The University of Queensland Student Union (UQU) has sanctioned the Catholic student club, the Newman Society, following its operating three information stalls centred on supporting pregnant women and promoting post-abortion healing retreats. The students are now required to have all future campaign materials approved by three union officials and the President of the UQU.
The official 'sanction' came after the third stall, at which students displayed a poster of a preborn baby at eight weeks, and distributed a flyer that provided phone numbers for two pregnancy support groups. The Newman Society felt confident this campaign in no way contravened the UQU's policy on 'free, safe abortion on demand so all women have a genuine choice when faced with unwanted pregnancy'. It was simply about providing support for pregnant women.
These campaigns created a stir from the beginning and objections were received from the UQU President demanding the Newman Society desist from presenting a perceived 'pro-life position'. The UQU President, Josh Young, emailed the Newman Society to say that its conduct was 'clearly deceptive', and was intended to deter women from having abortions.
He added, 'All the auxiliary information connect [sic] to these campaigns highlight a pro-life agenda and I will not entertain the notion that the Newman Society seeks to inform women in a way that is not bias [sic] against abortion.' He warned that 'further incidents of disregard for Union policy may be dealt [with] severely through [the] Clubs and Societies Committee'.
It appears the tipping point for the UQU to take these actions was the photograph of an unborn baby at eight weeks.
The Clubs and Societies Committee duly determined that the Newman Society had 'deliberately' contravened the Union's pro-abortion policy, and the sanction was applied for a period of 12 months on the grounds that the Society failed to seek the approval of the President of the UQU for its publications.
The Secretary of the Newman Society, Elise Nally, described the union's actions as totalitarian and anti-free speech, adding, 'I'd like to know what laws we've broken. The union is acting like a dictator.' In fact, she said, the campaign was pro- woman and pro-pregnancy with the Society's poster of an unborn baby and pregnancy support leaflets making no mention of abortion.
Following a report in The Australian, the story spread like wildfire on the internet with many US pro-life sites expressing support and likening the Queensland situation to similar treatment of US Catholic student groups. Many of the sites that picked up the story were flooded with public comments - overwhelmingly in support of the Newman Society.
The internet has proved invaluable in fostering continued debate, by providing a forum for this issue that is otherwise unavailable through the mainstream media.
A former student at the University of Queensland wrote on an online internet blog, 'As an alumnus of UQ, I am seriously disturbed by this act of blatant hypocrisy by the UQU purporting to promote the values of respect (or at least 'tolerance') and freedom. I urge the Newman Society to resist and protest by means of non- violent non-compliance with this edict.'
Another contributor criticised the UQU's 'disgraceful decision', but asked, 'Should we be surprised? It has never really been about freedom and equal rights - it's about eliminating Christianity from the agenda.'
Among the messages of support from around Australia and from overseas, there was even one from the University's atheist club, which described the attempt to silence the Newman Society as an invasion of free speech.
A poignant letter was also sent to the President of the UQU by another former student of the University of Queensland. She wrote, 'I am writing from Washington State, in the US. I lived in Queensland - Brisbane and Mt Isa - for nearly three years in the 1970s. I have fond memories of my time there.
'I have been made aware of the sad decision of the UQU to discipline the Newman Society and to ban pregnancy support information that the Newman Society has to offer to all of the UQ students.
'I am a woman who had an abortion - 38 years ago this past April. I am the mother, therefore, of a dead child.
'If I had seen any literature about support during my pregnancy, I would be the mother of a child that would have been born alive, versus being burned to death by saline solution and then later ripped from my womb.
'In the spirit of free speech, I would think that the UQU body would see fit for all information on pregnancy to be not only welcomed, but encouraged. I pray that you will rethink your decision on banning supportive information.
'After all, isn't that what an institution of higher learning does - educates?'
She concluded, 'Give the women of the University of Queensland a genuine choice, Mr Young, do not deny them the right to have all the information they need to make a good decision regarding the life of the child they carry within them.'
The students have continued to campaign since the sanction was imposed, moving their attentions to promoting the upcoming World Youth Day and vocations.
The Newman Society and its members will be represented at World Youth Day 08 at Universitas, the International Students Gathering to be held at Sydney University during the week of WYD2008.
Allison Atkins is a Thomas More project officer involved with the formation of young adults.