Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

First Person: Why I am a pro-life atheist

Rob 1A new series in which contributors discuss what being pro-life means to them. Our first piece is by Robert Stagg, a PhD student in English at the University of Southampton.

A couple of weeks after I agreed to write this blogpost, a friend handed me a book she had published: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. The book sat at the bottom of a pile for another couple of weeks, and I cast a suspicious glance at it every night before going to bed. Everything about the title seemed wrong. What’s the difference between a man and a “grown” man, or is the adjective only there as a sentimental intensifier? And the title’s “that make” was presumptuous to the point of seeming imperative, insisting upon the book’s efficacy even before I’d opened it. This is all to ignore the most obvious objection to the book: the idea that men shouldn’t or don’t cry (an objection which, unlike the others, is at least addressed by the anthology’s editors).

Realising that these poor relations with an inanimate object could only continue at the expense of my sanity, I decided to pick up the book. I started to read and didn’t stop until I reached a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (selected by Terrance Hayes) titled ‘The Mother’ (1945).

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?–
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

At this point, I (a grown man) cried uncontrollably for at least five minutes.

Why? The poem had, as poems often do, lent force to a question that had been bothering me for a few years: if scientists can’t draw a clear line between a foetus and a human being, is our culture then killing human beings? There is no scientific answer to the question as to when a so-called foetus becomes a so-called human being, and this ought to cause severe and sincere distress among those who otherwise appreciate science. Philosophers have tried stepping into the breach, but with surprisingly undeft footing. First there have been attempts to locate the humanity of an organism in its consciousness, a typically brainy move for a brainy philosopher to make. Yet kindred philosophers are finding consciousness itself puzzling, and scientists are still unable to locate the presence or node or origin of consciousness in the body. More recently, philosophers have attempted to distinguish between ‘human beings’ and ‘people’ or ‘persons’; but, again, these debates tend to circle back upon consciousness.

I cannot think of any other area of science or public policy that is so incautiously policed as that around abortion. Given the radical and fundamental uncertainties about the division – or, rather, the current lack of a division – between foetuses and human beings, it seems wildly dangerous to permit a process like abortion to continue in its present form.

You will notice that I have not yet used the words ‘soul’ or ‘ensoulment’, often and erroneously seen as crucial to the abortion debate. That is because I am not religious, and nor do I share some of the larger philosophical convictions about life which motivate much of the pro-life movement. Instead my argument makes reference to science – without paying it, or its practitioners, obeisance – and to ethics. It appeals to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and her heartbreaking perceptions of potentiality (delivered via pun, of all things): “You remember the children you got that you did not get”.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Nor have I yielded to the mis- and distrust of women that can animate sections of the abortion debate. Brooks’s poem is delicate and sympathetic on this point, gliding between a detached (but not disinterested) narrative voice and the first-person dramatic monologue of a mother who has had more than one abortion. The poem ends with the insistent iterations of a woman who is unable to evade her own evasiveness: “Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All”. This reader, at least, inclines to believe her.

I have argued with fellow atheists and agnostics about abortion in two ways. One: by setting out the critical gaps in scientific knowledge about abortion, and the inability of philosophers to fill or bridge those gaps. Two: by reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem. The first provokes the irrational outrage of those whose rationality has been challenged. The second provokes silence and, often, tears. Sometimes I should like to think that those reactions could be reversed; but only sometimes.

A good day for student parents (updated)

Update: the motion passed unanimously at today’s second reading, without a single objection. Oxford University will have a Student Parents and Carers Officer! 

Oxford could do so much more to help student parents – and something really important is being proposed today at OUSU Council which would be a big step in the right direction. The plan is to create a Student Parents and Carers Officer – a part-time position with responsibility for helping parents and carers meet the particular challenges they face in university life. The motion is below. We’re hoping it will pass without any difficulty; still, it might be worth coming along to St John’s auditorium at 5.30 to support and vote for the motion. The details of the position are still be worked out, but this could be a significant step towards making Oxford a fairer place for all.

Introduction of a Student Parent and Carers Officer

Council Notes:

  1. There are at least 200 student members [a conservative estimate] who are student parents or carers.
  2. The current responsibility for student parents and carers lies with the Vice-President (Women).
  1. The NUS has put out two reports on student parents and carers, Meet the Parents (2009) and Learning with Care (2012), which make a number of recommendations for Universities and Student Unions.
  2. Many other Student Unions have representative positions for student parents and carers.

