Face to face: Pro-life and pro-choice activists clash at the Aotea Square rally sparked by the Alabama laws / Photo by Delia Jordaan
A petition is launched requesting the disaffiliation of Prolife AUT, some student representatives speak out against Prolife AUT, while the club’s president describes complete abortion ban in Alabama as a ‘victory’.
It’s noon on the 25th of May and a crowd has gathered to take a stand against something they see as a ‘blatant disregard for human rights’: the extreme restrictions on abortion laws passed in Alabama.
According to NZ Herald reporter, Alice Peacock, dozens of pro-life activists turned out at the rally to oppose the roughly 200 strong pro-choice advocates.
Signs scrawled with, “Way to go Alabama” were held against signs saying, “My body, my choice; my womb, my voice,” as the protestors pressed against each other - taking turns to engage in exasperated debate.
Just 300 metres up the hill from the rally, a similar clash of views is unfolding at AUT.
In response to a Debate news story reporting on AUTSA’s decision to affiliate a pro-life club, a student has launched a petition requesting their disaffiliation.
Isla Evans is a second-year communications student and says she was upset when she read that Prolife AUT had been affiliated, but was reluctant to lead the opposition.
“I didn’t really want to be the face of it, but after a couple of weeks no one had really done anything and I thought someone needed to do something.
“When all this stuff in Alabama happened, there was a lot more on social media about how people felt - and it was encouraging that people didn’t support this club.”
Evans says having the name ‘pro-life’ affiliated with AUT brings the negative connotations from the wider pro-life movement into the university.
“It is not so much about what they are doing [the pro-life club], it’s what they represent.
“I know their stated goals are education and support, but that’s not what the pro-life movement stands for,” she says.
ProLife AUT has previously told both Debate and the AUTSA Student Representative Council that they would not advocate for stricter abortion laws.
However, in a new interview with Debate, the president of ProLife AUT, Emma Rankin, described the absolute ban of abortion in Alabama as a “victory”.
“As a club, because we believe that life begins at conception, we do feel that it is a victory that life is being acknowledged in the womb,” she says.
The Alabama law attempts to ban all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy (before many women even notice a pregnancy) - it’s only exemption is when the mother’s life is at serious risk.
Rankin says ProLife AUT debates specific ‘legalities’ such as whether there should be exceptions for victims of rape and incest, but doesn’t think the Alabama laws go too far.
Rankin does, however, say that a petition opposing the club because of the Alabama law was an over-reaction.
“It did come a little out of the blue - just because it wasn’t based on anything we did directly, it was based on laws passed in the US.
“It is not really that surprising for a club that believes that life starts at conception and that humans have rights from conception - to see a law that says killing a child after conception should be illegal.”
For this reason, Prolife AUT chose to skip the pro-life counter-protest at Aotea Square – despite supporting its kaupapa.
The petition opposing the club has already garnered 247 votes , dwarfing the 16 members of ProLife AUT.
AUTSA Vice-President, Kurt Schmidt, told the SRC in a meeting held in response to the petition that he’d rather have ProLife AUT affiliated than “have them running around freely.”
“There’s an inherent safety mechanism that comes with that” he told the council.
AUTSA President, Dharyin Colbert, said at the meeting they must not let their “own personal opinions inform the students' opinions,” and appealed to the SRC to “represent students and their views,” and not to make decisions based on their own values.
But to some student representatives, leaving their values at home is not an option on an issue like reproductive rights.
AUTSA International Affairs Officer, Divya Kataria, says she voted against the decision to affiliate the club because she is strongly pro-choice and felt the wider student body shared her opposition to a pro-life club.
“That is why I voted against it, because pro-choice is enough; it’s a choice,” she says.
“With pro-choice you have a choice; you can conceive or you can go the other way and get the abortion. But what choice do you have with pro-life?”
Kataria says that even with birth control, mistakes can easily happen and having a pro-life club on campus makes things more difficult for those who may face an unexpected pregnancy.
“A lot of women go through this alone and [the club] might make it harder for them,” she says.
Kataria isn’t the only member of the student council unhappy that the club was affiliated.
AUTSA Disability Affairs Officer, Aimee Read, thought the decision should have been brought to a student referendum and that the issue was significant enough that it shouldn’t have been decided by only ten student representatives present at the April 3rd meeting.
“In my opinion it shouldn’t have been voted on in that meeting - until we had at least 90 per cent of the Student Council there…there were six or seven people missing that day.”
Six members of the SRC, including Aimee, did not attend the meeting where the club was affiliated. Of the ten members present that day, two were appointed to the SRC for the first time at an earlier point in the meeting.
The minutes from that meeting note Divya Kataria as the only opposing vote, however Business, Economics & Law Faculty Representative, Olinda Tour says she too voted against the affiliation of the club. This information is not noted in the minutes.
The SRC accepted the minutes from this meeting as a true and accurate record at its next meeting on May 1st.
Aimee Read thinks affiliating ProLife AUT gives the impression that AUTSA shares their position on the issue.
“In my opinion they can still be a club on campus, but I don’t think they should be affiliated with our student association.”
Read believes the club’s views are harmful.
“I think it hurts people who have had abortions, because I know quite a few people. It hurts people who might have had to have an abortion who might have been raped or sexually abused.”
One suggestion made is that the club should change their name to something less provocative and less associated with the wider pro-life movement, however this is receiving little support from either side.
Divya Kataria and Aimee Read both say it would not be enough for them to support the club.
And while Emma Rankin says the club would consider a name change to ease tensions, she says it does identify with the pro-life movement and doesn’t want to be pushed around.
“If our name offends you that is your problem, not ours,” she says.