LifeChoice is a controversial pro-life group that wants to affiliate with the UTS Union. A Vertigo investigation looks closely at this divisive club.

In June last year, the University of Sydney Union (USU) board met to discuss the affiliation of a new club on their campus, and despite protests and condemnation, voted 6-5 in favour of allowing the club access to Union resources. The club’s name is LifeChoice and its stated goal is to “promote the dignity of human life from conception till natural death” and “foster discussion about abortion and euthanasia”.

This was the first club of its type in Sydney. Over the next year clubs also appeared at University of New South Wales, Macquarie University and Australian Catholic University Melbourne. Each club has the same name, branding and website, as well as their fair share of controversy. Bitter debates have erupted on campuses nationwide as LifeChoice chapters have sprung up seeking affiliation with student unions. The presence of such clubs incensed many and have been a lightning rod for confliction, with their critics accusing the clubs of harassing students and spreading misinformation passed off as “scientific fact and literature”.

Three months ago, one such group brought a club proposal to the UTS Union, seeking affiliation. Affiliation with the Union gives clubs $6000 for events and up to $2000 for publications, as well as access to Union facilities and services. Within days a petition seeking to block their affiliation gained over 600 signatures.

So what student club could possibly attract such controversy?

The ambiguous name, LifeChoice masks the pro-life ideals of an association that actively holds a stance against abortion and euthanasia. The group steers away from identifying themselves as anti-abortion lobbyists though (despite a huge amount  of evidence to the contrary), and instead stakes out a slippery hold on legitimacy by claiming to be a platform for ‘enlightening’ discussion, debate, and education.

In the proposal to UTS, LifeChoice assured that they would “contribute positively to student life by creating a space which upholds a positive message, protecting the dignity of human life. Those who agree, disagree or hold no opinion at all will be encouraged to join in the discussion without hostility”.

And yet there has been hostility already, and much of it from the opposing side.

The appearance of such a club on campus has generated a heated response from women’s rights supporters. Alison Whittaker, the UTS Wom*n’s Officer believes that “[LifeChoice] creates an unsafe space, further stigmatises persons who have engaged with this medical procedure and shuts down a personal aspect of the discourse.”

As reported in ’Deeper Insider’ last month, their presence has led the UTS Wom*n’s Collective to actively petition the UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Shirley Alexander, and UTS Union CEO, Elizabeth Brett, to deny the club’s affiliation, as “Pro-life groups such as LifeChoice target women and the choices they make regarding their reproductive health. This constitutes gender-based harassment and other forms of intimidation.” Progressive student bodies like the UTS SRC as well as the National Union of Students (NUS) have also slammed the brand, with the President of NUS, Jade Tyrell telling The Australian that groups such as LifeChoice are “extremely political causes that adversely affects one group of people”, and they should not receive funding from the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). “NUS’s greatest concern is that these types of groups are interfering with a woman’s right to choose,” Tyrrell said.

The hostility from these progressive student bodies indicates a real belief in the danger that LifeChoice clubs present to womens’ rights, reinforcing LifeChoice’s muddied reputation, one which belies LifeChoice’s assertion that they’re merely a group of students interested in this bio-ethical dilemma. And they’re certainly aware of their reputation. The UTS proposal reads “Currently the term ‘prolife’ can carry negative connotations… [we] wish to change this by creating a forum where such issues can be raised without the need for placards or graphic images.” Keen to shed their image as an agenda-pushing lobby group, the UTS chapter also assures the Union that “LifeChoice, although it holds a stance, is neither political nor religious.”

One could suggest that LifeChoice clubs attempt to use these claims of impartiality as a shield from howling criticism, wherein they dismiss attempts to block their expansion as an attack on free speech. It was this argument that eventually helped the club prevail in affiliating with USU last year in the face of heavy opposition. Controversy around the club has not gone away. In February this year, the USU LifeChoice stall at O’ Week this year was vandalised and destroyed. Then in May, according to USyd’s student newspaper Honi Soit, the same campus club also sparked a furore when LifeChoice members distributed hundreds of factually misleading leaflets about the RU486 drug –the $12 ‘abortion pill’ – to first-year students in their lectures. At the time the club’s media spokesperson rejected claims of presenting false information but admitted that some of statements could have been worded more clearly.

Whittaker certainly believes that a UTS incarnation of the club will also result in similar campus scandals. “LifeChoice will conduct themselves in the same manner as they have done on other campuses…creating a tremendously threatening, vitriolic and poisonous discourse,” she said. “LifeChoice crushes debate through the production of misinformation and shame.”

So what to make of the prospective UTS LifeChoice club? Is LifeChoice as purely nonpartisan and secular as they claim to be? And what of the most intriguing aspect of the brand so far, the current scenario where so many LifeChoice clubs have formed so quickly and in close succession?

Rebecca Elias, inaugural president of the USyd LifeChoice, told Vertigo, “We never realised so many people would want to join the fun!” When asked whether existing chapters had helped each other expand onto new campuses or if campus chapters worked in tandem, she explained that each LifeChoice club was completely independent, both in how they are set up and how they are run. “The LifeChoice clubs share a name and branding and obviously they share the same website. Apart from this all the LifeChoice clubs are autonomous. Each of the LifeChoice clubs began separately from each other,” she said.

