How far would a university student go in her courageous stand for life?
The trouble with tyranny is that it always comes clothed as legitimate authority.
"Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."
No one ever said, in their time, that Nero wasn’t truly Caesar, George III wasn’t really king, Bull Connor wasn’t within his legal rights turning on the fire hoses in Montgomery. They all had legitimate authority – they were just wrong. Wrong in a way no one with clear eye and keen conscience could fail to see … and stand against.
Looking back, it’s easy to understand that, and to recognize the heroism of those who challenged their brutal decrees. Rebellion looks wise and appropriate and courageous, a few years after the fact. Especially when the rebel writes like the Apostle Paul, speaks like Patrick Henry, radiates simple righteousness as clearly as Rosa Parks.
It’s harder to know tyrants when they stand right before us in our own age, our own communities – wielding not lions or swords or police dogs, but regulations, closed-door meetings, clipboards.
Harder, too, to recognize heroes, especially when they’re young, and still finding their eloquence. When the voice of their protest, like the voice of their conscience, is a little louder than we’d like ... when the rebellion takes a form we might not have chosen ... when the confrontations make us nervous, uncomfortable. Most of us, after all, were raised to respect authority. And from a distance, the line between legitimate authority and tyranny can sometimes look awfully thin.
This is a story of some young people who met tyranny up close – and recognized it when they saw it. For each of them, it was simple faith in God – not some innate, restless teenage defiance – that urged them to face that tyranny. Conscience, more than courage, drove them to stand.
Standing, though, they learned that tyrants have weapons, as well as agendas ... and that they’re willing to use them.
Being arrested is awkward, embarrassing – scary. A man bigger than you are, stronger than you are, spins you around, snaps metal on your wrists, and pushes you into the back of a police van. And in that moment, for that moment, it doesn’t really matter that what you’re doing is right, that there are reasons … that the most important beliefs of your life are at stake. What matters is that you’re nervous, helpless, uncomfortable. People are staring. You realize, now, that this will be on your record forever, as you apply for jobs and other opportunities. You know that soon you’re going to have to make phone calls to people you care about, explaining why you did what you did – and some of them won’t understand.
All those things went through Ruth Lobo’s mind, one chilly October morning in 2010, as she sat in the back of a police van on the campus of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Through the rear windows, she watched as her friends – fellow students who trusted her leadership – wereturned, handcuffed, and pushed into other vehicles, for doing what she’d encouraged them to do.
She watched, and somewhere amid the roaring maelstrom of emotions flickered an understanding that all of this – all of this – came out of the hard choices made by another frightened, determined young woman on the other side of the world, 25 years before.
Ruth has never met her birth parents. All she knows is that, in India, at 19, her unmarried mother became pregnant. Poor and alone, she wound up at a convent known for reaching out to women in her situation. There, she put up her child for adoption and walked away. Ten months later, a Canadian couple found Ruth there and carried her to the other side of the world.
“That my mother would do that says something to me about her character,” Ruth says. “She had most likely been ostracized from her family because she was pregnant. It could not have been easy for her. I feel as though I have courage kind of ingrained into my being, because of her courage in that situation. I guess that’s the emotional backing that I have when I defend the pro-life view.” It also affected her decision to major in human rights at Carleton.
"Through pro-life work, I was able to be around real Christians and actually see the real Gospel message."
“I have a heart for those who are marginalized in society,” she says. “I want other children to have the opportunities that I’ve had. Adoption is something that needs to happen a lot more.”
A few years ago, those feelings led Ruth and other students to reignite the dormant embers of a pro-life club called Lifeline, which had existed off and on at Carleton for years. The club sponsored a debate between the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) and Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood fared poorly, and the debate received a lot of attention.
Soon after, the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) – the governing authority for student activities – announced that Carleton was a pro-choice university. In other words, says Albertos Polizogopoulos, the Alliance Defense Fund-allied attorney whom Ruth contacted in the wake of that announcement, CUSA “would not fund, certify, assist, or help any student or student group [seeking] to remove a woman’s right to choose her options in cases of pregnancy.”
With that decision, Lifeline lost its club accreditation. CUSA – though funded by student fees – would no longer provide money for Lifeline; allow its members to use campus printing, copying, or mailing facilities; or have a designated meeting area on campus. Of course, all those privileges could be restored, provided Lifeline renounced its pro-life philosophy (and reason for existence).
With Polizogopoulos’ help, Lifeline challenged the CUSA ruling. The case drew wide attention on both Canadian and U.S. campuses. In time, CUSA caved – not changing its policy, but accrediting Lifeline anyway. The club was re-accredited for several semesters, until September 2010, when a new CUSA executive council once more denied it, for all the same old reasons.
“I went to a pro-life conference in high school, just to get out of school for a couple of days with my girlfriend,” recalls Nick McLeod, another Lifeliner. “They showed a video that changed my life forever. It showed me the reality of what abortion actually did to unborn children.”
“Canada’s criminal code states that the pre-born child is not a human being,” he says. “Abortion will not end until we recognize the unborn child as human, the same as you and me.”
