University students at one of Australia’s top universities are only allowed to hear one side of a debate on the complex and multifaceted issue of abortion, because its student association has banned a pro-life group.
Why? Because any dissent from a strict pro-abortion stance would cause a “negative impact on the wellbeing of many students”. And students wouldn’t feel “safe, comfortable or welcome”.
LifeChoice ANU is a pro-life organisation that wanted to affiliate as a club with the Australian National University earlier this year, but had its application rejected. It operated a stall during Orientation Week at the beginning of the year, but has been excluded from semester two Market Day.
The organisation aims to “support women on campus who are experiencing pregnancy and motherhood while at university and additionally [seeks] to open up respectful, sincere dialogue about the dignity of human life”.
However, a spokesperson for the ANU Student Association (ANUSA), Social Officer Sophie Jaggar said “pro-life organisations will … not be attending Market Day”.
Ms Jaggar told the university newspaper Woroni that the decision was in response to the presence of LifeChoice at Market Day in first semester, which caused offence for some students. In particular, some students were highly offended that the group was placed next to the 50/50 stall, a feminist organisation which assists women who wish to enter STEM fields.
According to ANU Women’s Officer Avan Daruwalla, a pro-life club would threaten a campus culture where all students can feel safe, comfortable and welcome, and would “undoubtedly ...have a negative impact on the wellbeing of many students”.
LifeChoice ANU rejected these criticisms, saying that they “appreciated the opportunity to communicate [their] sincere intentions for the club in [their] endeavour to provide greater support to mothers on our campus, while also opening up a dialogue about the dignity of life”. Further, they “consider it regrettable that a university club would be barred from existing merely because some students on campus do not agree with the opinions the club respectfully, sincerely and kindly espouses”.
The group emphasised that at the previous Market Day, “in recognition of the fact that abortion and euthanasia are sensitive topics, we spoke only with students who indicated an interest in our stall and ensured that all conversations were respectful, sincere and kind”.
This issue has ramifications more broadly about freedom of speech on university campuses. The Federal Government has introduced a Model Code on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, recommended by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French.
But in this case, the university distanced itself from the problem, telling reporters that decisions about clubs were an issue for the ANUSA.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge flagged cutting funding from student associations “that attempt to stop the airing of views they oppose on campus,” saying he is “looking at ways to tie funding to free speech on campuses for student associations in the same way that the universities themselves are being invited to create an atmosphere of free speech.”
“I am going to look more carefully at how we prevent compulsory acquired student fees being used in an overtly political manner. This might include insisting that student associations be subject to a similar free-speech code that we are asking universities to adopt.”
Two issues emerge from the ban on LifeChoice at the Australian National University.
Firstly, banning such groups from campus and thus stifling robust debate on complex issues will only be detrimental to these students in the long run, as the next generation of students moving through our tertiary institutions inevitably enter the workforce ill-equipped to interact with arguments with which they disagree.
Secondly, where will women who find themselves pregnant at university and considering options other than abortion find support? Women considering carrying their babies to full term and continuing with their studies may require a number of support options, including appropriate medical care, counselling, financial support, assistance with accommodation and living expenses as well as childcare.
How can we say we support women if we ban groups that provide women with other options? Do we really mean it when we say we support ‘choice’?
In depriving women on campus of information that is necessary for them to make an informed choice, the student club has crossed a line into paternalism.
They are deciding for female students what they should – and should not – know. It’s the height of hypocrisy to claim to support female empowerment on one hand, and denying women access to information that might have important implications for their lives on the other.
If anything is likely to “have a negative impact on the wellbeing of many students,” surely being infantilised by a paternalistic student association should rank among the risks.