Tuesday 1st May – 7.30pm – Ferrar Room (Hertford College) If you’re concerned about the issue of abortion, or would like to know more about the debate, then Students for Life Oxford would love to hear from you. We aim to raise awareness within the student body regarding topical issues related to the protection of life, by facilitating discussion on contemporary developments and social questions, and to take practical action by participating in local and national campaigns. We are a pro-life organisation with no religious affiliation, in favour of resisting attempts to legalise euthanasia, and of reducing the frequency of abortion within the United Kingdom.Whether you’d like to take part in the philosophical, legal and scientific debate (both in the public forum or just down the pub with us), or want to know about ways you can get involved with our work; from volunteering to help with the provision of support for women during and after pregnancy to joining a national campaign.Come along to the meeting to find out more! We’ll be discussing primarily the narrow approach of OUSU to the issue, given its affiliation to the controversial organisation Abortion Rights. Even if pro-life activism isn’t particularly your cup of tea, if you feel that the explicit support of a group that wishes to establish the provision of abortion up to birth, on demand, by a body that seeks to represent a diverse student population, is not something you are comfortable with, please join us on Tuesday of 2nd Week.
Yay. People trying to restrict women's reproductive rights. In my college. The item in the bulletin is decorated with words such as 'discussion' and 'debate', but it doesn't really look as if this will not be an open forum in which to discuss both sides of the argument regarding a woman's right to abortion. They present Abortion Rights as a “controversial” organisation, and suggest OUSU takes a “narrow approach” to the issue of abortion by being affiliated with it. Abortion Rights has the support of the NUS as well as the TUC. I also find their claim that Abortion Rights advocate extending the time limit for access to legal abortion from the current 24 weeks “up to birth” dubious at best, and I've written to Abortion Rights asking them to clarify their position on this.
Abortion Rights is clear on its website in what they aim to do:
Oppose any restrictions in women’s current rights and access to abortion.
Improve the current UK abortion law for women, to make abortion available on the request of the woman.
Improve women’s access to, and experience of , abortion – ensure all women in the UK have equal access to safe, legal, and free abortion.
So they're pretty unambiguous in their aims. Yes, they want to extend access to abortion, but there isn't any mention of extending the time limit. But you know, let's not let the truth get in the way of a good story or anything. Googling 'Students for Life Oxford' yielded no results, but if they're anything to do with the American Students for Life, then we are in problem territory.
I shared my concerns with the JCR (via our Facebook group) and a charge repeatedly levied against me was that I was trying to curtail this group's right to freedom of speech, just because I disagree with them. So I had a read of the university's freedom of speech guidelines and there's a few interesting points.
10. The Proctors will not seek to curtail or cancel a meeting or event unless in their considered opinion the meeting or event infringes on the legitimate rights and freedoms of others or poses a significant risk to health and safety or there is some other substantial and lawful ground for the curtailment or cancellation. The Proctors will consult as necessary with the Vice-Chancellor, or in his absence the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education, Academic Services and University Collections), and where necessary with the University Marshal and police about forthcoming meetings and events covered by the Code. In any case where serious disruption may be anticipated which may not be effectively addressed by any condition specified under paragraph 9 above, the Proctors shall have power, having taken into consideration any advice received from the Marshal and/or police, to order or to advise the cancellation, postponement, or relocation of the meeting.
14. It is the duty of every member, student, and employee of the University not to impede any person entitled to be present from entering or leaving a place where the right to freedom of speech is being or is to be exercised. This duty is subject only to such conditions as may have been specified in accordance with the terms of this Policy or any limitations imposed or directions given by the police or other relevant public authority.
Which seems to suggest that I should maybe just shut up and let them have their meeting, but also that I'm allowed to go there, wearing a t-shirt with that photo of Gerri Santoro printed on it, and a few printouts of this news article pointing out that "a comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not".
