There has been a huge shitfight at the University of Sydney over “LifeChoice Sydney”, an anti-abortion club that just affiliated with the student Union (USU). Pro-lawful abortion activists decided to campaign hard against the club being allowed on campus, and the ensuing brawl has been all over the press. It even caught the attention of (long-ago) friend of the blog Dina Rickman, all the way over at HuffPo UK.
In my opinion, this was a huge tactical error on the part of the people trying to shut LifeChoice down.
The University of Sydney student union will subsidise an anti-abortion group after students failed to overturn the endorsement of the pro-life society.
LifeChoice Sydney was endorsed by the student union on Friday, meaning the anti-abortion group is now entitled to up to $4000 of annual funding.
Attempts were made to overturn the endorsement on Wednesday at a board meeting of the University of Sydney Union (USU), where members moved a motion calling for the student body to “consider LifeChoice as discriminatory against women”.
However the motion was voted down 36-34.
Note: the “$4,000” figure is misleading. That is the maximum amount they could qualify for if they use every single subsidy available to them over the course of the year – which is highly unlikely, these things are targeted to specific categories of activities. In reality they will probably only get a few hundred.
In the interest of full disclosure, I probably have to weigh-in on the debate a little before I start talking about tactics. I’ll include a few observations below, but for a number of reasons that are beyond the purview of this post, I am against the idea of banning abortion.
HOWEVER, trying to ban LifeChoice was a bad idea. Even if it had been successful, LifeChoice has had a huge amount of publicity from the whole incident. People around the world now know who LifeChoice are and what they stand for, people on campus who would never have given them a second thought before have now read their material because they wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I know that these calls are tough – and I say that as someone who worked hard in my day to have some clubs disaffiliated – but you really have to pick your battles.
The first question to ask is “what do we achieve by doing this?”
The best case scenario here is “not much”. For one thing, the vast majority of student clubs disappear after a few months, so it is doubtful whether LifeChoice will really do anything. Secondly, even an active LifeChoice is not changing any minds any time soon – this is quite a polarising issue and I doubt that many students would be particularly amenable to whatever propaganda these students are putting out (plus student campaigning methods tend to be little more than cheaply printed and badly designed flyers). Thirdly, there are already numerous societies at Usyd with an anti-abortion stance – such as various religious groups (Catholics, Evangelical Christians etc), or the “Conservative club”. In fact, I would venture a guess that these are exactly the people forming this club – which means that banning it will not prevent them from campaigning on the issue anyway and it is very unlikely that this club will make them any more or less successful than they already are.
Now, the worst case scenario? That pretty-much just played out. By trying to ban the group, the debate becomes about more than just abortion – now it is about democratic rights and the free exchange of ideas amongst students. A bitter fight in the student body trying to stop a group of people from expressing their beliefs makes the anti-abortion club look like martyrs and the pro-lawful abortion activists look like bullies.
LifeChoice just got themselves a lot of airtime that they would never have had before. People around the world who would never even know that they existed will now be paying attention. They will get discussed on talkback radio, they will be endorsed in columns and they’ll even get mentions on massively influential blogs like this one (at least three people are reading this post who hadn’t heard of them before. AT LEAST).
In short, the pro-lawful abortion activists have ignited a debate around abortion which they begin by looking like the bad guys. Any progress from here will just be recovering face.
If you are right about something, the free exchange of ideas will mean that you win-out eventually. That has happened and is happening in Australia. The debate is not over, but we’re winning. Abortion is legal.
Sometimes, letting your opponents provoke you is just playing into their hands (which applies equally to debates that I spend most of my time on). It may be counter-intuitive, but fighting their message like this only helps them get it out there. The best thing to do in these cases is to just ignore them and keep on doing what you were doing before. Be pro-active and don’t allow them to dictate the terms of debate.
Observations on the abortion debate: I have a problem with the way both sides conduct themselves (surprise surprise). There seems to be a complete refusal to engage with anyone who holds opposite views, which means that the issue will simply never be resolved. This is why I refuse to use either of the spin terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice” – they both try to pretend that the other side of the debate doesn’t really exist, which helps no one.
I may flesh this out in later posts, but briefly: “pro-life” people argue that an unborn foetus is a human being – or at least will be – and this person has a right to live, therefore it is not anyone else’s place to deny that child life. “Pro-choice” people argue that women should have a right to control their own body, which includes choosing whether or not to be pregnant. Both arguments are right, but neither acknowledges the others’ existence.
The reality is that there are two valid, conflicting rights. Whichever way you decide to go, you are harming some for the benefit of others. Taking either line without admitting that is completely immoral as you are causing suffering without even acknowledging it.
UPDATE: a reader pointed out on Facebook that “pro-choice” people are not necessarily “pro-abortion”, they are just in favour of permitting the choice of lawfully aborting pregnancies. I have changed the terminology to “pro-lawful abortion” as a result.