Council Believes:

  1. Student parents and carers face particular and specific challenges, including but not limited to sourcing and funding childcare and integrating into student communities.
  2. The challenges that student parents and carers face are important, and the fact that OUSU is working to address them should not depend on the year-to-year priorities of the Vice-President (Women).
  1. It is inappropriate that no student parents and carers who are not women are currently able to run for the position that has responsibility for working for student parents and carers.
  1. OUSU should take steps to address some of the recommendations made in Meet the Parents and Learning with Care, including but not limited to: ‘Students’ unions and institutions should work together to enable student carers to participate in student life to as great an extent as they wish.’ (Learning with Care) ‘Students’ unions should consider the ways in which student parents’ interests can be represented through their democratic systems, given the restraints on their time.’ (Meet the Parents)
  2. Introducing a new Part Time Officer role, the Student Parents and Carers Officer, would solve the problems discussed in Believes 2. and 3. and would increase OUSU’s ability to tackle the challenges discussed in Believes 1. and the recommendations discussed in Believes 4.

    Council Resolves:

    1. To introduce a new Part Time Officer role, the Student Parents and Carers Officer, by making the following alterations to the General regulations […]
    2. To note and accept the proposed remit for this role (Appendix 1).
    1. To mandate the Vice-Presidents (Women) and (Graduates) to work closely with the new Student Parents and Carers Officer to refine the remit of the role, anticipating that this role may require more support than others, and report to Council on this progress in Trinity Term 2015.

      […]

      Appendix 1

      Officer Remit: Student Parents and Carers Officer

      To represent the interests of student parents and students with other caring responsibilities to the OUSU Executive and University, particularly working with the Mature Students Officer and the Graduate Women’s Officer.

      Lobby for the interests of student parents and students with other caring responsibilities in all areas of the student experience including (but not limited to) access, academic affairs and welfare.

      Liaise with the University Childcare Services Department and Equality and Diversity Unit on a regular basis.

Here are the speeches Tuesday’s audience would have heard

Perhaps the most articulate and powerful attack on Oxford Students for Life so far has arrived – from a certain Brendan O’Neill in Spiked. Brendan has published his planned speech, which he never delivered because of the protests. It contains some eloquent attacks on the wording of the motion (‘incredibly dehumanising’), the premise of the debate (built on ‘the politics of fear’), and the pro-life movement in general. It is a pleasure to read, even if you happen to be on the receiving end of it.

Just to clarify, then: some pro-choice protesters who wanted to denounce OSFL’s motion managed to silence a pro-choice speaker who was going to come and denounce OSFL’s motion. Funny old world.

Tim Stanley’s speech is also up at the Catholic Herald: he talks about how he became pro-life, and about society’s habit of silence over abortion. He talks with some urgency about the relevance of abortion to other issues – to discrimination against women, the disabled and the elderly. It’s a bold, imaginative speech with some arresting facts.

Give both the speeches a read. They will remind you why the conversation about abortion matters so much, and why society needs to address it – openly, fairly, and with intellectual integrity.

Our debate was censored this week. Here’s our side of the story

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We didn’t ask to be in the middle of a free speech controversy. But free speech does matter, and we’d like to set out why we think Tuesday’s planned debate – between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill  on ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’ – should have gone ahead.

While we have hosted two all-women panel debates over the past year, this motion was about the wider social questions raised by abortion, and Tim and Brendan were invited as well-known commentators who have something to contribute to the discussion. But last weekend, a Facebook page was set up by OxrevFems denouncing us for our choice of two male speakers and threatening to sabotage the event by using ‘oh so disruptive instruments’.

In one exchange on the page, a student of Christ Church – where the debate was to be held – asked a campaigner from Abortion Rights for ‘help drafting [a] motion for this evening to cancel the event’. The campaigner replied: ‘I’d say the best grounds to try and get it removed is safety cos no doubt they’ll be saying a lot of horrendous stuff.’ (The page is no longer visible on Facebook.)

That evening, two of our committee members went in front of a standing-room-only Christ Church JCR meeting to answer ‘short factual questions’ about our event: related, we were told, to safety issues. But there were tough questions for the motion’s proposers too. Several JCR members were asking: was this an ideological attack on free speech under the guise of ‘safety’?

Meanwhile, the OUSU Women’s Campaign took a stand: in a statement signed by the WomCam Committee, they ‘condemn[ed]’ OSFL, called for an apology from us for hosting the event and asked us to cancel it. In case we didn’t, they added: ‘We also support those within Christ Church who are working to stop the event going ahead. However, if it does, we encourage everyone who can to go along to the disruptive protest.’ (The statement is no longer visible on Facebook.)