I suppose at this point I need to acknowledge the parallel between me being annoyed about this and the similar backlash surrounding Exeter College's recent decision to host the Christian Concern spring conference. One graduate decided to return his degree, which I reckon was a bit of a show-offy gesture but it garnered him enough attention that The Guardian asked him to write this article, from which I will quote the following:
I realise I'm going a bit quote-heavy but here's what another Hertford undergraduate (a certain Adam Tyndall) had to say on the subject:
To say, as some have, that the conference should go ahead on grounds of free speech is erroneous. This is not a debate in the Oxford Union, nor is it an academic conference in which the views of Christian Concern will be debated alongside opposing views from both within and outside the church, with repudiation from psychiatric bodies and academics. This is a private conference, hiring space, making full use of their prestigious association with Oxford University but going utterly unchallenged.
I, along with many others, would defend the freedom of people to speak out in the public sphere. But this is not the public sphere – it is a private community in which the consideration of its members and the defence of their rights should be paramount. It is the difference between defending the rights of the BNP to be heard while not wishing to invite them into my living room.
1) Is this the sort of event for which Hertford wishes to provide a room?
2) Is this the sort of event which Hertford JCR wishes to go unchallenged?
A few other thoughts on the issue. This is not primarily an issue of free speech. In providing a room for the event, Hertford is choosing to support it. This is especially true given that no charge is being levied. The issue is the access to the room, not whether I disagree with what is being said in it (although an informed prediction of the latter may play a part in any decision on the former).
Secondly, "free speech" is not an absolute ideal. We curtail it in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. We ban hate speech, for example, because there are other important considerations.
Thirdly, my concern is not that the debate shouldn't happen at all but about Hertford's involvement and what it says about the college. Consider a member of Hertford JCR inviting Nick Griffin to speak to a group of students. I, for one, would object to this. My primary objection is that Hertford should remain an open and inclusive college and the presence of such a vocally racist man might make many in the college (or thinking about applying to the college) feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. There are probably current members of Hertford college who have had abortions and I would hate for them to feel as though they were part of an institution that supported an organisation who believes that they should seem themselves as a "victim".
4. In this part of the Code reference to a meeting or an event refers to meetings or other events where the nature of the meeting or event, the identity of the speaker or speakers or some other factor gives rise to reasonable concern on the part of the organisers, the Proctors or other individuals that the proposed meeting or event may be disrupted or may result in violence, disorder, harassment or any other unlawful activity.
I'm not threatening these pro-lifers with violence or harassment, but what about disruption? There's a very real chance that I might wish to correct someone if I feel they are spreading lies, like their unsubstantiated claim about Abortion Rights, and their attempts to misrepresent them as a fringe organisation that OUSU has an unusually close connection with. Would this render the meeting sufficiently 'disrupted'?
What I find particularly annoying about the freedom of speech argument is how it's being invoked by a group of people who are actively campaigning to restrict other people's freedom, and they have a room booked in my college, for free. The difference between being pro-choice and anti-choice is that pro-choice people are not actively campaigning to remove a woman's rights not to have an abortion. By all means be 'pro-life' in a personal capacity, nobody says you have to have an abortion. Just keep your hands off my uterus, okay?
By providing Students for Life with a room free of charge, Hertford is effectively sponsoring the event and making itself complicit in their activities - their American counterparts can be heard bragging about how they harass students ("I want to be in their faces about it, I want them to not have any choice but to think about it", one can be heard saying). This is not something I am willing to ignore. As it stands, Hertford does not appear to have a distinct set of guidelines regarding its policy on who can or cannot make use of its facilities - currently any college member can book out a room for free. This could do with revision.
Basically, I would be a lot happier if these pro-lifers would make alternative arrangements. I don't spend my time picketing all the various groups I disagree with, but if they're going to rock up on my doorstep and tell lies to my fellow students then I think I have something of a legitimate grievance. There is no doubt in my mind that there isn't a catholic church hall (or similar) somewhere in Oxford where they'd be greeted with open arms, and I wouldn't have to see them hanging around in the quad. Please go away. Please.