Some discussions universities try to shut down. Not this time.
The University of Sydney Union sponsors more than 200 clubs and societies, most of whom hold a stall during Orientation week. I arrived there for the first time in 2010 as a young and naïve first-year student, and I was combing through the dozens of clubs and society stalls, looking for the pro-life stall.
A directory mapped out all the stalls, from the Captain Planet Appreciation Society to the Puzzle Appreciation Society, but there was no pro-life stall. For me, that was the beginning of LifeChoice, although it was only at the end of 2011 that I began drafting the model constitution for LifeChoice and only at the beginning of 2012 that LifeChoice actually began functioning.
Regarding abortion, the population seems to have an attitude of “There’s nothing more to see. The discussion was over in the 1960s and 1970s”. Euthanasia is still a bit of a hot-button issue in our society, but most university students probably have not considered their moral stance on abortion – at least until they have to. And when they are in that situation, they are normally under considerable emotional pressure to take the line of least resistance.
One study has shown that over a 20- year period or so, attitudes have changed to abortion. The question was: “Should a pregnant woman be allowed to have a legal abortion if the family has very low income and cannot support any more children?” In 1984, 23% said it definitely should be allowed; in 2002 this fell to 11%. However, the percentage of people who answered “definitely” or “probably”, when added together, remained the same. What changed was that many people moved from ‘definitely’ to ‘probably’. They had become less sure of themselves – or perhaps more apathetic.
“We saw a need to bring a pro-life voice to our university and to spread a culture of life by influencing those who create our culture, the young people.”
People did not become more pro-choice which is a positive, but neither did they become more pro-life. So we have to ask ourselves why? The rising generation of young people are changing that statistic as they are more apathetic and/or less sure of themselves about this issue. Dr Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, told a pro-life group: “My uncle, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, depended on the energy of the young folk in the civil rights movement. He said: ‘When you see young folk come on board, you know that history is on the way and it’s here.’”
The pro-life people are not on board in Australia at this point of time. When they are faced with a difficult situation, their “probably” is likely to turn into: “Well, in this case, I really cannot afford to have a child” or “In this case, I understand my sister cannot afford to have a child – or my girlfriend or my wife.”
LifeChoice was set up to try to fill the void, to bring this discussion into universities, for university should be a place where there is robust discussion on ethical topics and people’s ethical assumptions should be questioned. We saw a need to bring a pro-life voice to our university and to spread a culture of life by influencing those who create our culture, the young people.
LifeChoice started early 2012 and has since spread to six universities. Yet it was no easy task to set it up. I began forming the constitution at the end of 2011, ready to hand it in to the Clubs and Societies Office. I put all my information on paper, saying exactly what I wanted. Early in 2012 I met a fellow student who had started a prolife group in New Zealand and was interested in starting one in Sydney. He had a look at my constitution, and said: “Rebecca, you are going to be eaten alive!” He taught me very quickly that the Clubs and Societies Office was not going to be fair to us, as he had experienced much opposition in the universities in New Zealand.
He helped me put together an application form which we hoped would be looked upon more favourably. We handed it in and it was rejected. The authorities told us that our club or society had to enrich the students of the university and our club didn’t do that. We wanted to bring ethical questions into our university that young people should be discussing, but the bureaucrats frankly told us: “We’re not interested in having this discussion. People will be upset. People will be offended. This is not the place.” If university is not the place, what is?
There is no appeals process for clubs and societies at the University of Sydney: a decision is made by the Clubs and Societies Office and is signed off by the Union Board. We got our friends together and we went to the Union Board meeting when they were about to sign it off and we appealed the decision. It started a prolonged discussion which went back and forth. The board said we had to change our constitution, that we were just a discussion group, and we were not to have an opinion. Eventually it went to a vote: a five-all draw. When a vote is tied, the decision goes to the chair. She was a young woman who was very strongly pro-choice and we thought that was it. But, to our surprise, she cast her vote on our side, and so we got in.
“In a matter of hours, there was already a petition on line with thousands of signatures to bring us down. Our stalls were destroyed, graffitied in a foul way.”
That was not the end of our troubles. For the next 12 months people set up organisations against us. In fact in a matter of hours, there was already a petition on line with thousands of signatures to bring us down. Our stalls were destroyed, graffitied in a foul way, and we were Public Enemy #1 in the student newspaper.
Yet good things happened. I remember having a discussion with a young girl who started by yelling at me, and speaking very harshly. By the end of the discussion, she had tears in her eyes and was confessing: “I didn’t realise this is how you guys were like.” She had seen that I was reasonable, that I was trying to speak to her in a loving way. It was also interesting that the Union itself organised a discussion on the issue of personhood, as society in general was dealing Zoe’s law (name after an unborn child who was killed in a car-accident in 2009, but not recognised by law).
If you change the law before you change the culture, all you do is get a new government at the next election and the law will be overturned. But if you change the culture, the law will change. And this is why the work in schools and universities is so important – to change hearts and minds. LifeChoice came about because in high school I had listened to a presentation of ChoicesofLife. At times I felt like I had been sitting at the top of a mountain and had accidently nudged a rock or a boulder which started rolling and I had no choice but to run after it. We hit the papers. Stands at university got bigger and bigger. I was not prepared for it; I did not think I was equipped for it. But I pressed on! And I don’t regret it.
For ChoicesofLife (for schools), see http://www.choicesoflife.com.au
For LifeChoice (for universities), see http://www.lifechoice.net.au
Rebecca Elias is founder of LifeChoice, which has spread to six universities