USMU's reproductive rights motion passed on Nov. 5. Photo: CC, Wikicommons, Jack-Coop.
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Students petition motion, say it prevents freedom of expression

On Nov. 5 the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) passed a motion recognizing individual reproductive freedoms, preventing reproductive coercion, and prohibiting graphic materials by its student groups.

The motion follows student complaints over the distribution of graphic images by two pro-life groups at the University of Manitoba over the fall semester. “I think (students) felt it created an unsafe emotional environment to see that type of graphic imagery, especially students who have had to exercise their right to reproductive choice in the past,” said UMSU president, Jakob Sanderson.

In September, Students for a Culture of Life (UMSCL), distributed postcards with images of aborted fetuses, sex-selective abortion cases, and testimonials. On discovering the UMSCL didn’t follow event protocol, Sanderson said the UMSU revoked the group’s ability to host future events. That ability is expected to be reinstalled if UMSCL complies with the newly created policy.“What had been arranged is that (UMSCL) would run their materials past our services manager and they did not do that,” said Sanderson.

The UMSU motion, created Oct. 25, includes two amendments to existing policies applying to student groups. The first amends the UMSU’s equitable campus policy by recognizing, “a woman’s right to freedom of reproductive choice; and a woman’s right to be free from coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices.”
It also opposes, “any act of coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices.”

The second amends the UMSU’s safe environment policy on “discriminatory or harassing behaviours and actions” to include “any act of coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices.” A sub-clause was later added to prohibit the distribution of misleading information and graphics at any student group event or activity.

On separate occasions, the U of M saw protests from additional pro-life and pro-choice groups, the Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform and the U of M Student Action Network. “The result is everyone on campus is still entirely entitled to whatever belief they have on this subject matter, whether that be pro-life or pro-choice,” said Sanderson.
Balancing both freedom of expression and safety is the central point of this subject, said Sanderson. “The UMSU supports the freedom of expression, although peoples’ expression cannot impede on others’ safety,” he said.

Following creation of the motion, a public petition circulated opposing the reproductive rights amendments in relation to safety.  “The motion pretends that a right to safety includes a right not to hear or see opinions that one finds offensive or upsetting,” said president for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, John Carpay.

“If some students feel that their safety is compromised by hearing or seeing ideas they disagree with, then they shouldn’t have enrolled at a university,” he said. In contrast, Trina James, treasurer for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), said the CFS supports reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. 

Currently, the CFS represents both the UMSU and the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa at the provincial and federal levels. “This is a huge step in the right direction in student unions,” she said. “(Groups like UMSCL’s) messaging and rhetoric can often be very triggering for a student who may have gone through the process of an abortion, or who is thinking about going through the process of abortion.”

UMSU’s reproductive motion reflects a larger conversation within Canadian student unions about their policies on safe environments. In 2016, the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) won an Ontario Superior Court of Justice litigation case against pro-life student group, Students for Life at Ryerson (SFLR). The SFLR said the RSU acted in a discriminatory manner, preventing the SFLR’s freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter for Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling held that, as a not-for-profit corporation, the RSU was able to approve or deny club activities on basis of whether club mandates and ideologies comply with RSU policies and the Ontario Human Rights Code. According to the RSU, protests by SFLP conflicted with the RSU’s women’s issues policy. “Every union has a responsibility to do what they think is right for their campus,” said Sanderson.

According to the UMSU’s Safe Environment measures, the measures exist to “ensure all UMSU operated spaces are operating as a safe environment,” and to “ensure all UMSU student groups/clubs and student associations are hosting events and activities in line with the safe environment policy.”