Brock Life-line, a pro-life club on campus, sparked controversy with their recent outreach campaign, which led to protests and social media criticism from some students.
The campaign included a booth where club members would provide brochures, talk to students and visually present information and images.
The club claims that the purpose of the campaign was to increase awareness, talk to students and inspire productive conversation. However, some students were concerned about other possible goals the club may have had beyond engaging in conversation, as well as some potentially negative impacts of the way that the club was communicating alternative perspectives.
One of the most consistent critiques of this campaign (and pro-life activism in general) is not so much the pro-life stance of the club or their perspective on abortion, but rather the arguably graphic way in which information has been presented.
Some students have argued this presentation could be harmful to sensitive students, especially those who have had or are considering abortions. The booth for this campaign contained physical models of fetuses, and some of the material they were handing out contained similar imagery, as well as comparisons of abortion to events such as slavery or the Holocaust. Some have seen these things as inappropriate in a way that could cause distress.
“Even if I may not agree with them, I can understand why they feel the way they do. I can try and see their perspective,” said Jayson Ribeiro, a third year Concurrent Education student with a major in Biology. “The problem I have is the way they go about it. It’s about shock value: the way they set up the table with plastic fetuses and use shocking imagery, it’s just a bit too far. I would be more willing to talk and listen to them if they didn’t use these scare tactics.”
Aside from student response to the images and models of fetuses involved in the campaign, there was also a group of active protesters who had very specific issues with the club and its campaign techniques. One of the most prominent concerns was the dissemination of information that protesters argue is misleading.
“They’re essentially promoting myths about women’s health care to make their point, and these myths are based on information that is contrary to medical opinion,” said Rose Davies, a Brock student and one of the protesters. “The information they have is propaganda. It’s not based on accepted scientific or medical opinion, and official sources contradict a lot of what they say. They’re exploiting people’s fears about health.”
One of the specific concerns that Davies had is that some of the pamphlets being handed out by the club claim that there is a link between abortion and cancer. One of the pamphlets states confidently that “it is a well established [sic] fact that abortion can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer,” and another says that “abortion has also been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.”
Davies’ argument that this information is contrary to medical opinion is supported by official medical sources that do contradict it. The American Cancer Society reports that “at this time, the scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer.” The National Cancer Institute also reports that a comprehensive workshop they conducted in 2003 determined that “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”
The Canadian Cancer Society also reports that “the body of scientific evidence does not support an association between abortion and increased breast cancer risk.” All three of these reports directly contradict the information presented in the literature disseminated by Brock Life-line.
One of the reasons that the pamphlets may have this contrary information is because they may have referenced outdated or flawed studies. The National Cancer Institute reports that, while some studies may have seen a link, “most of these studies, however, were flawed in a number of ways that can lead to unreliable results… since then, better-designed studies have been conducted.”
Davies expressed concern that a club is permitted to give out material on campus with information that goes against credible and accepted medical opinion. Furthermore, she also said that there is a problem with the fact that the club is ratified by the Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU), which means that they have the ability to get funding from the students’ union, despite the fact that they are spreading information of questionable validity and engaging in potentially harmful campaigns. Davies said that the protesters are advocating for better accountability for BUSU clubs.
“We want to improve BUSU’s oversight and have them take more responsibility for their clubs’ actions,” said Davies. “These clubs are eligible to receive student funding, and they need more oversight.”
In response to protester concerns, Brock Life-line president Alexandra Yakovleva said that she is concerned that protesters are focusing on what she thinks are issues that the club doesn’t particularly focus on, and that they don’t understand the goals and focus of the campaign. She said that, while some of the pamphlets contain medical and scientific claims about the effects of abortion on women, these claims are not the focus of the club’s work.
“We are mostly focused on the humanity of the pre-born child and discussing the rights and health of the pre-born,” said Yakovleva. “We do not focus exclusively on the repercussions of abortion on the pregnant woman. We always want to bring the discussion back to the pre-born child.”
Yakovleva said that the focus of the campaign was to start dialogue and talk with students about opinions and perspectives surrounding the humanity and rights of fetuses before birth. She also said they anted to raise awareness about Canadian abortion laws. She claimed that at no point did they want to target anyone, force opinions on anyone, or play into the fear tactics they have been accused of using. She said that they simply wanted to start some conversations and make sure that women knew about their options.
While some of their material may talk about cancer or alleged health impacts of abortion on women, Yakovleva argued that this information is not the focus of their work, and does not reflect the majority of what they want to do.
“We are simply here to talk and listen to students, not to enforce anything or target anyone. We were not targeting, we were simply standing and wanting to talk about different options,” said Yakovleva. “We do not want to suppress anyone, we are simply trying to promote a different way of thinking about life. The way we engage with students is not in a threatening way. Students can choose whether or not to talk to us, and they do not need to listen to us if they disagree.”
The major issues raised in this controversy include the spreading of information of questionable legitimacy by a student group on campus, the potential psychological impacts of this sort of information and the question of how much responsibility and oversight BUSU should be expected to have over clubs.
The roles, rights and responsibilities of a club like Brock Life-line, as well as general controversies surrounding human rights, reproductive rights and pro-life and pro-choice positions were also raised. The recent campaign and the resulting protests have the potential to impact how all of these factors work and possibly change at Brock in the future.