Cancellation at storied university draws attention to silencing of pro-life students.
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A university debate on whether the prevalence of abortion in modern Britain is bad for the UK has been cancelled by Oxford University authorities, following threats of disruption from feminist pro-abortion groups.
Oxford Students For Life (OSFL) had organized the debate on the motion, “This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All,” to be held in Christ Church College. The event was advertised with the blurb, “Last year in Britain, over 185,000 abortions were carried out. What does this say about our national culture? Is it a sign of equality, or does it suggest we treat human life carelessly?”
The debate, due to have taken place Tuesday in the 16th-century college’s Blue Boar lecture theater, was advertised on Facebook, where a protest group was established, with members of Oxford University Student Union’s Women’s Campaign (OUSU WomCam) writing, “We thought we should go and say hi! Bring your friends, and if want take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate.’”
The Oxford Student reports how one student, taking issue with the fact that both speakers invited to the debate were men, commented, “They will never have to directly experience an abortion and so are speaking for a group of people they do not represent. Another example of decisions about women’s bodies being outsourced to men…”
More formally, OUSU WomCam released a statement, condemning OSFL for holding the debate, which they asked to be cancelled. “It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies,” the statement said. “By only giving a platform to these men, OSFL are participating in a culture where reproductive rights are limited and policed by people who will never experience needing an abortion.”
Calling for an apology, WomCam said it supported a “disruptive protest,” if the event took place, and also supported “those within Christ Church who are working to stop the event going ahead.”
The decision to invite historian Tim Stanley and commentator Brendan O’Neill was defended by OSFL Vice-President Amy Owens, who told Aleteia, “We invited Tim and Brendan to debate as prominent social commentators who have expressed their pro-life and pro-choice views strongly in public, on a motion that called for the discussion of abortion as a social issue, rather than — directly — as an ethical or legal problem.”
Indeed, Stanley was to have begun his speech, subsequently published in the Catholic Herald, by making this very point, opening by saying he was not in Oxford to debate whether or not abortion should be legal, but the specific question of “whether or not the abortion culture harms Britain.” He defined “abortion culture” as “a culture in which abortion is used so often that it begins to look like it’s being treated as a regular form of contraception (which the numbers suggest) and in which there is a widespread view that it is a right, carries no risks and in fact represents some kind of liberation for the women for whom it is available.”
Such an “abortion culture,” he argued, “actually makes certain injustices in our society worse,” adding that “anyone who truly cares about the freedom and rights of women – and that is all of us – has to be prepared to look again at the evidence of what abortion on demand does to us,” and to be ready to consider how “silence on its effects harms certain minority groups.”
Supporting the right of men like Stanley and O’Neill to discuss the wider effects of abortion, Molly Gurdon, last year’s OSFL president, told Aleteia that, “Abortion is a women’s issue, but it’s not just a women’s issue. This is exactly what the motion of the debate was about. If you believe, as I do, that unborn children are human beings worthy of protection, it’s a human rights issue.”
“But even if this was only about women’s bodies,” she continued, “it’s absurd to suggest that only those directly involved in an issue have the right so much as to speak about it. Conflating the freedom to debate a matter and the power to decide it is a blinkered and unreasonable approach to moral discussion.”
The Christ Church Junior Common Room asked that Christ Church reconsider its willingness to host the debate, citing “mental and physical security issues,” and the college agreed, saying that, “there was insufficient time between today and tomorrow to address some concerns they had about the meeting.” OSFL attempts to find an alternative venue ultimately proved futile, and the debate was finally cancelled late on Tuesday afternoon. “We only expected to have the same rights of expression as any other Oxford student society,” OSFL said in a statement announcing the cancellation, adding, “and we’re sorry that scare tactics proved successful.”
Madeleine Teahan, associate editor of the Catholic Herald, described as “bitterly ironic” the fact that “the university that gave us Thatcher and Gladstone is surrendering to a mob mentality devoid of tolerance and critical reasoning,” while Barrister Neil Addison told the Catholic Herald that the college’s decision was “an unlawful decision under the Education No 2 Act 1986, which guarantees freedom of speech in universities.” Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, explained that the college authorities were “simply giving in to criminal intimidation.”
“If there were concerns,” he added, “then the police should have been informed to prevent intimidation of the debate.”
In their statement, OSFL thanked Stanley and O’Neil for their patience, and also said they were grateful for “many messages of support from those on both sides of the issue.” Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS – the British Pregnancy Advisory Service – Britain’s largest abortion provider, was singled out as someone who had “personally expressed her solidarity with OSFL,” saying that the society ought to have been able to hold the debate.
Peter D. Williams, executive officer of pro-life charity Right to Life and someone who has debated with Furedi, told Aleteia that, “this whole debacle has shown the fault lines in the abortion lobby between the more liberal and libertarian folk who are willing to engage in controversy openly (like Ann Furedi and Brendan O’Neill), and those on the radical and far left who are so ideologically bigoted that they cannot empathize with or understand those who disagree with them, and won’t even countenance discussion with them.”
“This latter group is of course very much over-represented in the immaturity of student politics and the unreality of academia,” he added, continuing, “Having had a talk of mine cancelled, and a debate protested, I’m aware of the anti-liberalism that animated these moves, and can only hope students who practice such politics grow out of it before they have the chance to exercise censorship in areas of public life that matter even more than student activities.”
Catholic Voices member Caroline Farrow points out that previous OSFL debates have featured high profile female abortion advocates as well as female pro-lifers like herself, such that it’s “something of a nonsense” to claim that such debates were suppressing women’s voices.
In any case, she told Aleteia, “Claiming abortion as being solely about the right of women to choose what to do with their bodies not only denies the existence of an independent life, but it also allows men to abrogate all responsibility for any children they may inadvertently have fathered.”
Unfortunately, says Tanya Murray, secretary of the national Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS), “the censorship of this debate was not an isolated incident but rather it is part of a worrying trend across UK universities where ‘no platform’ motions are increasingly used as an ‘alternative’ to free, fair and open debate.“
“Certain individuals have taken it upon themselves to police what students think and what ideas they hear,” Maria Stopyra, APS Student Support Chair and Treasurer, explained to Aleteia, “and while they do not represent the majority of students, sadly this anti free speech rhetoric is a powerful voice in the student politics of Britain.”
Writing in the Telegraph in the aftermath of the cancelled debate, Stanley observed that abortion in Britain is not merely widely available and easily accessible but is “a politically protected subject,” as demonstrated by the suppression of the debate. Arguing that new parameters are being set for freedom of speech in Britain, he said that for some, people are “free to speak so long as it doesn’t offend certain sensibilities, which of course amounts to no real freedom at all.”
“Many on the Left imitate the very authoritarian mindset of the people on the religious Right that they claim to hate,” he said, “likewise trying to safeguard their definition of freedom by eradicating contrary ideas. On the subject of abortion, the Left can enjoy that authoritarianism because contemporary society broadly agrees with them. But a day will come when they try to argue for something that proves unpopular and they, too, will be gagged.”
Recognizing that the cancellation of the debate has sparked debate in its own right, OSFL’s Amy Owens is keen to stress the silver lining. “We’re glad the debate having to be called off has drawn attention to the censorship pro-life groups face on campus,” she says, “and that there’s some dialogue about free speech and abortion going on within the same circles that organized the protest.”
Oxford’s so-called “pro-choice” students may have won this battle, but OSFL and others have grounds to hope that this victory may prove a Pyrrhic one.
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.