Spineless and rude

LORNE GUNTER

Talk about intellectual cowardice and appalling bad manners. Today, Ryerson University will award an honorary science doctorate to Margaret Somerville, one of Canada’s most renowned and respected academics.

Margaret Somerville

Whenever there is a major debate about medical or bio-ethics anywhere in the world, Somerville will almost certainly be summoned to explain the moral, legal, historical and cultural intricacies. Several networks around the globe call on her expertise. The United Nations, at the highest levels, consults her frequently. As founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, Somerville may well be the world’s foremost ethical authority.

But last week, Ryerson’s awards committee — which months ago enthusiastically asked whether she would accept an honorary degree — did everything it could, short of rescinding it, to sully her honour.

You see, among her many, many stands on ethical issues — abortion, cloning, reproductive choice, animal rights, euthanasia, palliative care and so on — Somerville is opposed to same-sex marriage.

Her opposition comes without guile. She has no hidden political agenda, no anti-gay or pro-Evangelical bias. It is simply the product of her careful intellectual inquiry. Indeed, across the wide range of her positions, she is as likely to rankle social conservatives and chambers of commerce as gay rights activists.

I first became aware of Somerville close to two decades ago while working for a socially conservative newsmagazine whose editors were angered by her position that abortion, while always ethically problematic, should not be criminally outlawed in the early stages of pregnancy. Some orthodox Jews have referred to her as the “new face of anti-Semitism” for arguing there are no health, legal or ethical justifications for infant male circumcision. Farmers dislike her calls for the humane treatment of food animals, while many pro-lifers strenuously object to her assertion that withdrawal of feeding tubes and water from terminal patients does not constitute euthanasia.


But many gay rights activists — despite what they like to tell themselves about their open mindedness — are among the most intolerant people in the country. Take a stand they disagree with, no matter how principled and cerebral, and their response will be to attempt to silence you.


Somerville always says what she believes upfront, without fear or favour.

But many gay rights activists — despite what they like to tell themselves about their open mindedness — are among the most intolerant people in the country. Take a stand they disagree with, no matter how principled and cerebral, and their response will be to attempt to silence you. No one is quicker to bring court challenges, file human rights complaints or boycott the employers or sponsors of anyone who refuses to adopt their line.

For nearly a month, gay activists and their supporters have done all they can to get the Ryerson awards committee to uninvite Somerville.

They have, for example, circulated online petitions likening her to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis for suggesting traditional marriage is better for children and society. Her detractors have also applied all manner of pressure — including threats of disruption at the convocation at which Somerville will be invested — to compel the school to relent.

One senses that Ryerson would have caved in fully if it thought it could get away with it. Last Wednesday, the awards committee decided to go ahead with the degree — but only because “to rescind the award would raise basic issues of freedom of speech.” Committee members, however, wanted it clearly known they no longer supported their original grant.

In a news release, they pointedly scoffed that “several things have become abundantly clear … One is that the Committee was unaware of some positions for which she has advocated in the press and before Parliament — positions that would have given Committee members serious pause before approving the award.

“There would have been no academic freedom concerns if we had initially decided not to award an honorary doctorate to Dr. Somerville,” the committee added. But, whew boy, now that we’ve stepped in the puddle, there is no cleaning our shoes without creating another mess.

How magnanimous.

Here, Margaret, you can have the degree we asked you to accept, but understand we’re now not happy about having to give it to you. We’re only doing so because we’re afraid of setting off another firestorm.

Out of fear, the university won’t do what it now believes to be the right thing, but neither will it do the gracious thing and give Somerville an untainted honour.

A double whammy — spineless and rude.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Lorne Gunter, "Spineless and rude." National Post, (Canada) June 19, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Lorne Gunter is a regular columnist with The Edmonton Journal, and frequent contributor to the National Post, National Report, and other publications.

Copyright © 2006 National Post


 

Academics turn backs on ethicist at Ryerson    NATALIE ALCOBA


A quiet but colourful display of dissent creeped into Ryerson University’s convocation ceremony yesterday as faculty donned a rainbow of Gay Pride colours to protest granting an honorary degree to an ethicist who opposes same-sex marriage.

Peter J. Thompson/ National Post
Members of Ryerson University’s faculty react as same-sex marriage opponent Margaret Somerville, left, is granted an honorary degree by university president Sheldon Levy yesterday. The decision to bestow the degree has prompted cries of protest from some gay-marriage advocates.

As many as 15 members of the academic procession turned their backs on Margaret Somerville when she received her doctorate of science at Ryerson Theatre.

Dr. Somerville said she considered the visual opposition — which included the brief raising of a “My Ryerson Honours Equal Rights” sign — part of an acceptable “discourse of mutual respect.”

But the leading legal ethicist from Montreal expressed concerns over whether the ongoing, sometimes nasty dispute over her award would generate a “chill” in university corridors and prevent academics and students from speaking freely.

Dr. Somerville is against gay marriage because she says it infringes on a child’s right to know both biological parents — far more difficult in a same-sex relationship.

Critics have labeled her “homophobic” — an allegation Dr. Somerville rejects — and tried to stop the degree in its tracks. They expressed dismay at the timing of the degree, which coincides with Toronto’s Gay Pride Week and is a prelude to the upcoming parliamentary debate on gay marriage.

Dr. Somerville and supporters say the award is about freedom of expression, a pillar of the academic community and a driving force behind her decision to ultimately accept the honour, despite receiving threatening e-mails.

“As we all know, some people are hurt by some of my views,” said Dr. Somervillle, a professor in the faculty of medicine and founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, told hundreds of graduates and families gathered for convocation. “I want to say that, although I believe that I must stand by those views, I genuinely regret the hurt that causes to them.”

In a statement released yesterday, Ryerson acknowledged that members of the public and the school community have expressed “unease and concern” about Dr. Somerville’s positions on the issue of gay marriage. Awarding an honorary doctorate is a “recognition of an individual’s distinguished achievements in a particular field” and “not an endorsement by Ryerson of that person’s activities and positions on specific social issues,” the statement read.


Dr. Somerville and supporters say the award is about freedom of expression, a pillar of the academic community and a driving force behind her decision to ultimately accept the honour, despite receiving threatening e-mails.


That is a statement that Reverend Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church, who performed Canada’s first gay-marriage ceremony and lobbied against this degree, had hoped would have been read out publicly at the convocation ceremony.

He expects there to be another push in the fall to have the degree rescinded.

Last week, the awards and ceremonies committee of Ryerson’s academic council decided it would not rescind the degree for fear it “would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment.” This, despite a declaration that “many of us disagree strongly” with Dr. Somerville’s opinions on same-sex marriage.

Colin Mooers, chair of the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson, said a diverse group of faculty expressed their opposition to the degree.

“In fact many of us are shamed and angry,” said Mr. Mooers, who was among at least a dozen faculty who chose to wear the Pride colours on yesterday’s convocation stage as a symbol of their displeasure with the university’s decision to honour someone who has campaigned “vigorously and actively” against same-sex marriage.

“We have never contested her freedom of speech,” said Mr. Mooers, but he worried that an honorary degree suggests the university has aligned itself with the recipient’s views.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Natalie Alcoba, "Academics turn backs on ethicist at Ryerson." National Post, (Canada) June 20, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Natalie Alcoba is a staff writer for the National Post.

Copyright © 2006 National Post


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