11 October 2021

Attacks on anti-abortion students reveal the chilling mentality in universities

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Nothing worthwhile has ever come out of a freshers’ fair. A moment’s hesitation by a stall can lead the hapless student to be dragooned into societies in which he has no interest or desire to participate. I spent my three years at Oxford being dogged daily with desperate e-mails from bizarre organisations I had accidentally given my details to, like the tiddlywinks group, Doctor Who society, and the Labour Club. Still, the free pens proved quite useful. 

One society that I didn’t sign up to was Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), an anti-abortion group. They were probably there, but their pens must not have been sufficiently natty for me to have noticed. It is not a group with which I have a natural affinity. Not being a woman, a Catholic, or a writer for The New York Times, the abortion debate usually passes me by. My views are pretty mainstream: that it’s a regrettable necessity in some cases but should never be treated as just another form of contraception. That others take different views has never bothered me – though it is rather irritating when the BBC treats the latest US court case on the issue as national news. 

But if you had wanted to visit the OSFL’s stall at this week’s Oxford freshers’ fair, you would have been severely disappointed. A group of students forcibly removed the stall from the fair and placed its contents in a black bin. When security stopped them, they refused to leave until they were assured the stall would not be reinstated, and claimed that if it was put back up, it would simply be taken down again.  

The Student Union’s Women* Campaign commented afterwards that though they ‘understand the importance of free speech… abortion is a human right, and we are concerned that a student society whose ideology revolves around the removal of reproductive freedoms was allowed to promote such views at an SU event’. The Oxford Feminist Society – also at the fair – put out a statement taking ‘a firm stance against the pro-life organisation being promoted at the SU’s Fresher’s Fair’. In short, all societies have an equal right to be at the fair – but not those that the budding Germaine Greers disagree with. 

This comes the same week that a petition garnered over 7,600 signatures calling for a pro-life society at the University of Exeter to be shut down for peddling ‘hate speech’. Members of the society received threats on social media including ‘If only your mum considered abortion’, and ‘fave place in Exeter gonna be the bottom of the quay if u int careful’. As well as being a damning indictment of the levels of literacy at Devon’s premier university, it is a chilling attack on the free speech of students.

Those pro-abortion students attacking their pro-life counterparts see the world in a terrifyingly Manichean way. Oxford’s Feminist Society accused OSFL of peddling an ideology that is ‘a threat to the safety, health and autonomy of women’. But the women made to feel unsafe in these cases were those who had their stall ripped up by protestors, or who received those hideous threats on social media. The head of OSFL describes herself as a feminist too. The idea that she is running the society as part of a coordinated campaign to make women unsafe is ludicrous.

The real idealogues in these two cases are those seeking to have the societies barred. The opponents of the pro-life societies have raised the supposed virtue of their cause above the fundamentals of civilised debate. An unwillingness to let a spectrum of views on controversial issues exist at universities is more worrying than any stall at a fair.

The Government’s current Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has provisions to prevent student unions from barring groups or individuals from speaking on political grounds. But these incidents suggest there’s a mentality at universities that runs far deeper than virtue-signalling student politics. It goes further than a student union declaring their campus a nuclear-free zone or using their Twitter feed to call for a Palestinian state. It is an outlook that no piece of legislation can shift.  

OSFL and their counterparts at the University of Exeter may not command overwhelming public support, but their views do chime with a small but significant minority. The latest polling from YouGov suggests that about 16% of 18-24 year olds support reducing the time limit at which women can have abortions. Remember, the UK limit of 24 weeks is already twice that of most European countries.

Many people will disagree vehemently with that position, of course. But it’s an argument that deserves to be aired in a civilised way, not shut down by zealous students who think they are on the side of the righteous. If universities are to be centres for free debate and the sharing of ideas, then organisations like OSFL deserve their place – whatever the quality of their pens.

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William Atkinson is a recent graduate and freelance writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.