It would be interesting to know how OUSU – who represent all students – feel about OUSU Women’s Campaign participating in censorship. In any case, WomCam got what they wanted: Christ Church decided not to host our event on security grounds. Though we put out a public call and contacted other colleges, we were unable to secure an alternative venue.

So, what does hosting an all-male debate say about Oxford Students For Life? Maybe less than you think. Our last three Presidents, and most of the officers on recent committees, have been women; so were both our previous speakers this term – Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on assisted suicide, and Michaela Aston on being ‘Pro-Woman and Pro-Life’. Both speakers at our last debate had had terminations.

Unquestionably, abortion affects women more than men. But the issue isn’t that simple, because a culture in which abortion is practised commonly and legally – an abortion culture – has implications for everyone. For that reason, it is debated all the time in classrooms, in academic seminars, in the media, and in Parliament, where earlier this month MPs voted to condemn sex-selective abortion. However, UK Abortion Law still discriminates against the unborn when they have disabilities, which has included Down Syndrome and cleft palate: they can be aborted up to birth, unlike the able-bodied, for whom the limit is 24 weeks. These are issues – about equality, disability, and respect for life – which go beyond the private sphere into the question of what kind of society we want to live in.

We would like a society which respects unborn life, male and female, able-bodied and disabled, and which provides adequate support for young mothers and women in crisis pregnancies. As well as engaging in debate, OSFL is committed to supporting women in the often incredibly difficult circumstances of pregnancy: for instance, we’re holding a fundraiser later this month to help young mothers in vulnerable situations. We applaud the brilliant initiatives for student parents put forward by WomCam officers, including the planned appointment of a Student Parents and Carers Officer, which will help to make this University a more welcoming place for a group often forgotten and marginalised.

Having said that, we don’t agree with WomCam about everything. We believe that the unborn have the same right to life as the rest of us, and that women are badly served by a society which doesn’t offer a better choice than abortion. (A point made long ago by Mary Wollstonecraft.) So we’ve invited WomCam to co-host a debate on abortion next term. At the time of writing we’re waiting to hear back, but we’re hopeful that a healthy dialogue can take place.

It’s remarkable how much you can learn from people who don’t share your views, and university is the best chance most of us will get to do that. So here’s our response to our critics. If our arguments are weak, argue with us. If our motives are bad, expose them. If our events annoy you, come along and engage in discussion. But, we suggest, don’t try to shut down debate. Don’t be ‘oh so disruptive’. Because if you go down that route, people will start asking: What exactly is so frightening to you about free speech?

This is the question facing all those who took part in the censorship campaign. The story has gone round the world – it is already the lead item in this week’s Spectator, and has been covered in places as august as The Washington Post and as far away as The Philippine Times – because people are shocked. They think Oxford is better than this. Call us optimists, but we’re pretty confident they’re right.

The OSFL Committee

 

Five questions our opponents have to answer

1. The Christ Church JCR motion against our event was supposed to be purely on safety grounds. But was it ideological? An Abortion Rights campaigner advised on Facebook: ‘I’d say the best grounds to try and get it removed is safety cos no doubt they’ll be saying a lot of horrendous stuff.’

2. What was the evidence for the claim – also in the motion – that ‘OSFL has, in the past, given out materials at the Freshers’ fair which, when opened, contained graphic images with no warning’? We absolutely deny this. Will the motion’s proposers withdraw the statement and issue an apology?

3. Were the organisers of the protest event breaking the law? According to the barrister Neil Addison, they could potentially be investigated by the police for conspiracy to harass. Will the organisers identify themselves and explain themselves?

4. Why have WomCam deleted the following statement from their Facebook page?

We also support those within Christ Church who are working to stop the event going ahead. However, if it does, we encourage everyone who can to go along to the disruptive protest.

Is it official WomCam policy to deny free expression? Does OUSU, which WomCam is part of, endorse this?

5. Would WomCam like to co-host a debate on abortion next term? We made this offer on Sunday evening and it stands open. We mean it: it’s to the credit of a University that we can debate those who strongly disagree with us.

Statement on Debate Cancellation

We are sorry to announce that, after a day of hard work, we haven’t found a venue for the debate. We only expected to have the same rights of expression as any other Oxford student society, and we’re disappointed that scare tactics proved successful.

