Last week the University of Sydney Union (USU) board voted 6-5 in favour of registering a group called Life Choice Sydney as a campus club. Like the venerable Sydney University Dramatic Society and the just-approved Ukelele Society, Life Choice can now apply for funding to hold events on campus and stamp its correspondence with the USU logo.
Funding clubs and societies is one of the key functions of student unions. In the campaigns to fight voluntary student unionism, bleak pictures were painted of campus life without clubs and societies.
Usually, board members follow the recommendations of a committee as to who makes the cut, but in the case of Life Choice at Sydney Uni, things went a bit differently.
Life Choice is a pro-life student club formed earlier this year; its application was rejected on the grounds that it would not "enrich the student experience at university". Life Choice took their case to the board, who, after hours of discussion, voted to accept the application after all. Board President Sibella Matthews cast the deciding vote.
New Matilda was told Union board directors weren’t available for comment but Matthews did tell The Australian, "The union is about improving and enriching students’ experiences, and part of that is allowing freedom of speech and freedom of expression."
Director Mina Nada also invoked the University’s tradition of "free expression, free thought and open inquiry" in his defence of Life Choice’s application.
Getting the tick from USU means Life Choice is apparently the only official pro-life student society in Australia. There are plenty of student religious organisations that are active around abortion, but none devoted solely to "life issues". The decision has made international pro-life news.
The group describes itself as non-sectarian, non-partisan and unaffiliated with campus religious groups. Its Facebook page, currently heavily trafficked, states the society’s aims as:
"…to promote the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, through reasonable and informed discussion on the issues of abortion and euthanasia in Australian society. We organise educational events which provide a fun, safe and social environment in which to discuss these issues."
Life Choice spokesperson Isabelle Whealing, a third year Arts student at Sydney, told New Matilda that the group wants to make "a contribution to the marketplace of ideas on campus". She says the group is "just like any other student organisation", made up of students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds who share a common desire to further discussion on abortion and euthanasia.
"We want to be as inclusive as possible. I have no idea about the religious affiliation of most of our members," she said.
Union funds will allow Life Choice to hold events on campus. They plan to screen documentaries, invite guest speakers to events, and host discussions. All events, Whealing said, will involve public forums where diverse views will be welcome.
Pro-choice and feminist groups on campus are furious. A policy forum was held on campus yesterday to discuss the issues and a general meeting of the Union has been called later this month.
Opponents of Life Choice can sign an online petition calling on USU to overturn its decision. The petition text reads: "This is about funding and giving legitimacy to a group whose sole target is women. This ‘LifeChoice’ Society is an attack on women’s rights and by allowing its formation the Union is failing its students and undermining the inclusiveness it seeks to promote."
SRC Women’s Officer Annabel Osborn, one of the instigators of the petition, says Life Choice is "essentially a single issue lobby group". She isn’t convinced by the group’s promises to hold open discussions, arguing that its members have already made up their minds on the issue.
According to Osborn, the USU has a remit to promote inclusive and positive campus culture and "Life Choice is an affront to that goal".
Life Choice members were astonished by such responses, Whealing says. "It was a massive surprise. We were not expecting so much outcry from the Union and the student body in general… Without question we see this as an issue of freedom of speech."
In an op-ed for The Punch Sydney Uni student Xavier Symons also pushed a free speech line about Life Choice, arguing that opposition to the group typified "illiberal liberalism". He went on, "Those who worship at the shrine of individual autonomy are trying to curtain freedom of association. The subtext to the Sydney Uni situation is something like this: ‘Everyone deserves the right to freedom of opinion, provided you agree with us’." He got a few digs in too: "This isn’t feminism; this is frenzied, foam-flecked paranoia."
Blogger and student activist Rafi Alam isn’t so certain it’s a free speech violation. He argues "anti-choicers have a right to free speech, but not a right to the money students have put into the union nor a right to the spaces won by students and administered by the union."
Osborn says campaigners aren’t trying to silence Life Choice outright but they don’t want student funds spent on an organisation whose activities she describes as "inherently discriminatory".
Whealing says many people on campus have responded to Life Choice in a "presumptuous and prejudicial fashion," adding that it is frustrating and upsetting to be characterised as vilifying women. Whealing calls herself a feminist and joins an increasing cohort of feminist women who are opposed to abortion.
In Australia, Melinda Tankard-Reist is the flagbearer for pro-life feminism. Her adamantly pro-woman writing emphasises the effects of abortion on women and points to studies which indicate negative physical and psychological consequences for women. Indeed, there has been a notable shift in recent anti-abortion rhetoric away from the rights of an unborn child and toward the rights of women.
Similiarly, many anti-abortion activists have made efforts to distinguish their beliefs on reproductive issues from their religious beliefs. Lawyers for Melinda Tankard-Reist served blogger Jennifer Wilson with a letter of demand earlier this year after a post in which she alleged that Tankard-Reist had been "deceptive and duplicitous" about her religious beliefs. The insistent non-sectarian stance of Life Choice is in keeping with this trend.
Whealing admits the name Life Choice is a provocative and a deliberate play on the language of the abortion debate. Choice, she says, means informed decisions, and Life Choice members are concerned that the rhetoric that surrounds abortion means that women can’t always make informed decisions.
There is no official data collection on abortion and pregnancy outcomes in Australia but the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Perinatal Statistics Unit estimated 83,000 abortions took place in Australia in 2005. An estimate of 80-90,000 abortions a year regularly appears on pro-life blogs.
Osborn agrees with Whealing that more information about reproductive choices and sexual health can only be a good thing. "There should be more information available about choice," she says. "Young women should have access to impartial health information from doctors. I don’t think Life Choice is helping to provide impartial advice."
Earlier this year Anne Summers wrote an opinion piece for The Age in which she argued that there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. She wrote, "As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent. There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility."
Life Choice members and non-sectarian pro-lifers are working hard to find a rhetorical solution to Summers’ banishment of them from feminism. We all want women to have the right to control their fertility, they insist; Life Choice members just want them to be better informed.
One woman’s exercise of choice is, it seems, another’s uninformed decision. They haven’t yet persuaded Osborn. She puts it bluntly, "You can’t be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time". In view of this definitional impasse — and the furious response to Life Choice on campus — it might be some time before the "fun, safe and social environment" Life Choice envisages for discussion of abortion is feasible.
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