A debate on abortion at Toronto’s York University that was initially cancelled at the last minute at the behest of the university’s student federation finally went ahead March 18 with more than double the number of spectators than attended the first time.

About 130 people, under the watchful of eyes of heightened security, packed into the Curtis Lecture Hall E on campus to watch Jojo Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform spar with Michael Payton of York’s Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists on the question: “Abortion Debate: A Woman’s Right or a Moral Wrong?” Ruba had been invited to represent the pro-life side by the registered university group Students for Bio-Ethical Awareness.

The debate had first been scheduled for Feb. 28, but was cancelled just a couple of hours before it was to begin by the York Federation of Students, a spokesperson for which charged that the pro-life movement contributes to an “environment of intimidation” against women on campus.

“There is no need for an event, organized by ‘anti-choice’ campaigners, that is disguised as a debate,” claimed Kelly Holloway, vice-chair of the student centre where the debate was to be held originally.

The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, she continued, uses huge, full-colour images of “fabricated fetuses” alongside people dying in the Holocaust and being lynched. Students have been “appalled,” “traumatized” and “worried” by this, she said, and expect their student union to interfere in such matters.

Holloway and the student federation’s action prompted outcries of censorship and charges of stifling of free speech from across the country, generating headlines in major newspapers including the National Post, Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press and theOttawa Citizen.

The Post covered the controversy especially comprehensively, going so far as to run a lead editorial, “The abortion debate isn’t over,” in which it pointed out that “the final word on protecting a fetus has yet to be spoken.” The newspaper founded by Conrad Black expressed concern over the pattern of stifling of pro-life views at schools of higher education across the country and said student unions should not have the power to muzzle opinions with which they don’t agree.

“In Canada today, there is one abortion for every three live births. Students want to talk about. Let them,” the newspaper concluded.

York University administration appears to have heard the outcry, as it stepped in to reschedule the debate despite Holloway’s continued protestations. “We were aware there would be objections” to the cancellation of the debate, Holloway wrote in a letter to the editor in the Ottawa Citizen. “We were not aware that a traditionally reputable publication like the Citizen would stoop to demonizing students’ representatives by calling us ‘totalitarians.’”

For his part, Ruba said he was befuddled by the turn of events and Holloway’s belief that the debate was actually some kind of demonstration by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

“Did she think we were going to play checkers or something?” he asked rhetorically. “This was to be a debate on abortion.”

Ruba added what was additionally problematic was that posters had been put up 1½ weeks before the debate announcing the event and had the student federation’s stamp of approval. “There was even a poster beside the student federation door,” he added wryly.

Ruba also slammed the student federation’s hypocrisy on free speech, noting that it protested the suppression of an Israeli Apartheid Project demonstration at Hamilton’s McMaster University at the same time it was censoring free speech on its own campus.

“Ultimately, this shows me that these students have no confidence in their perspective, if they have to ban everybody who disagrees with them,” he said.

The eventual debate went off without major incident, except for the fact that there was not enough time to properly complete it, said Ruba. A “bear pit” Q and A session continued in the hallway.

The pro-abortion Toronto Star reported that most of the audience applause had gone to Ruba and quoted 22-year old psychology student Dominika Dworzanska as saying: “I think both sides should have freedom of speech. Everybody needs to hear a different perspective.”

Ruba said he believed he won the debate and that his opponent resorted to attacking the moderator, Professor Ian Gentles, as a tactic to try to discredit the event and divert attention from the fact he had lost.

University spokesperson Richard Fisher told the Star that, “Any debate that is legal and protected by free speech needs to occur. If it can’t happen at a … liberal arts university, where can it happen? I think the biggest publicity they could have given to this debate was to ban it.”