We’re grateful to Tim and Brendan for their patience. We’re also grateful for the many messages of support from those on both sides of the issue. Several pro-choicers have said that we should have been able to hold this debate, including Ann Furedi, who personally expressed her solidarity with OSFL.

Our society exists to defend the rights of the most vulnerable, including the unborn, elderly, and disabled. We think it is essential that Oxford University allows an open debate on these issues. We’re confident that most Oxford students would prefer free speech to censorship, and we look forward to continuing this hugely important conversation.

Our Statement Following Today’s Developments…

The debate will be going ahead, but not at Christ Church tomorrow because of security issues due to the planned protest.
We are heartened by the support throughout the University for our right to free expression. Sadly, there are some extreme voices who don’t believe that Oxford should welcome open debate. We will continue to campaign and to encourage an amicable conversation on life issues. We’d like to reiterate our offer to WomCam to co-host a debate next term.

Also, we are looking for an alternate venue to host our debate. We have until four o’clock tomorrow to arrange an alternate venue, otherwise our event will have to be postponed. Please join our new Facebook Event and spread the word!

An open invitation to the Women’s Campaign

There has been some controversy about tomorrow’s debate. The Women’s Campaign have asked us to cancel the debate and issue an apology.

Here’s the statement we released to the press:

Free speech is a vital principle of a democratic society, and at a university of all places it should be protected. We’re very happy to discuss people’s concerns about the event, but it would be a shame if open debate was shut down.

While we recognise that this is an issue which affects women especially – and partly for that reason we have hosted two all-women panel debates in the last year – Tim and Brendan are two well-known commentators coming to talk about an issue which has an impact on the whole of British society.

As a sign of our commitment to dialogue on this challenging issue, we’d like to invite WomCam to co-host a debate next term.

Protecting the vulnerable: a report on Tanni Grey-Thompson’s talk

“Excuse me, are you Tanni Grey-Thompson?” She’d been off the train two minutes when a woman stopped us on the station platform and, with the kind of fluster you reserve for meeting your heroes, explained that Grey-Thompson had long been an inspiration. Her reputation having gone before her, the talk on Tuesday was well-attended by an audience with mixed views on the Falconer Bill for the legalisation of assisted suicide, which began its Committee Stage in the House of Lords last Friday.

Grey-Thompson is known in Parliament for her work on disabled rights, welfare reform and campaigning for women in sports. It is the issue of assisted suicide that has prompted the biggest reaction she’s seen as a peer, though. “We’ve had more mail on this than on anything else, ever.” She says, incredulous, that normally people write to her asking for social care, help, housing. Now they write asking for the right to die. It’s too drastic a solution, she argues. “We don’t have a perfect system. We need to talk about palliative care in this country, about hospices, about social support,” before we make death the answer.

The first issue she addressed was the polarised presentation the issue often receives in the media. Grey-Thompson highlighted the real complexity of the issue and her concerns about the potential for confusion created by the manipulation of language. Talking about ‘medicine’ for a procedure that kills; the use of ‘assisted dying’ over ‘physician assisted suicide’ to convey the idea of a passive ‘slipping away’, rather than the less palatable recognition that this is involving a doctor in someone’s death. Nor is the simple dichotomy sometimes presented, between supporting assisted suicide and wanting people to suffer, one that makes sense in Grey-Thompson’s eyes. “I’ve never met someone opposed to assisted suicide who wants people to be in pain.” She worries that those behind the Bill expect it to be passed on principle (the very good principle of limiting suffering), planning to “deal with the sticky bits” afterwards. We need to ask practical questions about assisted suicide now, she urges: “who, when, what and how”.

Tanni arrivals 2

The audience arrives at the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre

The Bill endangers the lives of the vulnerable, Grey-Thompson argues. Research carried out by Scope reports that 70% of disabled people are concerned about pressure being put on people to end their lives should this bill pass. It is the same Mary Warnock, Grey-Thompson’s childhood hero for her defense of the right to mainstream education of those with special needs, who suggests that those suffering from illness or disabilities may have a ‘duty to die’ for the sake of society. Where hospice care is a postcode lottery and beds in NHS hospitals may be scarce and expensive, it’s not difficult to imagine this kind of philosophy becoming normalised were assisted suicide to be made legal. One of Grey-Thompson correspondents contacted her recently to say that her local authority have taken all her support away, leaving her with the option of going into a care home at the age of 43. ‘I might as well die,’ she wrote.

