A group of pro-life student activists are heading to court this month after the University of Calgary, Canada, charged them with trespassing. According to the Canadian National Post, over the past few weeks Calgary police have been turning up at homes of anti-abortion university students. The University administrators and the student group have been locked in an ongoing dispute over the biannual protests that feature billboards showing violent images of genocide victims next to graphic depictions of aborted foetuses. Last week, members of Campus Pro-Life visited the University of Calgary once more, announcing that the charges would not stop them from continuing their abortion awareness campaign and calling the charges a “blatant attack on free speech”.
Before the first controversial anti-abortion display, called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), was put up last November the University warned students that if they held their protest without turning billboards inward, so people could choose whether they wanted to view the images, group members could face legal action. “We issued our own warning at that time that if they were to violate any University policy, we would not be defending them and would be putting in some sort of sanctions” Students’ Union President Dalmy Baez said. Now, more then two months later, some of the students behind the project have been charged with trespassing and received summonses to court on February 27th. “It’s surprising, to say the least, as well as disappointing,” said Campus Pro-Life President Leah Hallmann. “I agree we were warned. But we had a lot of hope, now a lot of that hope has been crushed.”
It is not the first time that a controversy has arisen because of the protest run by the GAP. The project is produced and managed by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), which is working to establish prenatal justice and the right to life for the unborn and is a privately funded, non-profit educational corporation that was founded in the early 1990s. The GAP is a travelling photo-mural exhibit which compares the abortion procedure to historically recognized forms of genocide. It has been temporarily installed on multiple university campuses in the United States and Canada since 1997. The GAP homepage explains how they want to place their images in the public square for all the people who will not take the time to be educated about abortion themselves. “By placing abortion images among traditionally recognized forms of genocide we are expanding the context in which people think about abortion.”
The organizers maintain that the display stimulates dialogue among students and others who ordinarily would ignore the abortion issue. Nevertheless the controversy around the project is very high. The posters were described as discriminatory and inciting contempt towards women. Others say that to compare women who have an abortion to Nazis and terrorists is hateful and offensive. In many places students protested the alleged abuse of the words genocide and Holocaust in this context. At the University of Maryland over 500 students signed a petition “I am insulted by the Exploitation of the Holocaust for Political Gain.”
During the last couple of months, Pro-life members at the University of Calgary faced a lot of opposition to their graphic posters. University administration has received complaints from students and staff the last five times the display was on campus. According to the University of Calgary Gauntlet, Kat Lord, the President of Feminist Initiative Recognizing Equality (FIRE), said that while the group understands that the University has its “hands tied”, they would have liked to see more done. “You can’t speak rationally to irrational people,” she said. “We’ll have a petition signing happening throughout the entire semester which will be given to the university at the end of the semester in hopes that next year GAP won’t be allowed on campus.”
Apart from the opposition arising in Calgary, Pro-Life supporters and the GAP had to face a lot of protest from many other organisations. The Women’s Center, a non-partisan organisation, denounced the GAP and its use of the term “genocide” to describe abortion. Furthermore the displays, including posters showing aborted foetuses alongside victims of the Holocaust and September 11th, outraged Shelley Shapiro, Director of Community Relations for the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York: “We’re horrified at such a huge display which basically incites hatred. Some extremist group has decided to exploit the memory of all genocides, including holocaust and racism for purpose of inciting hatred against women.”
Pro-Life supporters also have to face huge political changes with the election of President Obama, who signed an executive order in January reversing the ban that prohibits funding to international family planning groups that provide abortions, as reported by ABC News. Under the hotly debated “Mexico City Policy,” the U.S. government could not provide funding for family planning services to clinics or groups that offered abortion-related services overseas. The new order will likely draw heavy criticism from Republicans and anti-abortion groups. But Obama “remains committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and government should not intrude on our most private family matters”.
Pro-Life students in Calgary see the charges they have been threatened with as an attack on free speech. Why wouldn’t they be able to display their opinion on abortion? Why not challenge the students? But with this argument another question arises which was put by a reader comment in the National Post: “I do not understand how pro lifers became so distorted away from reality… pro-abortion does not mean you’re Hitler. In fact abortion is the best way to stop women from going to a back alley abortionist and dying. Seriously, if you are using the free speech argument… what about the free choice?”