Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Month: May, 2014

How Oxford students defeated an attempt to censor us

36 hours before Wednesday’s OUSU Council meeting, we realised that our freedom of expression was under attack. The agenda for the meeting included a motion titled ‘Advertising ban on LIFE’. It included various allegations about LIFE, a charity with whom OSFL is not affiliated but who do a lot of excellent work. Then we noticed a little clause which seemed to go way, way beyond advertising regulations. It looked, at first glance, like an attack on free speech. On closer investigation, it still looked like an attack on free speech.

‘OUSU resolves

2. Never to platform any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose.’

‘Never to platform’ sounds rather like a no platform policy. ‘Stands against women’s right to choose’ is, needless to say, a euphemism for ‘defends the right to life of the unborn’. In other words, the OUSU motion, if passed, would ban us from anything involving OUSU. At Oxford, the Student Union has less authority than at other universities. Still, this was a direct threat. We started getting emails from both friends and strangers, asking if we’d seen the motion and whether anything could be done about it. We quickly prepared to oppose it. And we turned up at St John’s auditorium – committee, society members, and friends of OSFL – at 5.30 yesterday to see what could be done.

 

Platforms and promotions

After more than an hour of admin, Sarah Pine, the OUSU Vice-President (Women), proposed the motion, seconded by Alasdair Lennon, the President of St John’s JCR. But they also wanted to change the wording – the first confusion of the evening, and not the last. Sarah said she had written the motion in a hurry, and would now like to change ‘platform’ to ‘promote’. What did that mean, exactly? We tried to find out during the next section, the ‘Short factual questions’. There were quite a lot of questions, from pro-lifers and others. Would this apply to, say, religious groups who have pro-life views? No, the answer came back. How would that be written into the clause? Well – the proposers replied – it could be said that it only applied to societies which ‘stand against women’s right to choose’ as an explicit part of their identity.

Of course, that shouldn’t include OSFL. Opposing women’s right to choose is no part of our campaigning; what we campaign for is the dignity of human life at every stage. But to a certain kind of pro-choice mindset, ‘standing against women’s right to choose’ would obviously apply to OSFL. We had been singled out – which was a kind of compliment, but still unsettling. And others were unsettled on our behalf. Would this mean, someone asked, that OSFL couldn’t have a stall at Freshers’ Fair, which OUSU run? Yes, said Alasdair (who had seconded the motion): no stall at Freshers’ Fair for OSFL. Sarah, the motion’s proposer, agreed.

The barrage of questions continued, as did the close scrutiny of the wording. What, exactly, was the difference between no-platform and no-promotion? Sarah replied that platforming means presenting something, whereas promoting is presenting something with a positive spin. She then asked hesitantly: ‘Does that make sense?’ An audible murmur of ‘No’came from several different directions.


In the bud

Now Barnaby Raine, who had seconded the amendment, made a speech. No, he said, the ‘promotes’ term wouldn’t bar us from Freshers’ Fair. Sarah agreed. But a few minutes before she had said otherwise – as had Alasdair. What kind of assurance was this?

OSFL opposed the ‘promote’ wording, on the grounds that it looked amazingly similar to a no-platform motion; and it was not made any more trustworthy by the fact that the clause’s supporters couldn’t work out whether or not it meant a Freshers’ Fair ban.

It should be said that a couple of us chatted afterwards to Sarah and Alasdair and they came across as decent people whose concern for women’s welfare is genuine – just as ours is. But then democratic freedoms aren’t necessarily lost because of devious plots; they’re often lost out of apathy and sloppy thinking. And as John Adams said, ‘Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.’ With the wording under attack, the clause’s supporters tried a third version. If not ‘Never to platform’ or ‘Never to promote’, what about ‘Never to give official formal support’?

But that begged the same question, we pointed out. It could easily be argued that you give a group official formal support by giving them a table at Freshers’ Fair. All the arguments for the clause seemed to say that it didn’t really have any implications. But if that was the case, we argued, you might as well get rid of the clause.

To their credit, two OUSU officers came in on the Freshers’ Fair issue. Louis Trup, the President-Elect, supported the new wording because he thought that – unlike the original wording – it would protect us at Freshers’ Fair; Anna Bazley, the Clubs and Societies Officer, said that since we are officially registered with the University, OUSU couldn’t prevent us even if they wanted to. That was good to hear; but all the same, what if circumstances and officers change? Why bring in a form of words which singles out OSFL? Wouldn’t that leave the door open to future encroachments on free speech?

