusiasm helps inspire their peers, many find that once they enter the university or the working world, the ability to demonstrate a high-profile pro-life position becomes more problematic.

Not all the news is bleak, however. A handful of Canadian pro-life students have seized on what might be called “watershed” moments in their undergraduate careers as springboards to full-time pro-life work. Some have opted to support established pro-life organizations in their adult years, while others might limit their support to financial contributions or prayer.

If nothing else, many once-active pro-life students speak of bringing a firm right-to-life ethic to their contemporary circumstances – either at the workplace or among their peers.

Retaining student resources in the pro-life struggle has long been a priority for Scott Klusendorf of the California-based Stand to Reason organization. One of North America’s leading pro-life apologists, Klusendorf has gained a wide reputation for training students to articulate the right-to-life position with clear, logical and irrefutable arguments.

In presentations to Canadian students since 1998, Klusendorf has appealed to young people to consider taking on pro-life work as a full-time career option.

One of his most telling comments to students at each presentations is, “There are more people working full-time to kill babies than there are working full-time to save them.” While it’s not the kind of appeal one would hear from a career guidance counsellor, the observation has clearly pricked pro-life imaginations from California to Newfoundland.

One former student who was galvanized into full-time pro-life work is Stephanie Grey, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform in Vancouver. Grey is the former president of the Lifeline group at the University of British Columbia. In addition to being inspired by Scott Klusendorf’s exhortation to take up a pro-life career, Grey’s commitment was strengthened in the aftermath of a 1998 incident in which a Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) display at the university was attacked and destroyed by pro-abortion activists. GAP is a display of graphic images of aborted babies designed to drive home the stark reality of reproductive choice.

The university administration’s lukewarm response to a physical attack on a legitimate pro-life display led Grey and others to a deeper involvement in the cause.

“Definitely, my work with Lifeline and the GAP situation played a role in my discernment of doing full-time pro-life work,” she told The Interim. “I always knew pro-life activism would play some role in my life, but I didn’t realize it would be the biggest part of my life.”

Despite her personal decision to take on full-time pro-life work, Grey agreed that there is a concern about losing talented, enthusiastic pro-life ambassadors to the pull of career and family, or to the burnout factor.

“I know some great pro-life students that I’ve worked with who I would love to see do full-time work with me,” she added. “They have so much talent, energy and dedication. I know their gifts would be a great asset to the pro-life movement, but they are already working at their chosen career, or plan to. I will say, though, that some of them are seriously considering full-time pro-life work.”

Similarly, Frances Magapagal, another veteran of the UBC Lifeline/GAP experience, is committed to a deeper pro-life commitment as an elementary school teacher, and as president of the North Shore Pro-Life group in North Vancouver. “Students at universities all across Canada are taking important steps towards achieving a society that values life,” she said. “Our students are never too young to be educated about the importance and value of life.”

Magapagal believes the spiritual and philosophical remnants of student pro-life work should be considered in evaluating young people’s future contributions to the movement. “I believe that being pro-life is not an occupation or hobby, but a way of life,” she added. “Whatever or wherever we end up in the occupational world, it is vital that when the opportunity arises, we take a stand and protect the unborn and the elderly.”

The potential loss of students as a valuable pro-life resource has not been lost on the National Campus Life Network (NCLN), an organization promoting the culture of life on university and college campuses across Canada. Not only does the NCLN provide a link for pro-life students moving from high school to university, it also offers training and resources for students to take on what might be called “adult” pro-life work.

Elaine Barber, director of the NCLN, agreed that a student’s pursuit of that crucial first job after graduation poses a challenge for the entire pro-life movement. “It is a real concern for NCLN and any pro-life organization that once students graduate from university or college, they suddenly disappear from the pro-life world,” she said. “One of the ways in which we are trying to deal with this is by making students aware of other organizations they can give their time and talents to. Many people, once they begin their careers or family, will financially donate to pro-life organizations, but not actually be involved – which I think is fine, because raising a family is full-time pro-life work in itself.”

