Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and sexual harassment
Words || Ashley Regan
ProChoice and ProLife ideologies has always garnered intense debate from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. Pro-choicers believe that a person can do whatever they see fit for their body and are pro abortion. Pro-lifers believe that all life should be preserved from conception to natural death, and are anti-abortion. Currently, NSW is the only Australian state where abortions are still criminalised, they can only be accessed when a doctor “finds any economic, social or medical reasons to justify aborting the fetus”.
On the 12th of March, Macquarie’s student group LifeChoice, held a pro-life stall in Wally’s Walk, the most central location on Mq’s campus, during the peak hours of campus activity. Dozens of members from the wider Macquarie Community approached Grapeshot to cover the event and bring to light their concerns.
Mary Chagoury’s, the President of LifeChoice at Macquarie, believes the stall was a success. “The march display was called ‘LifeStarts’ which asked students the question ‘When should human rights begin?’. Of the respondents, 52.8% said human rights should start at conception and 86.8% of students said human rights should start some time during the first trimester of pregnancy. Whether or not they agreed with us, students appreciated the opportunity to express their opinion and have their voice heard”.
Chagoury said she feels the group is supported by the university, stating “Universities should be a supportive environment for freedom of speech and we commend Macquarie University for their dedication to this principle.”
In agreeance, the role of universities is to equally support the ethical and political opinions of all students. LifeChoice is totally right to their ‘freedom of expression’ because they hold genuine beliefs in the pro-life cause. But when the backlash from the community is overwhelmingly negative, where is the line drawn to what should be censored?
Campus Engagement’s response to this was the same, “The event held by Life Choice speaks to a statement which members of the University may not agree with, however, it does not breach the Student Code of Conduct and is an expression of the views held by members of the MQ Life Choice club”.
LifeChoice has held several stalls since their beginning in 2012, but the public feedback has never been this strong. Multiple members of the Macquarie community, expressed concern that the visual aspects of the recent stall made individuals feel emotionally manipulated and harassed. These visual props included life size fetus dolls at different stages of development and large posters with thought provoking questions and images of smiling babies. The poster sparking the most controversy was “When Should Human Rights Begin?”, where individuals were encouraged to stick a post-it on a scale from 1st trimester to birth.
The issue of pro choice, is one of the biggest tenets the Macquarie Womens Collective focuses on. They are extremely open in promoting the fact that they are heavily pro-choice, with frequent posts on their social media accounts promoting the pro-abortion movement. The Collective recently co-organised a counter-protest, to the Catholic Church’s annual ‘Day of the Unborn Child’ pro-life event. A few hundred students and other pro-choicers attended the rally in front of St Mary’s Cathedral on the 27th of March.
According to the Macquarie Student Conduct, under section Safety, (g) it is misconduct to “do anything which may endanger the physical or mental health, safety or well being of any person”.
Members of Macquarie staff recounted that they couldn’t sleep for multiple nights after the ProChoice stall because they were retraumatised and emotionally triggered. This reaction is not just regarding abortion, but concerning individuals with histories of miscarriages, infertility, stillbirths, forced terminations and losing children. Individuals expressed that the intense visual elements and graphic content of the stall, with the large amount of volunteers who engaged with every individual walking by, were the points of concern. They had no choice to engage with it or not, their past traumas were reactivated just by the presence of the stall. Several individuals felt they were “shamed” by the LifeChoice stall, and now feel “unsafe” and “unwelcomed” on campus.
Lydia Jupp, President of Macquarie’s Women Collective, was not informed about the stall until she ran into it between classes. She posted on the Women’s Collective closed Facebook group in order to warn people. Jupp stated that “In several cases, students skipped classes to go home because they were distraught by the ambush of the stall. With other students completely not attending uni on this day because they were informed about the stall by my post on the Facebook group. Individuals had these reactions because their past experiences with the issue are awful, particularly with picketers.”
“To come to university and trying to get your fucking degree, then having to deal with big posters and life size dolls of fetus’ is not what anyone needs. This impacts not only your studies but your entire mental health and wellbeing. This wasn’t a small stall either, it was massive they had over 10 volunteers trying to draw people in.”
Maddison O’Gradey-Lee, the Representative for Women Students, was also not informed about the stall, although she was very informed about the students reaction as she dealt with numerous complaints. She commented that “The stall was extremely distressing for a lot of students on campus, the stall has brought up a lot of interesting conversations around how do we best look after students safety while still allowing student groups a right to free speech. When will MQU female identifying students get a break? It’s estimated that between one quarter and one third of women will have an abortion in their lifetime, statistically speaking a lot of people walking past had a first hand experience of abortion. The conversations that have come mainly centre around feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, let down, scared and angry. It’s devastating to know that so many students felt unsafe after this event.”
