Student union tries to run pro-lifers off campus

21 May 2008

By The Record

By Paul Gray
The University of Queensland’s Newman Society – the university’s Catholic student club – has been threatened with disaffiliation because it promotes a pro-life message.

The President of University’s Union, which acts as the peak student body in charge of the university’s many and varied clubs and societies, has also warned the Catholic group that it will be “dealt severely” (with) if it continues advertising pro-life material.
The argument put by the university’s Union in subsequent communications with the Newman Society is that the Union has a policy of supporting women’s rights to abortion.
Because the promotional material from the Catholic group does not refer women on for abortions, the material is therefore deemed to be in denial of this right.
The University of Queensland is the state’s biggest university. Founded in 1909, it has been the training ground of many community leaders including Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan and Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty.
The Newman Society is one of the longest established student groups at the university.
Last week a Society member, Stephen Purcell, told The Record that the group had also been denied a security clearance to set up a stall in the university’s free space: a space directly controlled by the university administration rather than by the student Union.
Mr Purcell said the free space is used regularly by diverse groups including socialists, groups urging an end to uranium mining and the Liberal Party. However the Newman Society had so far been refused permission to set up there.
At the centre of the dispute with the university’s student Union is the right of the Catholic group to promote pro-life material.
Material the group has recently displayed includes brochures advertising an Australian Catholic Bishops Conference initiative, Walking With Love.
Walking with Love, which has been reported in earlier editions of The Record, is a new outreach by the Church to women who have had abortions and to women who may feel under pressure because of an untimely pregnancy.
It attempts to move the Church away from a confrontational approach to the abortion debate, by promoting a message of love and support for women who are pregnant, rather than a reminder of the horrors and dangers of abortion itself.
Ironically, it is the promotion of another ‘moderate’ pro-life initiative which has now produced one of the most extreme attempts in Australia so far to curb any and all pro-life messages coming from the Church.
The dispute arose last month when the Newman Society – named in honour of Catholic intellectual giant Cardinal John Henry Newman – organised a series of once-a-week stalls, with permission from the Union, during lunchtimes at the University’s Brisbane campus.
The stalls included promotional material for Rachel’s Vineyard, a series of spiritual retreats for women who feel anguish after having had an abortion, and for the Walking With Love program.
One stall also featured a photograph of a living human foetus in the womb.
Trouble struck when Union President Joshua Young approached the stall and informed the Catholic students that the Rachel’s Vineyard flyers contravened the Union’s “pro-choice” policy.
The President of the Australian Catholic Students Association, Camillus O’Kane, told The Record last week that the foetus image was “not at all” offensive, and was not designed to create a shock effect on passers-by.
“It was simply a photograph of an eight-week-old foetus,” Mr O’Kane said. He said the university’s Union has now put the Newman Society on probation because they displayed the poster.
“I believe it was disgraceful to not allow the Newman Society to hold the stall,” Mr O’Kane said. He added it was extraordinary that such action could be taken in view of the fact that the same society has run similar stalls in previous years at the campus.
By not referring for abortion, the Catholic group is being deceitful, said the Union’s President, Joshua Young.
“It is my opinion that the Newman Society is not seeking to provide balanced advice on abortion and (is) clearly deceptive in its conduct,” he wrote in an email to Newman Society member Allison Atkins. The Union President added: “I will not entertain the notion that the Newman Society seeks to inform women in a way that is not bias against abortion.”
Mr Young said further incidents of “disregard for Union policy” – i.e. the pro-abortion policy – may be dealt with severely through the Clubs and Societies Committee of the Union.
The wording of the Union’s abortion policy states: “That the University of Queensland Union supports free, safe, abortion on demand so all women have a genuine choice when faced with unwanted pregnancy.”
The Newman Society says other groups which advocate abortion, such as Marie Stopes International, have a visible presence at the University.
Camillus O’Kane from ACSA says the suppression of free speech for pro-life movements is becoming “a massive issue” that goes beyond the borders of one university campus.
He says he is encouraging the Newman Society at the University of Queensland to take up the option of fighting the issue at a referendum of the student body.
This idea was first put forward by the University Union, which was asked by the Newman Society what would need to change for the Catholic group to be allowed to promote pro-life material.
The Union replied that 300 student signatures and a successful vote of the student population would be needed to change the pro-abortion policy.
Newman Society member Stephen Purcell, who was one of the students manning the stall when trouble from the Union struck, said disaffiliation would be a “serious threat” to the group’s operations.
“It would mean we have no funds, and no meeting space allowed to us on Union controlled property.”