Joining Lifeline gave Nicholas more than a cause. It was his first real exposure to people of faith.
“Through pro-life work, I was able to be around real Christians and actually see the real Gospel message,” he says. “It was through that that I found my own personal relationship with Jesus. Through a pro-life group, God worked His grace through me to bring me back to Him.”
It wasn’t so much love for a cause that brought James Shaw into the Lifeline fold in 2010. It was love for Ruth Lobo, his fiancée. He joined up mostly because she and Nicholas needed the help.
“Within an hour,” he says, “I was a full-fledged member.”
That summer, he volunteered with the CCBR, and “became more and more convicted of the need for this work … to show people what abortion looks like and what it really is.” Still, he says, Lifeline’s activities seemed “very calm” and restrained, mostly just setting up “little information tables.” He respected their ideals, but “I wasn’t really sure what they were doing on campus.” That changed, in October, when the group decided to initiate the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), an imposing display of 6’ x 8’ signs showing past atrocities – slavery, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian genocide – that are “comparable to abortion,” Nicholas says.
“Throughout history, mass killings have been called a state-sanctioned choice, validated by society as something that is okay,” Ruth says, adding that, in Canada today, “we have to pay for abortion through our taxes. Babies are being dehumanized through rhetoric such as ‘reproductive rights’ or ‘parasites’ – very similar to what happened to Jews in the Holocaust.”
Through the GAP display, she says, Lifeline hoped “first, to lift the abortion debate for people to realize that it’s a much bigger issue than just a woman’s choice, and second, to talk to people about anything from abortion to sexuality to ‘why should we value life?’” Neither goal seemed unrealistic for a college campus, and the GAP had been shown effectively at many other schools in Canada and the U.S.
"Sometimes we have to do hard things...'easy' and "hard" are not synonymous with 'right' and 'wrong.'"
“University campuses are places where you expect to be confronted with ideas and issues that may be somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat controversial, or perhaps even offensive,” Polizogopoulos says, “because it’s a market of ideas, and a market of different philosophies.”
Carleton administrators, unfortunately, didn’t see it that way.
Lifeline asked permission to set up the display on Tory Quad, a large plaza and the busy center of student activities. Officials refused, saying some might find the vivid photos “offensive” and “disturbing.” Instead, they offered Lifeline space in the Carleton equivalent of Outer Mongolia. Polizogopoulos interceded on Lifeline’s behalf, but university administrators were unyielding.
“I was very nervous,” Ruth says. “We talked a lot about the possibility of arrest, and we were pretty convicted that that would not be an option … that the university would not go that far to silence their students.” Nevertheless, she began doing her homework, studying the university’s policies with regard to student speech.
“I did a lot of research, so I could be well-equipped and know: Are we breaking some kind of policy? Doing something wrong? What does respecting the university mean in this situation?”
In the end, it wasn’t just Carleton’s ambivalence toward the taking of human life that convinced Lifeline members they needed to go through with the demonstration. It was the realization that other universities across Canada and the U.S. were clamping down in similar ways on other pro-life student groups, denying their right to speak hard truths about these life-and-death issues on campus.
“This has been epidemic across Canada,” Ruth says. (And just as common across the U.S.) “We felt very convicted this was something we had to do. So, on October 4, we informed the university that we were going to go ahead and do the GAP in protest of universities that try to censor their pro-life students.”
That morning, the Lifeline students met and prayed together. Word was that local police and Carleton security officers were waiting for them in force. They loaded their materials and drove to campus, with James ominously aware he was driving “into a very hostile environment.”
The students were barely in sight of the quad when campus security officials blocked their path. Lifeline was ordered to leave at once. Affirming her rights as a student, Ruth began reading from Carleton’s own official policy declaring student freedoms to speak and demonstrate peacefully.
"It's very easy for young people to compromise and [the Lifeline students] just haven't. They will not compromise."
A guard interrupted. The protest was over, he said. Lifeline needed to go. Ruth said no.
“Okay,” the guard said, signaling the other officers. “You can take this lady first.”
Five students were arrested. The charge was trespassing … on their own campus walkways.
“A scary feeling,” Nicholas acknowledges, but “a few in the crowd spoke up for us, including one of the professors, who went to the head of security, asked what he was doing, and said, ‘How can you be arresting them for merely stating and showing what their point of view is?’
“Part of confronting people and exposing injustice is taking the persecution that will inevitably result,” Nicholas says. “From Martin Luther King to William Wilberforce, no one was able to end an injustice without accepting the persecution that came from that.”
“Standing there with handcuffs on, there’s nothing you can do,” James says. “Nothing I can say that would change it. It’s a little frightening, because you never know what is going to happen. What are they going to charge us with? What’s going to happen with my university degree?
“But, at the same time,” he says, “I felt that that was the right thing to do. It was the right way to go about it. A lot of anxiety, but – at the end of the day – a lot of peace.”
Reactions to the arrest were immediate and varied.
