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Spineless and rude
Ryerson University shows how not to grant an honorary degree
Lorne Gunter
National Post

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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.

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.

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.

© National Post 2006

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