The new wording was accepted on a vote; but with these questions going unanswered, Daniel Tomlinson, OUSU’s Vice-President (Charities and Communities), put forward a new amendment: to remove Clause 2 entirely.

Daniel’s proposition speech was pithy and reasonable. We’d seen, he argued, what a range of interpretations this clause produces even between the people who proposed it; two years down the line, when none of us were in the room, who knew how it might be interpreted? We wholeheartedly supported this amendment. But the motion’s proposers didn’t like it, and Alasdair spoke against it. Then the room voted. Lots of hands went up for and against. The OUSU officials counted assiduously. Then they looked at each other and grimaced. There was a certain amount of whispering. ‘We’re going to do a recount,’ they announced. ‘Raise your voting cards high, please.’ Those of us who could vote (you need to sign up in time to get a vote at OUSU Council) raised our orange voting cards again. It was obviously close. The OUSU officials counted even more assiduously, going row by row. There was more whispering. Finally they announced the result.

The amendment was carried by 27 to 24, with 8 abstentions. The attempted censorship had failed, just.

 

Laws and clauses

It should be remarked what a credit this is to Oxford – where democratic principles are still important to so many people – and to OUSU, whose process allowed a real debate on the ‘no platform’ Clause 2. Many of those who voted to strike down Clause 2 disagree with OSFL, but they voted, admirably, for free speech anyway.

Really, there should have been two motions: the ‘no platform’ motion and the ban on LIFE. Because they were tacked together, by the time we had dispensed with Clause 2, nobody was in the mood for further debate. The ban on LIFE advertising went through. LIFE responded today with strong words: ‘We challenge OUSU to provide proper objective evidence that the counselling we provide is directive… To imply that we are an organisation which gives misleading information which can be actively harmful is slanderous. OUSU should withdraw this statement immediately.’ These and other points were briefly touched on in the debate, but there was no time left for a searching discussion.

In truth, both Clause 2 (the failed attack on free speech) and Clause 1 (the ban on LIFE advertising) reflect something bigger: that the pro-choice movement increasingly works not by addressing the big issues, but by assaulting the freedom of pro-life groups and individuals. Pro-choice groups have said very little of late about gendercide, or about the appalling disability discrimination which is fixed into UK abortion law, or about the increasing public awareness of the humanity of the unborn. (There are exceptions, such as the feminist author Naomi Wolf.) But pro-choice groups have a huge amount to say about who should be allowed to counsel pregnant and post-abortive women, who should be allowed to stand where on the pavement, who should be allowed to have a stall at Freshers’ Fair. This seems to be the general direction of pro-choice activism at the moment. Cardiff have seen it recently.

And this may turn out to be a serious mistake on the part of pro-choicers: it is usually an unwise long-term policy to swap intellectual and moral credibility for legal domination. Anyway, yesterday evening was good practice for the next time somebody tries to attack democratic freedom.

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Life Chat Recap: Abortion in Hard Cases

One of the most common arguments pro-life advocates are confronted with when debating on abortion is the “hard cases” argument. Surely, pro-choice advocates argue, abortion must be allowed in cases of rape, disability, and danger to the life of the mother. While it’s never easy to confront such tough cases, abortion is not, and can never be justified as, a compassionate or just response to a crisis pregnancy. It’s incredibly important for pro-life advocates to be able to respond to these challenges, and be well-educated both on the philosophical and the medical grounds for the pro-life position. As such, last Tuesday, members of OSFL gathered for an evening of discussion and debate on abortion in extreme cases, examining hypothetical situations and pro-life responses to them.

Stressing the need to find constructive methods of healing for the mother, participants agreed that abortion cannot be justified in cases of rape. Children conceived in rape have the right to live, and cannot be punished for the rapist’s crime. The circumstances of one’s conception do not determine one’s worth. Furthermore, abortion is not a remedy for the abuse suffered; rape cannot be undone, and abortion compounds violence, rather than assuaging its effects. It’s just as wrong to condemn a child conceived in rape as it is to blame a woman for her rape. A truly compassionate response must address the needs of both the mother and of her child, instead of pitting one against the other. Neither can abortion be justified in cases of fetal disability, no matter how severe. Discrimination against the disabled cannot be tolerated, either for the born or for the unborn. Life must not be valued based on its meeting certain standards of ability, comfort, longevity, or any other criterion; being pro-life means defending life not only at all stages, but also defending life for all people, in all circumstances. Imperfection and suffering do not make life worthless.

