Anti-abortion demonstration at U of A irks pro-choice students

Pro-choice students outnumbered protestors at an anti-abortion demonstration in the University of Alberta quad, a snow-covered open space near the centre of the sprawling campus on Tuesday morning.

Pro-choice students upset with timing, placement and graphic nature of anti-abortion demonstration

Pro-choice students showed up at the U of A campus Tuesday morning to protest an anti-abortion demonstration being held on campus. (CBC)

The pro-choice side showed up first.

About 70 people with signs set up in the University of Alberta quad, a snow-covered open space near the centre of the sprawling campus.

Around 9 a.m. the other side turned out. A smaller group, about 15 to 20, members of a U of A anti-abortion student group called Go Life.

Barricades were set up. Campus security took up positions between the groups.

Then the students spent part of the morning doing what students have done since the time of Socrates: They staked out philosophical ground, argued their points, and defended their rights to free speech.

People on the pro-choice side say they're upset about the timing, the placement and the graphic nature of the anti-abortion display. They say the university should not have allowed the anti-abortion group to set up in such a high-traffic area, where it would be difficult for students who might be offended to ignore the graphic signs that appear to show aborted fetuses. 

Chants from the pro-choice side included: “Hey, hey, ho. Your backward views have got to go."

Zoe Chaytors, a fourth-year student who helped plan the pro-choice rally, said the quad should be a safe place for all students, including young women on campus who have terminated pregnancies or are considering doing so.

'Fighting for safe space'

"The University of Alberta students are committed to fighting for safe space,” she said. “I'm committed, and everyone deserves a safe space.”

Brian Steele, another organizer from the pro-choice side, said the group wanted to promote a safe space on campus.

"The dean of students has allowed this graphic demonstration," he said, "so we are creating a barrier between other students and this display, because we don't believe they should be exposed to it without their consent."

Amberlee Nicol, president of Go Life, said the group chose the graphic images on its display to raise awareness about what she called, "the reality of abortion — that it kills an innocent human being."

"The reasons that we're using the images is that a lot of people don't understand what abortion really is. We hear lots of nice words to describe it, like pro-choice or just removing a couple of cells."

She said universities are expected to allow for the free exchange of ideas, including those that might be controversial or unpopular.

The group set up on the campus, she said, so members could engage in "respectful conversation" with other students about the important issue.

Talia Bleiler, a first-year student who happened by Tuesday morning, said she found the anti-abortion material troubling.

"This is a demographic that is strongly affected by this issue, so having this kind of graphs display on campus is really upsetting."

She said she supports free speech but thinks the university administration should not have allowed the display in such a public place.

"This really endangers the mental health of students on campus."

Fellow first-year student Jessica Lee seemed to agree. "I actually think the abortion display is so wrong," she said. "I don't think you should go for shock value — not in the middle of a university campus."