University of Toronto Students for Life (UTSFL) received $1,450 in funding this year from the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU).
Criticisms have been circulating this year that the group’s conduct borders on inappropriate. Allegedly, their graphic, bold activism on campus has triggered students. Their activism includes participating in ‘Choice Chains,’ where students stand on public sidewalks with images of aborted foetuses in an attempt to engage the public.
“If these allegations are true, I would 100 per cent condemn aggressive tactics,” said Stefan Sistilli Sguazzin, president of the SMCSU.
Emily Posteraro, co-founder of University of Toronto Students for Choice (SFC), said that “the college should consider the impacts of this group on the rest of the U of T community. Anyone who walks by their demonstrations is affected, especially folks with a female-assigned reproductive system who could have, or already have had, to make a decision regarding the termination of a pregnancy. It makes campus more unwelcoming to those people. Many people approached us during our demonstration to thank us and I have heard many others express their disapproval of the UTSFL.”
SFC was created in direct response to the UTSFL and its actions.
“In Canada, we’re in the midst of hugely consequential debates about the very nature of life. At a university, it is particularly important that all perspectives in this debate are allowed to be heard, including those seeking to defend the sanctity of life from conception to natural death,” said David Mulroney, president of the University of St. Michael’s College, in a statement to The Varsity.
Joseph Crimi, vice president of the SMCSU, said that they do not endorse their action or their vision, but that they support them as a club. “If we do get formal statements and complaints, we would heavily take them into consideration when determining what they get, if they do get anything,” Crimi said.
It remains to be seen what influence, if any, a Catholic leadership at St. Michael’s has when it comes to distinguishing between which clubs should be funded and endorsed. David Mulroney, a practicing Catholic, took up his position as president this academic year.
UTSFL are unwilling to compromise for what they view as a radical injustice and do not cede the choice of individuals as taking precedence over the existence of life from fertilization even in the cases of rape and incest. “Rape is a horrific crime, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be a victim of rape. But abortion doesn’t un-rape somebody, and it doesn’t make it okay to kill the innocent child because of the father’s crime. In our country we wouldn’t even give the death penalty to the rapist, but we would give the death penalty to the innocent child,” said Blaise Alleyne, education coordinator at the UTSFL and a masters of theology student at Regis College.
Anti-abortion groups at Ryerson, OUIT, and UTM have all been defunded and are no longer recognized by their respective campuses. UTM’s SFL group is currently suing the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union because of this.
On the pamphlets UTSFL distributes, which come from pro-life organization Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, the following is printed: “Each year, 100,000 pre-born children are decapitated, dismembered, and disemboweled by abortion in Canada. It’s hidden behind clinic and hospital doors. Worse, this brutal reality is hidden behind rhetoric like ‘choice’.”
Mary*, a volunteer from the Sexual Education Centre (SEC), described how that community has been informally responding to the escalation from UTSFL this year. Volunteers at SEC took to standing by at SFL demonstrations and escorting students who feel threatened past the demonstrators. “People would see that and then just go check it out and make sure people were okay who were in the space… there are a couple of times where I’ve walked out [and] I’ve gone by and stood by the protesters and kept an eye on people who were walking by, and just talk to people who were visibly upset,” she said.
Mary and other SEC volunteers are concerned with the emotional wellbeing of people who interact with the demonstrators, after seeing people brought to tears by the demonstrations.
“The need to escort people, I don’t think, is a necessary factor when you’re demonstrating,” said Sguazzin.
“We took issue in particular with their large, disturbing, and misleading signs that may be troubling, triggering, or shaming for those who have gotten abortions. I spoke with one student who told me that she had had an abortion in the past, and she felt disrespected and vulnerable seeing this group being so active on campus and making fierce arguments against abortion towards students who may have sensitive histories with this topic,” said Teodora Pasca, co-founder of SFC.
The UTSFL responded that the only signs they use in demonstrations represent first-trimester abortions, but that they occasionally partner with external groups that use signs depicting third-trimester abortions. These types of images have come under criticism for incorrectly depicting the reality of most abortions, which occur in the first trimester.
Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, told The Varsity that under the Policy on Recognition of Campus Groups, “the University will not attempt to censor, control or interfere with any group on the basis of its philosophy, beliefs, interests or opinions expressed unless and until these lead to activities which are illegal or which infringe the rights and freedoms already mentioned. By the same token, recognition as a ‘campus group’ by the University implies neither endorsement of a particular group’s beliefs or philosophy, nor the assumption of legal liability for the group’s activities.”
“Obviously our images can be triggers… But given the weight, given that human lives are at stake, given that people who may have had abortions before may well make that decision again — in relatively large numbers — when we go to the public sidewalks, if there were a way for us to skip over the people that have had an abortion and never will again, I would love to be able to do that. But the stakes are high and we know that people are going to walk by. We also do carry resources on us for people facing crisis pregnancies, but also for people that have had abortions,” said Alleyne.
Disclosure: Teodora Pasca is an associate comment editor for The Varsity.