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Campus Notes

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Some of the most exciting thinking and doing in Canada is taking place at the country's colleges and universities, where young people of different backgrounds, interests and politics come together to debate and learn about our world. Campus Notes examines issues confronting higher education through our students, teachers, workers and graduates.

Pro-choice thinkers unite!: A call-out for pro-active reproductive justice

| February 29, 2012

For many students at universities and those involved in the reproductive justice movement, it is no surprise that Canadian campuses have become hotbeds for anti-choice activities in recent years. Unfortunately, the organizing efforts of pro-choice students and youth are too often rooted in reacting to the antics of abortion shaming on the part of anti-choice students. Young reproductive justice activists have a unique opportunity to mobilize our campuses with a fresh conversation, but doing so means that we have to get pro-active.

As a movement, reproductive justice has attempted to move from a politics focused solely on abortion and those experiences of primarily white women to one that recognizes the myriad of ways that reproductive rights are violated. A term originally coined by women of colour organizers in the United States, "reproductive justice" has sought to acknowledge the ways that race, citizenship, colonization, gender, ability, sexuality and age inform our experiences of sex, reproduction and parenting. Not only has this been a necessary shift in the way we conceptualize control of female bodies, but it also serves well to bring people into a conversation that may have otherwise seemed old and tired.

Of course, access to abortion is still a crucial issue, especially under a Conservative majority government, and we shouldn't step back from being vigilant about fighting for the affordability and accessibility of this hard-won medical service. But broadening the issue to include adoption and pregnancy rights for queer and trans* parents, protection for midwives, affordable childcare, the elimination of racist and colonial child apprehension policies, anti-violence initiatives, free and available contraception and more, allows for a plethora of points of connection with students and youth alike. If abortion isn't the issue that excites a student, then maybe something else (like midwifery, for example) will serve to bring them into the reproductive justice movement. After all, contraception and abortion activism found a politically active home on campuses in the 1960s. Services for affordable and available contraception were fought for at campus clinics throughout those decades and many argue that the pro-choice voice was loudest at universities. Granted, this may have been because those women who had access to universities were also those whose voices and histories were most recognized, but the shift from campuses as a hub for pro-choice activity to one where anti-choice clubs monopolize a lot of student media and politics is worth noting. We have a unique opportunity here to reclaim the campus as a site of political organizing for reproductive justice.

Most often, the tactics of anti-choice students involve "pro-life" campus clubs trotting out presentations or displays by the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-choice advocacy organization whose primary goal is to "make abortion unthinkable." One of the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform's most common displays is the "Genocide Awareness Project" (GAP), a large billboard presentation that juxtaposes graphic images of aborted fetuses alongside images of historical genocides. The idea behind GAP is that by showing the images side by side, passerbys will associate abortion with genocide. Implicit in this comparison is the further association of women who have abortions and doctors who provide them with the inflictors of said genocide. Tactics such as these trivialize the experiences of those who have been directly affected by genocide, leading many to (rightfully) charge that the display is both racist and anti-Semitic. GAP is most often displayed in the most public areas of campus, allowing students, staff and faculty no choice but to be exposed to the images. The Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform's other display, "Choice Chain" is a common predecessor for anti-choice clubs testing the waters before they bring GAP. It is another large graphic display of pictures of aborted fetuses with the word "Choice?" printed above the images. When presented at the University of Victoria in November, the University and the Students' Society received more than 90 complaints from upset students.

Student unions and university administrations have responded to GAP and similar presentations in a variety of ways including removing booking privileges from the club, denying the club student funding, or revoking the club's status. For anti-choice campus clubs, however, litigation has become an increasingly popular tactic. Last spring, students from Carleton University's Lifeline club sued the University when campus security requested that the students move indoors with their GAP display. Since hearing the University's application to dismiss, the courts have reduced or amended the majority of the students' claims. Similar legal battles occurred at the University of Calgary a couple years prior. Like Lifeline, the aforementioned anti-choice club at the University of Victoria, Youth Protecting Youth, also previously took the route of litigation in May 2011 when they sued the UVic Students' Society after the Students' Society denied student funding to Youth Protecting Youth. The matter was settled out of court.

Presentations like "Genocide Awareness Project" and "Choice Chain" are turning people off from anti-choice tactics and recent announcements from Conservative politicians trying to "re-open the abortion debate" are getting people worried. Our movement has never been so broad and inclusive (though we admittedly still have a way to go). The view that people have the right to control their own bodies is not unpopular and it is crucially important that we mobilize those who may share our beliefs to stand up, take part and get organized.
While much pro-choice activism has been historically fought out in the courts (think the Morgentaler trials and Roe v Wade), when it comes to combating graphic displays and hateful presentations, litigation is not the way to go. Despite a notable win for the pro-choice student union at UBC Okanagan in 2008, court battles are costly and have not always proven successful. Unfortunately, our legal system is fundamentally predicated on an ability to pay expensive lawyers and court fees. Like it or not, the anti-choice lobby is a well-funded machine backed by right-wing bigwigs and the Catholic Church.

Of course, I in no way mean to suggest that reproductive justice activists should passively watch anti-choice hatred and propaganda run rampant on campuses. Quite the opposite, in fact. We need to get organized and work on being pro-active instead of always being reactive. The resistance that was organized at UVic to "Choice Chain" was inspiring. Students at Simon Fraser University also lead a very successful mobilization against the "Genocide Awareness Project" days before where they set up a "positively pro-choice" counter-protest. But we need to move away from only being active and engaged when it is in response to yet another sensationalist anti-choice stunt. I understand that it is difficult to not spend all our time and energy reacting to racist and misogynistic propaganda, but at this moment, in the political climate on campuses and in national institutions, being solely reactionary is not enough. Student activists should grow our networks, hold events, share resources and otherwise inspire our campuses with an understanding and belief in reproductive justice before anti-choice students take it upon themselves to offend us.

Tara Paterson is the student and youth representative for the Abortion Right Coalition of Canada. She works in reproductive justice, queer rights and student movements.

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