Not only did this stall endanger the mental health of the community, but negatively affected degrees and careers. The individuals I spoke with said they brought up the event to the SRC and campus engagement, but Campus Engagement told Grapeshot “Student Engagement did not receive any feedback about this event, positive or negative. Complaints may have gone through other avenues of which Student Engagement is not aware due to privacy”. However, it has sparked discussions around student safety and wellbeing and the rights student groups have to free speech. LifeChoice gave no comment on the public’s feedback.
There is a way to campaign without harming others. There is a way that these two extreme ideologies can coexist. There needs to be a balance of free speech without emotionally triggering anyone, so that we protect our university community from harm.
The primary idea proposed by the Macquarie community was to simply take away imagery. Without fetus dolls and images of children the same message can be achieved. Student groups need more easily accessible policies and processes that set out the guidelines of what can and can’t be done.
O’Gradey-Lee sits on a similar proposal, “As top priority we have a right to feel safe at uni. Their stall could have been less abrasive if it was positioned somewhere different and not across from MUSE where the Women’s room on campus is, during the busiest period of the day. Also having people engaged more in a discussion, opposed to telling people what was right, and less graphic pictures and descriptions within their stall. I think it’s important for future events that they aren’t as public, and are discussions that people can elect to go that way they aren’t triggering students or making students feel unsafe but they are still able to run events and have these discussions.”
Jupp presented a more radical solution to the equation, “If the student pro-life group can hold an event without religious connotations, without being scientifically inaccurate and without being mesogenous, then they wouldn’t offend me. But if they did it this way, life-choice wouldn’t exist. They would be just another website about a surgery. This movement has never been just about the surgery, it’s more about control and power, with heavy religious connotations”.
Above all, both the Women’s Rep and the Women’s Collective urgently stress that notifying these key figures prior to such potentially controverisal events should be the number one priority. O’Gradey-Lee noted that “we can inform students, they can have the freedom to chose to avoid the area and not be engage in triggering situations. Also so we can speak to campus engagement about their event, the location and timing of the event, i.e not having it in front of MUSE where the Women’s room on campus is. The women’s safe space was not okay and could have been rectified if we had been consulted.”
Campus Engagement told Grapeshot “There has recently been a report by Robert French to Review University Freedom of Speech in Australia. It is likely that the University will be looking to use that as a benchmark on any future reviews. Campus Engagement and Diversity and Inclusion is also planning Respect And Belonging training for students.”
Dozens of Macquarie’s members have raised the issue that this occurrence is not irregular on our campus.
There was the Macquarie Liberals’ event with Bettina Arndt on our campus in 2018, where she stated that the sexual assault crisis on campus a myth. Here, a similar kind of backlash occurred with the “Women’s Collective receiving multiple messages from survivors seriously concerned about how the event will affect them and discussion on campus” Jupp said. Again, members of our Macquarie Community felt “unsafe” on their own campus.
For Sex Week in 2018 a Women’s Collective panel called ‘Sex and the Law’, a key leader from the Our Bodies Our Choices, who is the community campaign working for the pro-choice movement, gave a guest lecture. “The panel was fantastic, it was super successful as we filled the room. But the crowd was not entirely filled with supportive individuals. Multiple young liberals were sitting in and asked questions which harassed the prochoice pannellests”.
Lydia stated “I am too scared what would happen to the Women’s Collective if we were to protest a University event on campus ground. I would have protested the LifeChoice stall if I knew it was happening. The last protest at Macquarie I went to was Mark Latham’s talk held by the Young Libs. I was filmed and put on Facebook without my consent, some of my friends received death threats, I was shoved and pushed by the crowd. I was terrified on my own campus in the middle of the day.”
The Women’s Representative encourages, “For anyone who was triggered or is struggling reach out to someone and contact campus wellbeing for support on 9850 7497. Every woman should have the right to choose what happens to their body, it’s devastating that in 2019 we still have to fight for that right. But we will keep fighting.”
Time and time again, the biggest problem Macquarie University has is a lack of communication. If the SRC had been informed of the event they could have notified students so no one would have felt “ambushed” by the event. They would have had the option to take part or completely avoid the situation. Individuals who were retraumatised and missed classes as a result of the event, could have avoided this if ample warning was given by the university.
As always these events continue to spark questions of free speech and political expression. But at the end of the day if someone’s freedom of speech distraughts another’s, is anyone really free?