Is Abortion Too Hot A Topic For Campuses? Both Sides Say It Was Wrong To Cancel York U Event

April 2008

The abortion debate that never happened at York University last week was, by all accounts, a typical campus affair. The small room in the student centre had been dutifully booked, the fliers stamped for approval, and the head of the York Debating Society was ready to moderate. In these respects, it was virtually identical to an upcoming debate in the same building on the existence of God. But, as is increasingly common at Canadian universities, one student politician saw potential for offence and brought the whole thing to an abrupt end.

"This debate, over whether or not women should be able to have an abortion, is not acceptable in the student centre," said Kelly Holloway, president of the York University Graduate Students Association and vice-chairwoman of the student centre.

From the posters, she had recognized the anti-abortion speaker -- Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform in Calgary -- and knew that his strategy is to show gruesome photos of aborted fetuses (which she believes to be faked), and to make gross comparisons to genocide and the Holocaust.

And so Ms. Holloway hastily convened four members of the centre's executive for a vote, and the debate was officially nixed, to the dismay of the 50 or so students who showed up.

"It would be equivalent to having a debate over whether or not you can beat your wife," Ms. Holloway said."People in this country have had the debate over abortion. The Supreme Court made a decision, and that's good enough for me…. I think we should accept that the debate is over."

This kind of thinking, and the bureaucratic actions it motivates, is evident in abortion discussions around the country but especially on campuses, where student pro-life groups have been marginalized -- even voted out of existence -- by the unilateral and often capricious decisions of their student leaders.

The situation has become so frustrating that these groups have started appealing off-campus to human rights boards, which are typically unfriendly to social conservatives.

This January, for example, a pro-life group at Lakehead University decided to appeal to the Ontario Human Rights Commission after the student government banned it from handing out leaflets, using the school's name, or engaging in any "unsolicited conversations." By coincidence, Mr. Ruba is at Lakehead today to conduct a similar debate, though he fears it, too, will be cancelled."I have this tendency to get pro-life clubs attacked or cancelled after debating," he said.

Also in January, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal delivered verdicts on two college pro-life groups that had been denied student club status. Incredibly, one lost and the other won. And last month at the University of Toronto's law school, a day-long symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Morgentaler decision, attended by the 84-year-old Dr. Henry Morgentaler himself, did not include a single speaker who dissented from the dominant view of abortion as an emancipatory boon for women.

Abortion, obviously, does not lend itself to breezy debate. Indeed, "life" and "choice" appear to be irreconcilable opposites.

But Ms. Holloway's claim that abortion should be completely undebatable does not sit well among the students she represents.

"The analogy to beating your wife simply doesn't hold, because no one beats their wife and then makes a moral argument about why they should do it," said Michael Payton, a York student of cognitive science and philosophy and a member of a student group Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists, who was slated to argue the pro-choice side against Mr. Ruba.

Mr. Payton said he knew that Mr. Ruba's organization has "a bad history of being deceptive" and using manipulative propaganda, especially gruesome videos of abortions, but "videos and pictures are not arguments, and at the end of the day, if I can speak after him and show that it's a fallacious argument to show pictures instead of actual philosophy, actual science, then it wouldn't matter if he wasted everyone's time with 20 minutes of horrific videos, because he's not making an argument.

"If we don't let people know the reasons why we have abortion legalized in Canada, and the ethical theory behind it, then we risk losing it. I think [Ms. Holloway] had every good intention, but I think she was dead wrong [to cancel]," Mr. Payton said."You don't get anywhere by simply ignoring the debate that happens in the hearts and minds of everyone at some point or another."

In an interview yesterday, Ms. Holloway said that neither Mr. Payton, nor Amir Mohareb, the scheduled moderator and president of the York Debating Society, knew very much about Mr. Ruba and his positions, and that their ignorance made her intervention necessary.

But both said they were well-informed, and Mr. Mohareb said he had approached the student government to inform them of the event and the possible controversy. In discussions with Mr. Ruba, Mr. Mohareb also established ground rules about the format of the debate and especially the use of images, which were to be prefaced with a warning. Video was not allowed, he said.

Ms. Holloway said there is no way to appeal her decision to cancel the debate, but every indication is that she now has a fight on her hands, one that threatens to spill beyond the borders of the student centre. After the cancellation on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Mohareb said he went to all levels of student government to try to broker a compromise.

"I made it quite clear that I'll get rid of the images, and I'll get rid of this external speaker, and we'll just have this debate on our own. I said we can still have the debate, and either we'll have a student debate the pro-life, which wouldn't be difficult to find, or we'll just get rid of both groups [Mr. Payton's and Students for Bioethical Awareness, which invited Mr. Ruba], and we as a debating society will just host the debate ourselves, between ourselves, which we do all the time," Mr. Mohareb said.

But he was told that the topic itself is "out of line," and that "debating abortion would be as much of a violation as debating the Holocaust."

He said that he and the other members of the debating society were "wholly unconvinced," and so he asked for an official, written statement clarifying which topics he is forbidden from debating. He was promised that one would be delivered today.

"To be completely neutral, it's a little too soon to say that we are banned from debating abortion on student space. However, it's clear that a number of executives of the student union feel that way, and I have made it quite clear that if that's how they feel, then the debating society would take this up further," Mr. Mohareb said.