The Bill’s safeguards are inadequate and unclear. Grey-Thompson thinks the six-month life expectancy condition an arbitrary limit, and worries that many disabled people would fit into that category. There is a lot of detail missing, particularly about the role of the doctor in the procedure – the conscience clause, for example, is unclear. In Oregon, the model for Falconer’s proposals, the GP must have known the patient for 12 weeks, a period Grey-Thompson thinks too short. The ‘cooling-off period’ once the decision is taken would be of just 14 days. Most disturbing is the prospect of such a fundamental change in the doctor-patient relationship, which would leave the system open to abuse. Doctors make very difficult decisions concerning the end of life all the time, Tanni points out, but such a change in the end they aim at is “moving the goalposts” too dramatically. Once it is legitimate for a doctor to participate in someone’s death, the opportunity is there for subtle pressure: an expectation could be quietly established that someone will choose assisted suicide, based perhaps on a subjective judgement of their ‘quality of life’. And on top of this, if the Bill gets through, she’s worried about the floodgates opening to more radical options. In Belgium and the Netherlands, where even children can be euthanised, the number of people opting to die in this manner is soaring.

Tanni talking

Her speech was peppered with poignant anecdotes from her own experience, and from that of those who write to her. We heard about the disturbing reaction of a doctor when she fell pregnant, who gave his opinion that “People like you shouldn’t have children.” Grey-Thompson’s response was characteristically tongue-in-cheek: “What, people from Wales?” She’s got thick skin – she’s needed it. Despite – perhaps in the face of – letters that say things like “I hope your daughter dies a long and painful death”, Tanni’s resolve to oppose the Bill has only been strengthened. The key positive step she proposes is the scrutiny of palliative care, hospices and social support networks. She pointed out the absurdity of spending huge amounts of money on preventing suicide, whilst at the same time funding plans help people do so with more ease. Grey-Thompson thinks it unlikely that the Bill will make much headway this year: the Commons won’t want to touch such an issue just prior to a general election. The reports from the Committee stage will hopefully clarify some of the grey areas the current draft Bill skirts around, but we can’t hope for assisted suicide to be made ‘safe’: giving doctors the power – and the responsibility – to help kill their patients is ground too dangerous on which to legislate.

(Amy Owens)

 

PREVIEW: What’s wrong with assisted suicide? Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson this Tuesday at 7.30pm

The Falconer Bill, an attempt to legalize assisted dying in this country, is currently going through Parliament. A second reading was held in the Lords back in July and the next step is the Committee Stage, beginning on the 7th November, when a detailed line-by-line examination of the Bill will be carried out and votes taken on any amendments.

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When the Bill was read in the Lords for the second time it was hotly debated, with around 113 members speaking, each giving three or four minute speeches. A group of peers strongly opposing the Bill agreed to vote it through to the Committee Stage so that it would be properly reviewed and dissected there in detail.

Opposition to the Bill has been strong and wide-ranging, including from many of the major societies representing doctors in the UK. The medical profession sees its primary function as one of healing and so assisting suicide threatens the integrity of that profession. The Royal College of Physicians have said: “Assisting suicide has been clearly and expressly outside our duty of care since Hippocrates and must remain so for the integrity of these professions and the public good.” Some have voiced fears about the criteria required to be eligible for assisted suicide expressed in the Bill. For example the patient must have a terminal prognosis of six months or less. A terminal prognosis of that sort however is extremely unreliable. The Royal College of GPs have said that when estimates are made for people living a matter of months the “scope for error can extend into years”.

 tanni-grey-thompson-489203.jpg

The criteria provided also fails to state guidelines on how to assess whether or not this criteria has been met. It is this failure that has led many to believe that the Bill poses a serious threat to the vulnerable members of society. Among them is Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who as a result recently described the Bill as “not really fit for purpose”.

Baroness Tanni is a cross-bench peer and an 11-times Paralympic Gold medalist. She is a prominent campaigner for disabled rights and has been one of the most vocal critics of the Falconer Bill. Her primary concern is that if the Bill is introduced, disabled people “will be pressurized into ending their life”, which will be a decision “they’ve been pushed into rather that one they’ve taken themselves”. She recently described it as a “chilling prospect for disabled people”. From her work with disabled people, campaigning for them and as a wheelchair user herself having been born with spina bifida, Tanni is acutely aware of why this Bill poses such a serious threat to the welfare and security of the most vulnerable members of our society. Her talk promises to be very interesting, so do come along to find out more this Tuesday evening at 7.30 at the Blue Boar lecture theatre, Christ Church.

The facebook event can be found here.

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