Even students who might be lost to the movement can still make a contribution to pro-life ideals through their interaction with co-workers, peers and neighbours. This effort by former students to “evangelize” one’s immediate environment to right-to-life thinking may be at odds with some former student activists, who for various reasons have opted for a more private approach to promoting a culture of life. Nonetheless, some believe the lower-profile approach still has its merit. One example is Emma Fedor, former executive director of the Toronto Right to Life Association. Fedor came to full-time pro-life work after several years as a presenter with the Ontario Federation of Students. Although she has dispensed with full-time pro-life work to raise her two children, Fedor still finds time to bring the culture of life message to classrooms in southern Ontario.

“In some ways, I’ll always be doing right to life work,” she told . “Even if you aren’t going to an office everyday, you can do some of the work through personal example. I’ve always believed that pro-life is an attitude, so your life and your actions can be a big example to people.”

Natalie Hudson, the current executive director of Toronto Right to Life, is another former student who is making a longer-term commitment to pro-life work. She was active with the pro-life club at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and extended her appreciation for the issue as an arts student at Thomas Aquinas College in southern California. She has used her positive experience as a student pro-lifer as a steppingstone to full-time work.

Hudson, moreover, has a novel idea to promote full-time pro-life work to students facing important career decisions – that is, to extol the rewards of a pro-life career.

“I don’t mind saying that this is a great lifestyle,” she said. “You certainly meet a lot of good, interesting people, there’s some travel involved and there is a certain sense of job security. And if your aim is to make a lot of money, then you won’t be happy, but if your aim is to be fulfilled emotionally and otherwise, then this is definitely something to consider for students.”

Certainly, Hudson’s reference to emotional fulfillment is something that has sustained longer-serving pro-life workers who have endured political setback, lukewarm support from their faith leaders, and ridicule and derision from the mainstream media. The sense of family, and a faith-based motivation for the work, remains a source of inspiration for even the most hardened pro-life worker.

One individual who keenly represents the dilemma of the pro-life student is Tanya Granic, a political science student at the University of Western Ontario in London. The former head of Campaign Life Coalition Youth, Granic has been active in pro-life work since age 16. After nearly 10 years as a student pro-lifer, Granic will soon be forced to choose between full-time pro-life work or a more mainstream career.

She believes, however, that even if students back away from front-line pro-life work, they can continue making a contribution to the cause. “Whether it is in the home or at an office, one can be a pro-life witness wherever they are,” she said. “I don’t consider it a loss to have students work for the pro-life movement and then leave to do something else. These students were granted an opportunity to strengthen their faith and life principles, while contributing to the most important cause of our day. However, I believe it’s important for students to remain active in the pro-life movement, and not just fade away after an internship.”

While Granic is undecided as to her own career choices, she says students have several opportunities to stay involved. Among these are joining an established group, lobbying for pro-life aims, writing letters to pro-life or secular newspapers and organizing fundraising events.

“There are so many means and ways to be involved, that there really is no excuse for not being able to be involved,” she added, “even if it means sending in a cheque once a month, or sidewalk counselling one morning a week at an abortuary. Of course, maintaining a strong spiritual life is of utmost importance. Praying for an end to the anti-life forces around the world is very important.”

As today’s students ponder their pro-life future, there is some optimism that younger generations are more open to the basic truths of the right to life position. This, in turn, might inspire more students to give more thought to a deeper level of pro-life commitment. Admittedly, there are a limited number of full-time positions available in pro-life organizations throughout North America. This would dictate against a flood of students submitting their CVs at Campaign Life Coalition, Right to Life and related groups. However, for every single full-time position available, there are dozens of avenues available to students to maintain some form of involvement.

And those who might shun more active pro-life work for fear that it has been relegated to the margins of society might do well to heed the advice of Elaine Barber of the NCLN: “I think the most important way to guard against being labelled that way is to not fit into the stereotypes. Be sure to present yourself as very professional, level-headed and intelligent. Be confident that what you are doing is normal and right and try to be as open and honest as you possibly can be with people so that they can see and understand that you stand for a position that is sound and reasonable.”