TORONTO—Canadian high school and university students plan to bring the right to life issue front and center for the 1998-99 school year.

Organized at both the university and secondary school levels, Canadian pro-life students are striving to make respect life themes more relevant among their peers.

In Ontario, Canada's largest province, student pro-life work is spear-headed by Ontario Students for Life (OSFL), a network of 16-to-20-year-olds that acts as an information resource for individuals and groups.

The group's mandate is “to proclaim, celebrate, and serve the right to life of every human person.” Members pledge themselves to this end by working to develop skills to become future leaders and promote a wider pro-life attitude that can be expressed in day-to-day activities.

Although the group is interdenominational, the majority of its 400 members attend Catholic high schools and colleges. OSFL benefits from contact with an “anchor board” of adult prolifers who offer advice and direction to the students. In addition to providing much-needed experience to young pro-lifers, the anchor board offers continuity, and alleviates the transience problems often associated with student-run organizations.

OSFL seeks to unite young pro-lifers across the province through education and action. The organization recently elected a new board of directors including president Ed Abbey, 16, of Woodstock, southwest of Toronto, and vice-president James Picard, 16, of London, Ontario.

The top priority for the new executives is organizing OSFL's fall conference. The theme for the conference is “Life is Groovy Baby!” an attempt to tap into the current retrospective trend in television, movies, and advertising. The theme also fits in with the longstanding objective of students pro-lifers to make the right to life message more “hip” for a jaded North American public.

“Students often don't want to get involved in some of these issues, so it's our job to provide them with the facts so that they can make better informed decisions,” said OSFL president Ed Abbey. He has noticed a greater openness on the part of students to become more informed about pro-life issues.

Abbey has high hopes for the upcoming conference which will feature Canadian, U.S., and international speakers. One eagerly anticipated guest is Rev. Pat Mahoney of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Rev. Mahoney, a Protestant pastor, came to the attention of the OSFL executive in June at an international youth pro-life conference in Dublin, Ireland.

“He was one of the most inspirational speakers I've ever heard and we thought he would be ideal to address Canadian pro-life students,” said OSFL treasurer Ada Wong, 20, of Toronto. Wong was also impressed with Rev. Mahoney's 10-year record of service in pro-life work.

Other speakers scheduled to attend the OSFL conference include Shari Richard of West Bloomfield, Michigan, an authority on ultrasound technology and fetal development. Richard, founder of the Sound Wave Images company, has produced two educational videos, Ultrasound: A Window to the Womb, and Eyewitness to the Earliest Days. She has appeared in more than 5,000 schools throughout the U.S. outlining the risks of abortion and the benefits of abstinence and healthy, positive sexuality.

In addition to representatives from Canada's major pro-life organizations, the 1998 OSFL conference could feature a presentation from members of Youth Defense, the Republic of Ireland's leading pro-life organization. OSFL officials are hopeful Youth Defense representatives will accept an invitation to come to Ontario for the conference.

Youth Defense has played a majorrole in keeping the abortion issue in focus as Irish citizens consider a referendum on the country's restrictive abortion law. Several elements have been at work in the predominantly Catholic nation to promote wider acceptance of abortion and contraception.

Two members of OSFL met Youth Defense counterparts during a summer speaking tour of Ireland. “We're hoping some of our members will be inspired by the example and commitment of Youth Defense,” said OSFL's Wong. “This is one of the key reasons we decided to invite them.”

Wong also revealed a major new initiative for the OSFL group. Officials hope to launch a campaign to bring the right to life message to Ontario's eighth-grade students. To date, pro-life awareness is limited primarily to secondary school students, but OSFL members are hoping their program will get the word to a younger audience. “It's still on the drawing board, but if it goes ahead, we believe the eighth grade program will result in increasing pro-life awareness earlier,” Wong said.

While OSFL promotes the right to life message in high schools, the National Campus Life Network (NCLN) faces the more daunting task of fostering a greater pro-life attitude among Canada's undergraduate community.

Young people respond best to those who speak with the same voices, who share the same experience, and who know the lay of the land.

Like the OSFL, the campus network recently elected a new executive, Shendah O'Neill of British Columbia. O'Neill, who is completing a Master's degree in child studies and education at the University of Toronto, said pro-life work at the university level has made great strides. O'Neill comes to the organization after heading up Students for Life on the campus of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

“The significance of NCLN to the Canadian university setting is yet to be recognized,” she recently told supporters. “The impact it will have on the ‘abortion generation’ is unpredictable. The communication and education we bring to our campuses is new and different from the days of equal rights. Scientific discovery and a new compassion for the individual are changing our movement.”

Officials with NCLN agree that university campuses have not always been a haven for the pro-life message.

Nonetheless they see several reasons for optimism. Chief among them is the use of the latest information technology to build new pro-life networks and share ideas and strategies. In addition to the rapid exchange of information, the Internet and e-mail help campus-based pro-life organizations overcome great geographic separation between many Canadian cities. This was one of the central themes arising at the NCLN national symposium last winter in Toronto.

Father Tom Lynch, a professor of moral theology at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto, is the only non-student member of the NCLN. Father Lynch has long advocated the use of information technology — backed by an efficient corps of dedicated volunteers — as a key ingredient in the success of any pro-life venture.

The value of pro-life networking seems to be going out across North America. A cursory check of a pro-life Internet website lists nearly 20 university-based pro-life organizations in the United States. The actual number is probably much higher, given the many organizations that have not yet found their way to the Internet.

In addition, at least two groups have started pro-life newspapers specifically aimed at high school and university students. Both are available in electronic format. In the United States, the Pro-Life America group is set to launch an educational newsletter for a mass audience. Pro-Life America director J.T. Finn of Redondo Beach, Ca., said the newspaper will promote the benefits of chastity and a healthy positive lifestyle as a counterbalance to the lure of promiscuity and casual sex. Finn hopes to distribute more than four million newspapers over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Priests for Life Canada recently distributed Facts for Life to thousands of Canadian high school students. The quarterly publication features articles and information about issues of concern to pro-life, pro-family students. The most recent issue is dedicated to clearing up misconceptions about euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Father Lynch of St. Augustine's Seminary is encouraged by the growth of student pro-life networks. “In its simplest terms, we need a youth pro-life movement if we are going to have an adult pro-life movement in the future,” he told the Register. Father Lynch said it is important for today's young people — who have grown up in ‘an abortion generation’— to be the ones bringing the respect for life ideals to their peers.

“Today's young people are aware of how deeply imbedded abortion is in our culture,” he said, “and they are enthusiastic about building a new culture based on something positive.”

Father Lynch said that in addition to bringing fresh ideas, energy and creativity to the pro-life struggle, students and young people are ideally situated to influence their classmates. “Young people often don't listen to voices coming down on them from on high,” he said. “Young people respond best to those who speak with the same voices, who share the same experience, and who know the lay of the land.”

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.