However, a Vertigo investigation into the proposed UTS LifeChoice club has uncovered several strands which seem to contradict that statement of autonomy, and instead seem to entwine each individual club with each other and the parent LifeChoice brand.

  • Clubs such as the UTS one share the ‘LifeChoice’ moniker and are represented by the brand’s national spokesperson, even before their affiliation as an official Union club.
  • The ‘Expressions of Interest’ statement on the UTS LifeChoice’s proposal lists students who currently study at other universities. While this is not against Union rules, some of these students are executive members of LifeChoice clubs on other campuses, which indicates their club’s involvement with the UTS chapter.
  • The respective campus presidents of each club address media queries collectively.
  • Roles such as the national spokesperson are appointed collectively by club executives.
  • The LifeChoice website is paid for by members of all clubs.
  • The LifeChoice website domain is hosted by the same small business that hosts the website of ProLife NZ – a collection of pro-life clubs in New Zealand whose expansion parallels those of LifeChoice clubs across Australian campuses.

LifeChoice representatives have downplayed the significance of this particular web host choice, but it does draw to attention the similarities between LifeChoice and the pro-life chain across the Tasman. Of particular note is the rapid expansion of ProLife NZ clubs across the country since they first appeared at the University of Waikato. Six New Zealand universities have acquired ProLife clubs since the club’s inception.

Like its USyd counterpart, the Auckland University club has faced its fair share of pamphlet controversy, and was almost kicked off campus last year due to distributing flyers which stated that abortion procedures could lead to death, infertility, and mental health problems. Along with flyers, the infamous ‘Right to Know’ campaign also culminated in the creation of a website that was designed to look like the website of pro-choice group ALRANZ but featured graphic photos of bloody foetuses.

And while no transnational association officially exists between the two organisations, comparisons between ProLife NZ and LifeChoice suggest connections. For example, the prospective incoming president of LifeChoice UTS, Monica Helbano, previously attended the University of Waikato, where ProLife was first established. When asked about LifeChoice’s selection of web host, she added that, “In hindsight, the fact that we had a few kiwi students on the design team probably had something to do with it.”

It would seem logical that LifeChoice clubs would work together, or even stem from one another, and thus their insistence of autonomy is puzzling.

Likewise, LifeChoice’s claim that they are “neither political nor religious” is also difficult to confirm. All three key speakers at the recent ‘Pulse 2013’ conference – a conference that LifeChoice assisted in organising – were prominent conservative Catholics, as are the proposed speakers listed on the UTS LifeChoice proposal which includes the anti-abortion activist, Brendan Malone. In an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald last year, Malone likened doctors being obliged to prescribe contraceptives to the “same modus operandi employed by despotic and tyrannical regimes”.

The clubs’ secular status was thrown further into the shade when Vertigo discovered that a significant number of students who run the LifeChoice clubs on university campuses are alumni of exclusive Catholic colleges run by Opus Dei.

Opus Dei is a controversial faction of the Catholic Church which preaches an ultraconservative interpretation of Catholicism and is often criticised for its aggressive recruiting and antiquated practices, most famously corporal mortification.

The group has a worldwide presence, and in Australia and New Zealand it runs several institutions. The University of Waikato contains two colleges that are operated by Opus Dei: Rimbrook College for women and Greywood Study Centre for men. At UNSW it operates two boarding colleges: Warrane College for men and Creston College for women; as well as two schools, the Tangara School for girls and Redfield College for boys.

Graduates of Tangara School for Girls include Rebecca Elias, the inaugural President of the University of Sydney LifeChoice club, Grace Assad, the inaugural President of the Macquarie University chapter, Francesca Perrottet, the inaugural Vice-President at UNSW and Elizabeth Watson, the prospective Vice-President of the UTS club. The National Spokeswoman of LifeChoice, Belle Whealing, was also School Captain at Tangara in 2010.

While the prevalence of members with hardcore religious backgrounds is not surprising, LifeChoice’s insistence of its secular status seems strange, as it is quite obviously surrounded by dogmatic literature and led by those schooled in conservative Catholic settings.

LifeChoice also stakes its legitimacy on its nonpartisan values. However, on the UTS club’s proposal, a suggested event was an ‘educational talk’ from Helen Perrottet, the wife of NSW Lower House Liberal MP and member for Castle Hill, Dominic Perrottet. Mr. Perrottet is a close ally of David Clarke, an influential powerbroker in the hard-right of the Liberal Party and known co-operator of Opus Dei. Co-operators “assist Opus Dei financially on specific projects in various other projects that they do have”, Clarke said in an interview with ABC in 2005.

The contrast between LifeChoice’s stated goal of being “secular and nonpartisan” and its many connections to ultraconservative Catholic networks, especially Opus Dei, raises broader questions about what the actual purpose of these clubs are. Moreover, the sheer number of these connections warrants further investigation as to whether or not these clubs are centrally organised and, if so, by whom. These are questions that LifeChoice clubs cannot simply dismiss as infringements on their freedom of speech and deserve to be considered in the final decision concerning their right to affiliate to the UTS Union.

 

At the time of writing the decision to accept the proposal of a UTS LifeChoice club’s affiliation with the UTS Union is still pending.

 

This article was compiled by Joe McKenzie, Sally Coleman, Frances Mao and Lachlan Bennett with assistance from Fiona Dunne and Hannah Story.