Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Discovering a new world perspective (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Annika Olsen

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Discovering a new world perspective

“I have a dream…” Those were the words resonating in the small study room at Ryerson. On a small flat screen attached to the wall, Martin Luther King Jr. stated to the media his and his fellow Afro-Americans constitutional right for equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. An Iconic moment for the civil rights movement currently representing the first 10 seconds of a Pro-life video.

There were 7 members sitting around the table silently staring at the black-and-white screen. My primary contact in the group, who will be addressed as Daniel, was conducting that day’s meeting, and proudly stated they had acquired a tablet for showing this video on the street. It was another strong way to incorporate victim photography. As Martin Luther King Jr. disappeared, the screen flared up with pictures of ripped up limbs and disembowelled fetus corpses while the phrase “that all men are created equal” played on a continuous loop. Observing and noting the tearful reactions and downcast eyes there was one prominent question in my mind: “If the fight for equal rights of the fetus is being equated with the civil rights movement, what does this imply about the women who have had abortions?”

During this meeting there were two other women in the room, both of whom are pursuing education at Ryerson and UofT. “These images are graphic and emotionally draining but needed” was stated after I asked about their experiences working with victim photography. Again, comparisons were being made between the attention being drawn to slave ships by English abolitionists and the media coverage of Selma. Only through exposure can the truth be known. However, if aborted fetuses are like slaves, who are the slave traders in this comparison?

Natasha, a pro-life student, snorted when I brought up my question and responded stating that I was asking the wrong questions: “It is like with rape. Because the father committed a crime, we are told the only answer to this issue is for the child to die, and it is the mother that must deal with the guilt and trauma of murdering her child. I can’t understand why anybody can watch these images and claim that our society is not hurt by abortion. ” This answer was echoed a few weeks later in one of the training sessions of the group by Lisa, a pro-life student conducting the training: “We don’t hate women that had abortions. It is because of women that are hurt by them that I do what I do.”

The comparison with the civil rights movement and my exchange with Natasha and Lisa has left me with more questions than answers. It became clear that this group of members goes beyond just being a club of like-minded people talking about the scientific and humanitarian reasons for their pro-life perspectives. For them, it is a completely different world we live in: one of violence, dehumanization and injustice. Natasha started to address the individual subjectification that comes with choice, stating that situational circumstances are rarely addressed. She seemed to be implying that the questions that I needed to ask were “who is responsible for the consequences when women have encounters which result in unwanted pregnancies? Who is denying the equality of the fetus and how are those unequal relationships produced?” These questions indicate that a dynamic of gender, biopolitical subjectification, biomedical knowledge, and institutionalized inequality are interacting with the Pro-life campaign.

The nightmare of coming back empty-handed

At the beginning of this course, I wanted to conduct my research on both pro-life and pro-choice activism. However, as a novice researcher, I did not realize that walking into such an intense polarized debate was like stumbling blindly into a mine field. The constant anxiety caused by intensive gatekeeping coloured and reshaped my research on a daily basis. Right from the start, I was confronted with suspicion and fear of infiltration of the pro-choice group. After extreme vetting, it became very clear to me that I could not obtain consent to conduct fieldwork on the pro-choice group as long as I was also researching the pro-life presence on campus.

Unlike the pro-choice group, the campus pro-life group held weekly sessions that were always available to people who signed up for the email list. When I introduced myself as a researcher during the first session, I was nevertheless accepted and even approached as a subject of curiosity. This was a huge contrast to my reception by the pro-choice group that vetted me by contacting mutual acquaintances, examining my very empty Facebook page and a 5-10 minute-interview. Pro-life seemed an easier and more open environment in which to participate and to find informants.

Of course, this comfort vanished somewhere around week 5, when I stumbled onto another landmine.  After work made it impossible for me to attend the weekly sessions of the pro-life group, I needed to show up at other physical locations where these students were staging events. At my request, I was given permission to observe some demonstrations after further vetting, this time by the pro-life group.

Prior to this time, the information that I gathered at sessions was openly accessible information. The pro-life group partially organized these sessions to expand their knowledge on the pro-life movement’s narratives around abortion, but also to make the information accessible to outsiders. The labels of pro-life, pro-choice or neutral did not matter at all. Without a thought I decided I wanted to explore the group’s less open domains. I wanted access to extra information from other organizations, such as the activism schedule of Toronto Against Abortion (organization promoting intercampus activism) involving the pro-life movement at large. I wanted access to information that normally required formal training to gain access. Consequently, I ran into a major roadblock.

The president of Toronto Against Abortion and education-coordinator of the UofT pro-life club on campus requested proof that I was a student in the ethnographic practicum and contacted Professor Li about the information surrounding my research with which I had provided them. We also agreed for me to attend a demonstration and, depending on how disruptive my attendance was, determine how much access I would be granted in the future. For those three or four days, all I could do was to hold my breath and to hope that there would be no withdrawal of the group’s informed consent resulting in the loss of all my data.

No frustration allowed on the public sidewalks

Hopping between the pro-life activists and counter-protesters at an OCAD demonstration, I overheard Daniel being confronted by a bystander about an encounter between her friend and a Toronto Against Abortion activist. She was accusing them of inappropriate language, to which Daniel immediately reacted with dismay: “Who was it?” he demanded “If you can show me some evidence of the person saying that, they will be off the team.”

This is only an example of the heavy monitoring of sidewalk interactions that I experienced during pro-life demonstrations. I was informed that every volunteer needed to sign a contract stating that they promised never to shout, never to force anyone to look at the signs and to treat people respectfully. As every demonstration involved up to 4 activists operating video cameras, accusations of aggressive behaviour can be immediately verified or dispelled. Any violation of the signed contract would immediately result in exclusion of the perpetrator from public demonstrations.

As a result, the activity on a demonstration site consists mainly of a confrontation between “passivist pro-life activists” exercising their right to conduct peaceful rational discussions and the emotional utterances of the bystanders and students censoring them. This perception turned the tables completely on the representation of pro-lifers in the nineties, when firebombing the Morgentaler clinic in 1992 and attacks on “abortionists” in the mid-nineties discredited any moral high ground for the pro-life grassroots.

Fascinatingly, when Kayaan spoke for 40 minutes with a woman at a different demonstration, even he started to become frustrated with their discussion, which was going in circles:

For the 4th time in the last 35 minutes Kayaan brought up her view that would tolerate first term abortions, which he regarded as a weak spot in her argument.  He answered the bystander’s claim that, in such cases, it should be the choice of the woman because it is her body by stating in a slightly perplexed tone: “But the government gets control of this body after three months? Because what…then it contains a second body, right?” After receiving confirmation, he continued by adding: “So why not at birth then? Doesn’t life have to come from life?” After again hearing the argument that it is the woman’s choice, Kayaan lets out a small laugh in frustration. Catching himself he immediately apologises.” (Annika’s fieldnotes)

Kayaan displays a form of self-subjectification by censoring himself. He already started to display a less controlled response while questioning the logic of the bystander to whom he was speaking, but his laughter alerted him to a lapse in control of his respectful conduct in accordance with the contract. The internalization of monitoring (self-control) of one’s behaviour overcomes his need to emotionally express himself.


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