As a Head Orientation Leader for Woodsworth College Orientation this year, I was tasked with welcoming incoming first-year students to university life. Equipped with a detailed logistics package, contingency plans for each activity, sunscreen, a water bottle, and an endless supply of temporary tattoos, I was both mentally and physically prepared for many of the challenges of the week.
However, none of my training adequately prepared me for an encounter with anti-abortion protesters the day of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Tri-Campus Parade. Amid the chants of “Woody Woody Woody,” our beloved orientation cheer, the muffled voices of these protesters could be heard, and through the sea of forest green Woodsworth t-shirts, a gruesome poster claiming to depict a late-term abortion was visible.
It was hardly my first interaction with an anti-abortion demonstration. I was reminded of my own first-year at U of T, when I had decided to go to Robarts Library for the first time, only to be met with graphic signage and chanting at the St. George Street and Harbord Street intersection.
At the time, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that anti-abortion organizers would target a library early into the university semester with such graphic material. My university campus had become a minefield of distressing images, and I soon learned to follow UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin and other students on Twitter in order to know when anti-abortion protests were taking place and plan my routes to avoid them.
Despite my best efforts, I came face-to-face with the same vitriol a year later, outside the gates of Varsity Stadium during the annual Tri-Campus Parade. My concern then was not of my own comfort, but rather that of the first-year students I was now leading. I wondered how to contextualize the display, and how to explain to new students that these were, unfortunately, commonplace on campus but not endorsed by the university.
While I tried to come up with some way of addressing the situation, a first-year student from behind me started to chant “pro-choice.” As more and more students joined the cheer, I witnessed that after less than a week on campus, first-year students were already asserting themselves against the display.
As the Ontario government’s new policy requiring universities to protect free speech on campus comes into effect on January 1, the potential for anti-abortion organizers to target students intensifies. The government mandate requires Ontario universities to come up with policies that enforce free speech, excluding only speech that constitutes the legal definition of hate speech, or face funding cuts.
Anti-abortion groups at many universities have often been denied club status and funding due to their views, which may change when Ontario universities update their free speech policies. New, more lax free speech policies from universities may also embolden protesters.
Using graphic imagery, misinformation, and misogynistic language, the presence of these groups on campus does not fall in line with the ideals of free expression and academic discourse that universities are meant to uphold. Instead, they take up space in order to intimidate and distress students going about their everyday lives.
This issue is not unique to U of T, and a recent CBC news article detailed how across Canadian university campuses, anti-abortion groups are using distressing images to gain attention. Moreover, emergency pregnancy care centres located near or on university campuses are coming under fire for spreading misinformation. One pregnancy support centre was recently kicked out of the Acadia Student Union office building for reportedly telling patients that undergoing an abortion increases a women’s chances of developing breast cancer.
Women’s health and well-being is disproportionately impacted by the spread of misinformation and demonstrations by anti-abortion groups, which admit to purposefully targeting these subjects. In an interview with the National Post, the Executive Director of the anti-abortion group National Campus Life Network, Ruth Shaw, claimed that of Canada’s 100,000 abortions annually, roughly half involve women aged 18 to 24, “which is why we focus so heavily on university campuses.”
Women have been historically excluded from university, and even now are underrepresented in many fields. When anti-abortion groups target women as they pursue higher education, they perpetuate a campus culture that causes women to feel unsafe and excluded. For women, trans, or non-binary folks with experiences of miscarriages or unplanned pregnancies, these images are even more distressing.
I am not asking that universities invoke censorship policies or attempt to enforce homogeny. As a Political Science student, everyday I encounter and grapple with views I don’t agree with from my professors and classmates, and I am better for it. But being exposed to offensive heckling and highly graphic imagery on my way to campus does not make me more informed, more intelligent, or more empathetic. Quite honestly, it just makes me feel sad, scared, and targeted.
To be clear, I support students’ rights to freedom of expression and association, and I believe that religious and pro-life students should be able to form organizations. But there are ways for students to voice their opinions without jeopardizing the psychological well-being of their peers. Weapons divestment groups, for example, can get their point across without resorting to gruesome images of the effects of weapons. In fact, anti-abortion groups’ reliance on shock tactics only shows how little faith they have in the substance of their arguments.
Although free speech is important, the flagrant spread of misinformation and offensive comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust and other tragedies by certain anti-abortion groups are clearly a threat to a civil campus culture. Graphic anti-abortion protests simply have no place on campus.
Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is the Mental Health Director at the Woodsworth College Students’ Association.
Editor’s Note (September 20): A previous version of this op-ed stated that one of the anti-abortion organizers stole a Woodsworth College sign and used it to draw attention to the demonstration. An investigation into this statement raised questions about the accuracy of the claim. The person holding the Woodsworth sign was not an anti-abortion demonstrator, and video evidence suggests that they may have been using the sign to block graphic anti-abortion images.