The recent formation of a self-titled “pro-life” group on campus has sparked protest from a number of students. A petition to the Waikato Students Union calling for the removal of ProLife Waikato’s affiliation with the university has gathered 224 signatures, and now a new group, Waikato Students for Choice, has sprung up in response to some of the pro-life sentiments being expressed.
Formed after this year’s clubs day, Waikato Students for Choice now has 33 members. Speaking to Nexus, a spokesperson for the group says that “the purpose of our club is to aid people with wombs in making informed decisions about their bodies...by creating Waikato Students for Choice, we want to show students that they do have options, that it is their decision, and that they should not feel stigmatized into making an uninformed decision. We wanted them to know that they have support on campus, no matter what decision they decide to make. We want to offer real support, not ideological driven, hollow claims of support.”
ProLife Waikato, the group at the focus of the petition, state that they consist of “about 20 students with various backgrounds and beliefs. What unites us is that we believe a truly progressive society loves and values both the woman and the unborn child.”
“We want society to really think about and re-assess what is best for pregnant women, and to look at how we can support women who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy rather than increasing access to abortion. We simply don’t believe that abortion is a good solution.”
While ProLife Waikato says they will respect the democratic process if the Waikato Student Union chooses to disaffiliate them, “in no way is that going to stop us from continuing to stand up for what we believe in, and to make our voices heard on campus,” say the group. “Universities are supposed to be places where people can hold and discuss conflicting ideas, and we intend to continue in that tradition. We hope that people that oppose us are able to see the importance of having the freedom to discuss important issues in a respectful manner.”
The petition calling for the removal of ProLife Waikato states that “a club pressuring students about their bodily choices should [not] be present on our campus, and I believe its existence will be upsetting to many students”. Liam Hinton, an organizer of a recent counter-protest to the Hamilton “March for Life”, attended one of ProLife Waikato’s meetings and believes that freedom of speech is not the important issue in this situation.
“So many people are talking about speech as if speech isn’t an action. If you’re a person of colour, the speech of racism is not just an existential threat against you, but it’s going to dampen your ability to talk back...Their speech represses the speech of others.”
A number of students online have claimed that ProLife Waikato presented misinformation both at their Clubs Day stall and their initial meeting about the Emergency Contraceptive Pill, and suggested counselling services for students affected by abortion. “A few of them said that life begins at the point of conception, and a friend of mine brought up the ECP, and they said that that’s the same as abortion,” Liam says. According to Family Planning New Zealand, the emergency contraceptive pill prevents sperm from fertilising an egg, and does not affect an egg that has been fertilized. As for the counselling claims, Liam states that although the group themselves did not offer counselling, they offered to direct students who were considering abortion or have had an abortion to counselling services. “I don’t think that they, given their ideological bias and perspective, are going to pick secular counselling services in my opinion, because that’s where their ideology comes from,”
In response to these claims, ProLife Waikato states that “to the best of our knowledge, ProLife Waikato has not claimed that ECPs cause abortion; we do acknowledge the confusion around this however as this is a somewhat complex question. To clarify: the current medical evidence indicates that the ECP does not cause abortions. As a group that opposes abortion, ProLife Waikato has no position on any drug or device that acts to prevent fertilization, including the ECP. We have never provided counselling services and none of our members are trained or encouraged to do so. If someone came to us who was affected by abortion and wanted support, we would refer them to the appropriate person or service”.
The group lists PATHS Charitable Trust and Pregnancy Counselling Services as suggested counselling options. According to the Pregnancy Counselling Services website, they are “registered with the Charities Commission as a non-profit, non-religious and non-political organization”. In reference to abortion, however, they state that “many women who have had an abortion say that their decision was made either because they felt pressured or they thought they had no other choice...we encourage you to understand your options so that you can make a fully informed decision about your pregnancy. The important thing to consider before deciding to have an abortion is that this action is irreversible and can affect you for the rest of your life”.
However, some students still feel that the presence of ProLife Waikato represents an attack on individual rights and bodily autonomy. “ProLife Waikato represent an affront to the women who have gone through an abortion. They represent an affront to women's right to mental health, to their right to bodily autonomy and to their right to be free of fear,” says Waikato Students for Choice. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Our criticism of ProLife Waikato is not intended to stifle debate. Instead, it is intended to ensure that they understand the lived experience of many women on the Waikato campus and the repercussions of them spreading their limiting ideology.”
The subject of abortion remains a highly personal, taboo issue. The questions here are: is it wrong to ban groups such as these and deny their right to express their religious (or other) beliefs on campus? Or is it wrong to allow groups on campus which have such a strong opinion on the personal choices of others, specifically on such a sensitive issue? With two sides of a serious debate present on campus in such polar opposition, where should the line be drawn for freedom of speech?