Perhaps the most difficult cases to address are those in which the life of the mother is at risk. However, abortion (direct, intentional killing) remains impermissible. In cases in which the mother is diagnosed with a disease not directly related to the pregnancy – for example, uterine cancer – she may pursue treatment which will result in the death of her unborn child, but deliberate abortion is never acceptable (and does not in fact treat the problem). Treating the cancer is absolutely right and important, and if doing so may result in the death of the child – for example, as would be the case with chemotherapy – the child’s death is a tragedy, but it is not an intentional killing. In the case of ectopic pregnancy, pro-lifers often differ. While there is no way to save the life of the child, there are strong arguments in favor of salpingectomy over salpingostomy. Many argue that a salpingectomy (removal of the portion of the fallopian tube containing the implanted embryo) is the ethical treatment to pursue, as a salpingostomy (removal of the implanted embryo from the tube) is tantamount to an abortion. Others argue that as the end result is the same, there ought to be no moral difference between the two treatments. This provoked a long debate, as participants in Tuesday’s discussion sought the best possible answers to unthinkably painful problems.

The truth is, the “hard cases” are hard for a reason. While we can, and should, seek as precise an ethical response to them as possible, it will never be easy to tell a woman that her child will be severely or fatally disabled; it will never be easy to help a victim of rape heal; it will never be easy to know that no matter what happens, either a mother or her child will lose her life. What pro-life advocates must do is pursue responses to these situations that protect the life and dignity of mothers and children, and that address the root causes of problems, rather than compounding suffering by accepting abortion. Women, men, and children suffering in such extreme cases need and deserve love, respect, and practical help, not misguided and immoral “quick-fixes”.

 

#keepcardifffree

student senateThis Tuesday, the Student Senate at Cardiff University is, for the second time in a matter of weeks, proposing a pro-choice motion; a wide-ranging and ambitious motion that covers freedom of speech, political activism and purported ‘rights’ to name a few. Amongst the propositions is a call for the Union to “prevent groups which present a threat to women’s safety and intend to restrict women’s reproductive rights from harassing women students in the University grounds” and in the following point “prevent affiliated societies and groups from taking part in anti-choice protests or rallies”.

With such language as ‘threat’ and ‘harassing’ being employed, these aims can initially seem reasonable; of course, if someone values the life of another, as pro-life people claim they do, then he or she would not want the safety of a woman to be threatened. The issue comes when such statements are rather generously interpreted. What the Union may end up defining as harassment could simply be the existence of any group that would voice opinions suggesting that abortion is not in fact this incredible ‘reproductive right’ that it is claimed to be; in other words, voicing an opinion that challenges the status quo. Similar abuses have been suggested, and indeed passed, at places such as UCL where a successful motion concluded that “any future open events focusing on the issue of termination must invite an anti-choice speaker and a pro-choice speaker as well as an independent chair, to ensure there is a balance to the argument”. Would such a ‘balance’ be deemed necessary for other issues? In a talk about climate change, must there be a climate change sceptic proposing the opposition too? Must an anarchist discussion group give voice to a supporter of fascism so that a balanced view can be formed? Hardly.

Why is this so then for pro-life groups? Why is there such a concerted effort to curtail and quell the voices of numerous students who oppose abortion? The optimist could say that it is because the pro-life movement is making headway in its bid to protect mothers and children thus making those in favour of abortion fearful, driving them to such attempts to stifle opposition. The pessimist could conclude that the abortion debate has moved so far now that it is no longer a debate that anyone is willing to have: pro-choice is THE choice. The realist acknowledges the element of truth that is behind both of these views but importantly recognises that these things cannot go unchallenged.

Cardiff University Students' Union

Cardiff University Students’ Union

What is taking place in Cardiff shows how far things have gone when we so often hear the phrase ‘I believe in free speech’ followed so soon by the ominous sounding ‘but’. As Emma Carragher, the proposer of this pro-choice motion and Women’s Officer for CUSU, reiterates in an article ‘What they [pro-lifers] cannot do is take part in activities that threaten the welfare of women.’ She argues that if the Union does not change its policy, ‘by keeping the status quo and refusing to put restrictions on what societies can do, [it] is effectively accepting and endorsing behaviour that could directly threaten the wider student body’. What does threaten the wider student body is a move like this that attempts to eradicate a voice from the debate.

We encourage you all to follow Cardiff Students for Life’s bid to #keepcardifffree. To those in Cardiff’s Student Senate, we hope you will show courage in voting to protect free speech on campus.

(J.J)

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