“We received a lot of support from all across Canada, the U.S., and internationally,” Ruth says. “However, we do have our detractors – [people] who would prefer that we didn’t do such radical things to prove a point. That has been personally very difficult for me to deal with: close friends who simply don’t understand, or seek to understand, why we felt we had to do what we did.”
“[They] would prefer that we don’t hurt anybody’s feelings in our projects, or that we kind of toe the line and do things ‘nicely.’ [But] abortion is not something we should be comfortable with,” Ruth says. “Right now, even members of the church are comfortable with abortion and very passive in fighting it. In Lifeline, we feel convicted that sometimes we have to do hard things … and ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ are not synonymous with ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’”
“They’ve suffered a severe price,” Polizogopoulos says. “They’ve been ostracized on campus. They’ve been ostracized among their friends, families, and communities. They’ve obviously taken on a lot of stress associated with these disputes. They have done it with courage, with eloquence, holding their head up high. They are very impressive to me.”
“Young people are often very concerned about their futures, their images, and their reputations, and rightfully so,” he says. “You’re training for whatever job you’re going to do … making the friends that you’re going to have for the rest of your life. It’s very easy to compromise – and [the Lifeline students] just haven’t. They will not compromise. I find that very admirable.”
So did Kelsey Graham. Like the rest of the Lifeliners, she came to her pro-life convictions by her own unique route. As a young child, she watched a teenage sister who’d become pregnant out of wedlock make the difficult decision to keep her child, rather than put it up for adoption.
“Just watching her as a parent, I really took from that how sacred life is,” Kelsey says. She started at Carleton in 2010 and soon heard of Lifeline. After the arrests, she sought out Ruth to ask what she could do to help. Ruth invited Kelsey to join her for an upcoming “Choice Chain” event – standing with other Lifeliners, holding up large photos of aborted babies and asking anyone who might approach for their thoughts on the images, and on abortion. Kelsey agreed.
“It was very peaceful, and we had some really very profound conversations with students about abortion,” Ruth says. “We talked to more students that day than in the five years I’ve been at Carleton.” Loud protests from several campus women’s groups only sealed her determination.
“We need a pro-life presence,” she says. “Lots of women on campus have had abortions [and] never talked about it. Their emotions continue to be pressed down by the administration and by the women they are seeking help from. These projects bring dialogue to the table.”
"We've had some really beautiful conversations with people who have jumped into their faith and joined the church again because of work in the pro-life movement."
The fallout from those eventful autumn days continued in the weeks that followed. Lifeline met with Carleton administrators, who – like their counterparts on campuses all over America – made it clear that the usual rules regarding student clubs and free expression did not apply to pro-life organizations. They threatened to restrict Lifeline members to “speech zones” and warned of further arrests if the members so much as struck up a conversation with other students on abortion or handed out printed materials.
In January of last year, Ruth and Polizogopoulos attended the national conference of Students for Life of America, where Ruth was surprised with an award as International Pro-Life Activist of the Year. While there, she met an Alliance Defense Fund attorney, who offered the ministry’s assistance and encouraged Lifeline to sue Carleton. A month later, the club’s members did just that. The case is currently awaiting a hearing before a divisional court in Ontario.
“These pro-life groups are putting forth their position on abortion,” Polizogopoulos says, “and people who don’t agree with them don’t want to debate them or discuss the issue with them, but essentially want to shut them right down.”
By doing that, he says, “the university risks becoming a center of indoctrination as opposed to a center of education.” ADF, he says, has been a great help in challenging that university mindset.
“ADF has been absolutely integral to our fight at Carleton,” Nicholas says. “Without them, we’d be unable to fight for the freedoms of students, and have that representation to educate students.”
Beyond the legal realm, Lifeline’s efforts have reverberated in remarkable ways.
“We’ve had a lot of little victories,” says Kelsey, who’s led Lifeline since Ruth graduated last May. “People walking away, questioning whether they really are ‘pro-choice.’ We’ve had some beautiful conversations with people who’ve jumped into their faith and joined the church again because of work in the pro-life movement.”
At another Lifeline event, a woman who’d already scheduled an abortion saw the “disturbing photos” – and ended up keeping her baby. A friend of Ruth’s, who had also been active in pro-life activities, became angry over Ruth’s part in the GAP arrests, writing to other pro-life leaders to denounce Ruth as an impediment to the cause. Ruth sought her out, and discovered that her friend had drifted from her former convictions.
Now, “she’s made a complete turnaround,” Ruth says. “She’s come back to the faith completely. When I saw that, I said, ‘Lord, this was Your will.’ People are going to come back to the faith through seeing the conviction of students … through talking about these hard issues in their life.”
“Some of us take the route to share our faith,” James says, while others choose “to confront the culture on what is happening.” But to Nicholas, who found salvation through the witness of pro-life activists, the line between activism and evangelism is as fuzzy as an ultrasound.
“When you sacrifice yourself for someone else – which is what pro-life work is,” he says, “that’s when you truly meet the face of God.”