Being a student pro-life leader on campus today takes
uncommon courage and humility

By Karen Stiller
The Interim

When I told my Gender and Health class at Dalhousie University that I was against abortion, they were shocked. I transformed, right there in the seminar room, from a benign student into a fire-breathing dragon dripping intolerance from under my scales.

The late ‘eighties were frantic days in Halifax. Morgentaler unpacked his tool bag on McCully Street. Pro-life groups galvanized. A university campus seemed a logical place for a small group of pro-life students to gather, educate and debate.

We were despised. As president of Students for Life, I spoke in front of hostile crowds, was hissed at in class registration lines, interrogated by the school newspaper and yelled out of an off-campus women’s rally. I dragged my big dragon tail around campus picketing and pamphleting. And I hated every second of it. I was no dragon. I was a chicken. I hated being hated and I couldn’t wait to grab my degree, charge down the aisle with my husband and get out of there.

Ten years later not much has changed on university campuses across Canada. It may even be a little bit worse. Campuses are more stridently pro-choice than ever before. And pro-life student leaders are that much braver. There is not a chicken or a dragon in the bunch.

Pure energy

Tanya Granic is pure energy. Her voice bounds down the phone line into my office. She is president of the pro-life group at the University of Western Ontario. Her group has encountered minor resistance on campus. They successfully defended their right to display fetal models on an information table (the same models used by the university medical faculty). A member of the student council had been concerned that a student might walk past the table and be upset by the actual life-size models of a developing fetus. Instead, students walked by and were surprised to discover that a ten-week-old fetus has toes.

If you set up an information table at the University of Toronto you may be showered with condoms – that is, if your display is not stolen. Frank Monozlai, president of Students for Life at University of Toronto, chuckles wearily when he recalls the day both happened. “There were a lot of condoms floating around that day because the public health nurses were giving them away. People threw them on our table. And, apparently, our posters of a developing fetus and entwined wedding bands were deeply offensive, because when we had our backs turned and were talking to other students someone ran off with the display.” Frank and his friend tried to chase the thieves but were physically restrained by other students. “But the campus police were helpful. We have had positive dealings with our student council. Freedom of speech is recognized. It is not as bad here as on other campuses.”

National headlines

The farther West you travel, the worse it seems to get. Campus pro-life groups in British Columbia have been in national headlines struggling for their right to exhibit pro-life materials on campus, or to exist as groups at all.

If the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) had their choice, student pro-life groups would not be permitted on Canadian campuses. Marilyn Wilson, executive director of CARAL, says, “I think that any group preaching against a basic human right such as choice [does] not belong on campus. They are preaching hate and anti-woman violence. We think it is equivalent to a hate crime.”

But it is not the pro-life students who have been charged with any crimes. Pro-choice students on the University of British Columbia (UBC), have, however, wandered into hot legal water over their actions last year destroying a Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) display on the UBC campus. Members of Lifeline, the pro-life campus group involved, have retained lawyer Craig Jones to represent them in a lawsuit against the Alma Mater Society of UBC and the students who trampled their graphic display. They claim that their right to free speech was hampered during the incident and the months that followed when the University did not immediately discipline the offending students.

Civil liberties

Craig Jones is a busy man. He also represents pro-life students at the University of Victoria and the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops. Both have been told they cannot exist as recognized campus groups.

How do university campuses succeed in banning student pro-life groups? Joey Hanson of the Canadian Federation of Students, an alliance of student unions across the country, explains that student unions have a club infrastructure in place. Clubs apply for and are given, or denied, charter status by the student council. To be awarded this status groups need to meet the criteria established by the student union. It is the arbitrary interpretation of these criteria that causes problems for pro-life groups. A student union may claim that a pro-life group discriminates against women by their opposition to abortion. At the University College of the Cariboo, a working student reporter was asked to leave a pro-life meeting when students were about to share their experiences with abortion. She complained she was not welcome in the group, which the student government interpreted as a violation of a campus club rule. The club was disbanded by the student union.

Craig Jones, lawyer for the pro-life students, is not pro-life. He is for free speech. In his analysis of these incidents it is free speech that is at stake. “Pro-life students have no champions within the power structure of today’s universities. They are ideal targets for discriminatory action. And it is just wrong to suppress these people’s speech. It is quite a surprising and unfortunate trend.”

Unfortunate depending on who you speak to. Marilyn Wilson of CARAL says that free speech depends on what is being said: “Free speech is when you express your own view. But when you say to someone else, you are wrong, it is a problem.” The Canadian Federation of Students, who has an official pro-choice policy, agrees with this interpretation of free speech. National Chair, Michael Conlon: “It is a difficult issue to balance: free speech and intimidation on the part of pro-life groups. When does the right to free speech stop? When it intimidates someone else.”

That attitude is what is causing the problem for pro-life students on university campuses today, says Peter Horban, a professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. “Today, we have a blind worship of the value of tolerance. There is the view that if you don’t accept a particular lifestyle or position then you are guilty of intolerance. It is indicative of how we are thinking in Canada: you are automatically suspect if you oppose a way of thinking or acting, even if you are just speaking out against it.”

Denise Black agrees. She is president of the National Campus Life Network, an umbrella group for 22 student pro-life groups across Canada. “Being pro-life on campus is like being fed to the dogs. You really have to find strength in your convictions. It takes a lot to stand at an information table, or speak on pro-life apologetics in the face of a hostile audience. It definitely takes courage. A type I can’t even explain.”

A courage that is hard to explain but not difficult to find. This month, pro-life students at the University of Western Ontario are plastering their campus with posters decrying abortions performed at their own campus hospital. Pro-life groups on the West Coast are fighting back. The University of Victoria group has been reinstated, for now. Members of the University College of the Cariboo have a January meeting scheduled with their student council to discuss reinstatement possibilities. At the University of British Columbia where pro-choice students destroyed pro-life displays, the Lifeline group continues to exhibit their material. The display gets larger each time they set it up.

In an arena where the right to debate difficult issues used to be taken for granted, pro-life students petition, fight and retain lawyers for the right to free speech: to state their opposition to abortion and present an alternative view to the prevailing pro-choice position. Across Canada, every week, pro-life information tables are set up on university campuses. And the fact that a ten- week old fetus has toes continues to surprise students in Canada’s highest echelon of learning.