By Kelvin Gawley
An anti-abortion protest has re-ignited a debate around the limits of free speech on campus at the University of the Fraser Valley.
The main UFV lawn was covered in thousands of blue and pink flags on Monday morning to represent the estimated 100,000 abortions organizers say take place every year in Canada. Students handed out literature and engaged their classmates on the issue, including a counter-demonstration, which popped-up beside it.
This isn’t the first time a debate around anti-abortion activism hast taken place on at UFV.
The flags served as an “educational display,” according to Raymond Kobes, the president of Life Link, UFV’s pro-life student club.
Kobes said the lack of graphic imagery of aborted fetuses on posters and pamphlets, which often accompanies anti-abortion protests, was a conscious choice.
“It’s difficult to have a discussion if everyone is just going to be upset at what you’ve done,” he said.
The event was met with a pro-choice counter-protest, which Kobes said resulted in respectful dialogue around the issue of abortion, which was the main goal of the demonstration.
“From that perspective, we did exactly what we set out to do,” he said.
One of the pro-choice demonstrators, Mikaela Collins, agreed that the interaction between the opposing sides “was relatively minimal, but largely civil,” except for one “heated” exchange.
Collins said that the counter demonstration was an impromptu response to the Life Link display and was not an official event, but was largely comprised of members of the UFV Feminist Initiative, of which she is the vice-president.
She said her main objection to the flag display was its location.
“By putting such a display on the most traveled part of campus, consent to attend was removed from the equation,” she said.
Collins said Life Link could have held the event in an inside hall, where students could have attended if they chose to do so.
The display resulted in the “shaming and intimidation of women and other uterus owners, especially those who have had abortions,” said Collins.
Another pro-choice demonstrator, Alexandra Day, echoed concerns about how the “shock value display” of the flags may have served to stigmatize women. She said that several students stayed home on Monday to avoid the event.
Day suggested that in the future, a structured debate, in a lecture hall, would be more constructive.
“I would be more than willing to continue to go toe-to-toe with them along with my fellow classmates to debate ideas,” she said.
Dave Pinton, UFV’s director of communications, said UFV values “an exchange of knowledge and ideas in an environment of intellectual freedom… However, that line gets drawn if there’s any kind of speech or display that promotes hatred, contempt, discrimination against any social or national or ideological group or ethnic group.”
That line was not crossed on Monday, said Pinton.
The demonstration was a collaboration with We Need a Law, a national organization which advocates for abortion-restricting legislation. Monday’s demonstration concentrated on late-term abortions and abortions conducted based on the gender of the fetus: scenarios which Canadians are most likely to oppose, according to the group’s director Mike Schouten.
Schouten said that by starting a conversation where people are most likely to have common ground, his group hopes to “build a groundswell” from there.