The late 20th century remained a particularly active time for Canadian politics following the revival of the debate over “reproductive politics”. The debate introduced matters of pregnancy and abortion into public discourse. On opposite sides of the discussion are those who are “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice”.
Ultimately revolving around the law, the argument between pro-life and pro-choice is based on the extent to which people believe that abortion should be sanctioned. While the two opposing sides debate on the rights of the pregnant woman to privacy versus the right to life for the child, author Warren Tatalovich views the debate as a spectrum.
In The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: a comparative study, Tatalovich identifies two minorities who have polarized views on abortion, while the larger public opinion remains moderate and generally unchanged over the last 20 years.
But what began in the late 1980s, with Pierre Trudeau’s Ominous Bill being struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to declare all legal restrictions on abortion as unconstitutional, seems to have arisen not only in the House of Commons, but also in cities and university campuses across Canada today.
While abortion is essentially a moral issue, Tatalovich explains how the debate has increasingly adopted a political and legal front, with opposing agendas for both anti-abortion campaigners and abortion rights campaigners.
As a result, most student groups seek to initiate an active protest culture, giving opportunities and power to both sides to influence public debate.
Both face struggles
Although there are no federal restrictions on abortion in Canada, pro-choice supporters believe that access to abortion remains limited.
The feminist pro-choice argument is rooted in describing abortion as an intensely personal experience, as opposed to being open to public morality. Under the Conservative administration in 2013, the government refused to fund abortions for overseas war rape victims and child brides. Making abortion difficult to access fuels the pro-choice sentiment of women being deprived of the right to make their own decisions.
A recent movement across Prince Edward Island used posters of a red-headed, pig-tailed woman wearing a bandana to demand more access to abortion clinics. Similarly, the Morgentaler clinic is the only private abortion facility in New Brunswick. To be able to have an abortion in a hospital, women in New Brunswick need the approval of two doctors.
While the pro-choice movement struggles with varying abortion laws across states, at the university level, pro-life groups seem to be struggling for recognition, as evident in recent news coverage.
For example, in February 2015, the Ryerson Students’ Union unanimously rejected a pro-life group’s appeal for recognition as a club on campus. In a press release, the union’s Students Groups Committee claimed to have made the decision out of opposition to misogyny and “ideologies that promote gender inequity” among other views.
In September 2015, the University of Alberta’s pro-life student group and its administrators filed a suit against the University of Alberta for allegedly failing to uphold free speech on campus by not punishing those who prevented the group from carrying out its activities and for allegedly invoicing the group a security fee for an event which had the potential to be disrupted.
A more recent example occurred right here at UTM, where last month, UTM Students for Life filed a lawsuit against the UTMSU for denying them registered club status.
As I read about demonstrations held by pro-choice groups in downtown Toronto asking students to “honk for choice”, or U of T Students for Life organizing protests as part of a nationwide pro-life initiative called the “Choice Chain”, I realize exactly how important it is to understand the specifics behind the debate—which is what this article is about to dive into.
A central argument on the pro-life side of the debate is that a fetus is equal to a human life, and is thus deserving of full legal rights and protections.
Under the pro-choice argument, a right to privacy suggests that people should be free to live and make decisions about their lives without government intervention (except in cases where the decisions being made are matters of compelling state interest).
Right to Life
The pro-life side further argues that a fetus, as a legal person, is entitled to the right to life. The right to life is protected by section seven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I absolutely view this issue as a feminist issue, but not in the traditional sense of the word,” says Alissa Golob, a member of Right Now, a start-up pro-life organization. Golob was previously a youth coordinator for the Campaign for Life Coalition, which is a large Canadian pro-life group.
“I am a pro-life feminist because the pro-life efforts we work towards are those shaped by the core feminist values of justice, non-discrimination, and non-violence,” says Golob.
However, the same section also supports the pro-choice notion, as the section also guarantees all individuals the right to security of the person—thus making it legally invalid to force a woman into any activity without her consent.
Pro-choicers further view this through the concept of reproductive freedom. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada states that “without control of their fertility, [women and trans people] cannot have autonomy over their lives and cannot play a full and equal role in society”.
Additionally, Bernstein J.L., in the Brooklyn Law Review, suggests that prohibiting abortion does not actually prevent women from terminating pregnancies, as women often resort to more expensive or dangerous alternatives.
What UTM thinks
One thing is clear though: as the pro-lifers and pro-choicers battle it out, several members of the population remain neutral—or confused.
“This debate is so controversial, I almost have nothing to say,” says Kiran Siddiqui, a third-year biotechnology specialist. Siddiqui believes most students are not comfortable expressing their views on the matter.
“I think the demonstrations [by either side] should be educational more than anything, just so students know what options are available,” says Siddiqui.
“The key question one must approach is this: what is the preborn child? Consequently, what does an abortion accomplish?” says Caroline Wojdylo, a second-year student majoring in anthropology and biology.
“We will at one point or another know of someone in an unplanned pregnancy—perhaps it will be us,” says Wojdylo. She describes how every person has the potential to affect the situation in a way that may end or continue the life and development of the child in question.
Father Marcin Serwin is invited for mass and proceedings at UTM by the Catholic Students’ Club, and also assists at the UN commission for the dignity of women. He believes that the topic of abortion “has more to do with the dignity of every individual”.
Serwin says, “The question isn’t religious or moral, but one that touches every area of life and our knowledge of it from science to philosophy.” The pro-life notion encourages women to seek support during pregnancy, rather than supporting a culture of avoidance.
Pro-choice groups often counter this argument in the context of sexual assault. They argue that the abortion of children conceived through rape helps women regain bodily integrity when they need it most.
On the other hand, the UTM Sexual Education Centre holds an impartial view on the subject. The centre claims to welcome everyone, offering confidential and non-judgmental conversation through their peer-support program. The office states that their peer supports “are trained to deal with issues relating to sexually transmitted infections, testing, pregnancy, sexual orientation, contraception, and abstinence”.
While the peer supports are not experts on any of these topics, the office helps with navigating and accessing the resources available, and making appropriate referrals when required.
“I think university is the time to hear different opinions and make educated decisions,” says Amna Azhar, a second-year student majoring in psychology and biology. “I like to have conversations with people I don’t agree with. We keep learning that way.”
Azhar further mentions how understanding the background and context of a particular perspective makes it easier for the community to offer help and support.
As for the recent controversy regarding Students for Life at UTM, Serwin believes, “Students for Life, just like pro-choice clubs or a pro-cookies clubs […] do not tell people what to do, but they express their opinion in hopes as to convince their listeners of a given topic.”
The Students for Choice group at the St. George campus adopts a similar approach by providing information on sexual education, explaining abortion facts, and information on how to contact Planned Parenthood.
Wojdylo refers to the debate between the pro-life and pro-life groups as being consistent of a set of questions behind the science of an unborn child. She says the premise on either side aims to address if he or she can begin to feel pain, or if each sides views them as a clump of cells or a person.
“These questions can be answered from a variety of perspectives, but to silence them is unacceptable,” says Wojdylo.
This article has been corrected.
- February 9, 2016 at 5 p.m.: It originally described Alissa Golob as the youth coordinator for the Campaign for Life Coalition, though she was no longer in that role at the time of publication and is instead with a start-up pro-life organization called Right Now.
Notice to be printed on February 22, 2016 (Volume 42, Issue 18).