How do you foster meaningful dialogue with a group that specifically attempts to engage student body members in didactic conversations aimed at guilting and shocking people into anti-choice thought, where they preach and you nod? Quite simply, you don’t. You create your own safe space where you can have actual conversations that raise new points, make you stop and think, reconsider your preconceived ideas or reify things you already thought. That’s what we of the SFU Women’s Centre’s “Positively Pro-Choice” counter-protest’s small but dedicated group of SFU students discovered when the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) decided to visit our campus.
On November 7th and 8th, GAP set up their graphic images of fetuses, alongside images of piles of dead bodies from the Holocaust, mutilated bodies and hanged bodies from the pre-Civil Rights Movement—the bodies of once living human beings brutalized by other human beings because of their culture, beliefs, ethnicity—saying that they were all examples of genocide and aggressively starting conversations with passer-bys. That, in Canada, we allow such unethical and legally and medically unsubstantiated claims to be made publicly is deplorable, especially on a university campus that is supposed to be geared toward higher thought and improving the future.
Even more disturbing is that this spectacle was set up in a central location on campus where students were essentially forced to look at it, or else go fifteen minutes or more out of their way to get from one major hub of the campus to another. The SFU Daycare also has to walk through this area, or else take large groups of toddler-aged children along a winding mountain road with no sidewalk. The phrase “anti-choice” couldn’t be more apt for what GAP represents: not only do they want to take away women’s right to choose, they took away the student body’s (and anyone on campus’s) right to choose if they wanted to participate in this action and exist in an environment free from harassment.
Rather than infringe on GAP’s freedom of opinion and expression, we made the best of our own right to freedom of expression and our right to assembly. Hours were spent in the Women’s Centre coming up with ways to ensure we gave the student body a safe place to dialogue and simply be on their own campus. We postered in the days before hand, and the mornings of, bundled up as much as we could and got to campus early. We rolled the couches out of the Women’s Centre, prepared trays of cookies, set up tables, extra chairs, and button makers and prepared for a day potentially filled with conflict. Those of us who chose to engage in conversation with the GAP protesters found it: we were met with circuitous logic, red herrings, ad hominem attacks, non-sequitars and a number of other unpleasant logical fallacies. In any class at SFU, these arguments would result in a failing grade if put down on paper, and yet there they were.
Fortunately, the experiences we had with the actual members of the SFU community more than made up for the negative experience we had with some of the GAP representatives. Students of all faculties, ages and backgrounds, staff members, and people just visiting the campus for a day were all as abhorred as we were by the GAP’s protest material and format. First there was a small group of people talking to acquaintances about what we were doing. Then strangers came up to inquire and express. By mid-day we had a group so large there were at least five separate group conversations going on, and strangers weren’t so strange anymore.
These conversations were inspiring, thought provoking, and they began to build a sense of community and solidarity within our group. To capture these sentiments, we set up rolling boards covered in paper that not only created an alcove free from GAP’s disturbing images, but also served as a place for anyone who wanted to write down their thoughts about the event. Reading the boards, you got the sense that, overwhelmingly, the response was that GAP was unwelcome, unethical, unfair, unappreciated, unprecedented and un-SFU. The comments ranged from quick thoughts about rights to angry condemnations and to at least one first person narrative about how a post-rape abortion was the only reason one student was able to come to university at all. These inscriptions demonstrate the diversity of our university community—our opinions, our backgrounds, our areas of study, even just our reasons for being on the campus are all different. However they also demonstrate our ability to deal with the difficult and personal issue of abortion in a mature and respectful way without invalidating anyone’s personal beliefs.
Moreover, the diversity in voices represented in our counter-protest and heard by the Positively Pro-Choice volunteers represents an important aspect of the pro-choice side of the abortion dialogue. There is a variety of opinions and reasons for supporting a women’s right to have free reign over what happens to her body: some are political explanations of rights and freedoms, some are personal narratives talking about their experience, some are historical testimonies, others scientific explanations, citing research. Within this mix, though, a common theme can be found: as students, as Canadians, and as human beings, we believe everyone should have the right to choose what happens to their bodies and the freedom to live their lives the way they please.
This post was written by guest contributor and SFU student, Rachel Braeuer.