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USU Board approves pro-life society

Adam Chalmers reports on the new club – LifeChoices Sydney – which has student politics in a spin.

Opponents are worried LifeChoice Sydney may engage in harassment of women. Photo: daveynin via Flickr

During the most recent University of Sydney Union Board meeting on Friday June 1, the Board voted 6-5 to allow LifeChoice Sydney, a pro-life group, to become an official USU club.

LifeChoice had previously been rejected by the C&S Committee, which all clubs must go through to be approved, on the grounds its “aims were too narrow”. The committee agreed that if they approved a single-issue interest group such as LifeChoice, they’d have to approve any number of other over-specific niche societies. As such LifeChoice was rejected for violating (3)(a)(i) of the C&S regulations, that clubs and societies should “enrich the student experience at the university”.

At the advice of Board director Mina Nada, a dozen members of LifeChoice appealed their case to the Union Board meeting, claiming the C&S committee rejected them on invalid grounds. After some debate, the USU Board found the committee had no grounds to reject their application. The Board overturned the Committee’s ruling, allowing LifeChoice Sydney to join the C&S program. USU President Sibella Matthews explained: “a club’s focus being too “narrow” is not a reason to reject a club under the C&S regulations.”

Members of the LifeChoice group are thrilled with the decision, but many students are angered by the Board’s ruling, as are several Board members themselves.

The constitution of LifeChoice says it seeks to “promote the dignity of human life from conception til natural death” and “foster discussion of abortion and euthanasia” and their alternatives.

A Facebook group called “STOP the ‘LifeChoice’ (anti-abortion) Society at USYD” has already been set up, with over 200 members. The group has called the decision a “disgusting misuse of the Board”, which has “failed its students and is undermining the inclusiveness it seeks to promote”. Its members have labelled LifeChoice Sydney “an attack on women’s rights”.

Union Board directors overturned the C&S committee’s agreement because they disagreed with its interpretation of C&S regulations. “In all my time as C&S chair, I never knocked back any society for being too narrow,” said Board Director James Flynn. Board members generally agreed that it was wrong to ask LifeChoice to become a division of a religious or political group. Proposed President Rebecca Elias said: “LifeChoice is non-religious, non-political. Obviously it has a lot of overlap with politics/law/ethics societies, but they’re just overlaps. We don’t look at pro-life from a specific perspective like that.”

The head of USU Student Programs, Alistair Cowie, cited the Chocolate Society, and the Captain Planet Appreciation Society, which is separate to the Pop Culture Society, as examples of narrow clubs that have been approved before despite overlap with larger ones.

Opponents are worried LifeChoice Sydney may engage in harassment of women. Photo: daveynin via Flickr

The motion to approve LifeChoice was voted for by directors James Flynn, Mina Nada, Astha Rajvanshi, Zachary Thompson, and Shane Treeves. Directors Nai Brooks, Brigid Dixon, Vivienne-Moxham Hall, Jacqui Munro, and Rhys Pogonoski voted against it. Upon observing the 5-5 split, Sibella Matthews voted in favour and the motion was passed.

While most Board members appeared to disagree with pro-life sentiments, they did not want to let their personal views stop students from starting a society with oppositional beliefs. Mr Pogonoski and Mr Treeves suggested the society rebrand as a “bioethics discussion society”, but it was agreed this would just lead to AGMs being stacked and that such a group would be torn apart by internal conflict.

Ms Moxham-Hall and Ms Brooks were concerned the club would vilify women who have had abortions or people who identify as pro-choice supporters. They were reminded that under 4(d)(ii) of the C&S Regulations, “Clubs and Societies shall not use freedom of speech to defame, vilify or incite violence against individuals or groups.” While the Board acknowledged the risk of vilification from LifeChoices, they decided it would be unfair to pre-emptively reject the society for actions it might hypothetically take in the future. If the club tried to hold anti-abortion protests or print offensive advertising material (for example, pictures of dead foetuses), C&S would discipline the society under 4(d)(ii) The group is also still bound by the University’s Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Policy.

Several students from the Stop LifeChoice Facebook page and SRC collectives are organising a general meeting of the USU, where they plan to introduce constitutional amendments which would forbid C&S from approving discriminatory or oppressive societies.

In response to LifeChoice’s approval, the Board is working to “develop a policy about these special interest clubs, as we currently have no guidance in our governing documents or C&S regulations as to how to deal with these single-issue groups.”

Honi asked Ms Matthews if the Board had a responsibility to stop offensive societies from being founded, and why they would allow a pro-life society, but not a ‘Nazi Germany Appreciation Society’ or ‘Marriage Between Men and Women’ society. She replied: “It is difficult to draw the line, and that is why we are now developing a policy on the issue.”

Ms Munro and Mr Pogonoski asked that approval or rejection of LifeChoices be delayed until the Union Board had written such a policy, as well as a policy governing direct appeals to the Board. Mr Nada believed this policy would retrospectively judge the appeal. He asked instead that LifeChoice’s proposals be “judged based on the pre-existing procedures under which they apply.” Ms Matthews echoed this concern saying, “retrospective law-making is widely regarded as poor governance.”

The issue has disrupted the unity of the Board, with directors from both sides tweeting and blogging passionately about the decision.

Adam Chalmers is on Twitter: @adam_chal