A visual sweetener to a sour abortion debate

By Taryn Mahoney

It’s that time of year again to pull one of two dusty abortion arguments off the proverbial shelf, if anyone can still muster the energy. Despite their controversial history with the University of Calgary since 2006, the Campus Pro-Life Club has once again erected the same grotesque, graphic display of aborted fetuses smack dab in the middle of campus, and their pro-choice opponents are once again offended for the same reasons as last year.

On Nov. 4–5 pro-life activists stood across from their pro-choice counterparts on either side of an abandoned pathway. Streams of weary students moved by, giving the area a wide berth so as not to become trapped in a futile dispute. A lone security vehicle sat in the periphery, and the general atmosphere was decidedly apathetic. Abortion at the U of C has become an obstinate, repetitive and arbitrary debate.

The pro-life demonstrations this year were different because of their apparent insignificance. The attempts of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform to display pro-life signs all over the city’s major roadways have drawn little attention from media groups. One response on AM 770’s broadcast to the Canadian Centre’s efforts was a concern about the potential distraction to drivers, which was perhaps a sarcastic attempt to derail the actual issue.

Pro-life activists have now effectively desensitized Calgary, as well as the majority of the students at U of C, to this annual display. The once shocking photos of aborted fetuses have dwindled into a trivial annoyance, and the term ‘activist’ seems inapplicable to the Campus Pro-Life loiterers who stand idly in front of their signs like road obstacles. Even their pro-choice opponents have resorted to offering passersby hot chocolate in order to provoke interest.

The abortion debate will be contentious for a long time and is worthy of meaningful consideration. But perhaps the most discouraging aspect of this exhibition is the deviation from logical discussion, which has now been replaced by tired rhetoric and mass appeals to sentimentality. Thoughtful conversation and legitimate academic debate regarding one of the world’s most controversial topics has deteriorated into a yawnfest as this yearly ritual enters the running for U of C’s longest, most unpopular standing tradition.

This year’s Calgary Film Festival revived the necessity of the debate by featuring a particularly poignant documentary. After Tiller follows the lives of the last four doctors willing and able to perform late term abortions in the United States after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist. The film is an admirable effort to thoughtfully and realistically represent the complexities of the abortion issue, elevating the dispute above the vulgarity of a few hyperbolic photographs of aborted fetuses. The viewer is given an uncomfortably intimate perspective as woman after woman enters the doctors’ offices saddled with a difficult and complex dilemma. The film emphasizes the individuality of these women, each with their own story and reasons for entering the clinic, and follows the ensuing ethical considerations and debate that each case demands. The audience watches with a visceral confliction as the doctors navigate the implications of each decision and abortion they perform. Each doctor continually re-evaluates their decision to perform abortions and all point to the strain their work takes on them and their patients.

After Tiller accomplishes precisely what Campus Pro-Life refuses to do: open up a multifaceted, academic debate about an ethical issue. In the shadow of this brave film the yearly fiasco on campus looks pitiful, not because of Campus Pro-Life’s offensive tactics, but because they aren’t saying much at all anymore.

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