Divisive as the subject may be, what we are seeing on campus is a concerning example of how debate is at risk of unravelling
It is disturbing that, in 2021, a woman’s bodily autonomy is still a contentious subject, something to be debated and discussed rather than a fundamental right to be accepted. The pro-life narrative shames women for their choices and undermines the difficult and deeply personal reasons why they may choose to seek an abortion.
And now a pro-life society at Exeter University – where I was once a student – has become embroiled in a “freedom of speech” row, with many students accusing the university of providing a platform for “hate speech”. A petition opposing Exeter Students For Life (ESFL) and calling for its disbandment has received over 9,000 signatures, as of 14 October, and a peaceful sit-in protest took place at the university on Wednesday.
ESFL, whose committee is made up of three men and one woman, claims to “strive for a culture of life on our uni campus and in our city”. Robert Tawse, third year philosophy student and vice president of ESFL, plainly states in a post on the society’s Instagram page: “I do not believe that any woman really wants to have an abortion.”
Exeter University’s student guild issued a statement acknowledging that, while the pro-life debate could be “controversial and unpopular”, it supports “freedom of speech”. The statement says: “We are committed to the principle that both debate and deliberation should not be suppressed, and we encourage and support our members to engage, within the law, in both a constructive and responsible manner to contest any ideas they oppose openly and vigorously.”
These instances of harassment are a worrying example of how civil discourse is at risk of unravelling. Tensions have been mounting, with society and committee members claiming to have received death threats. Universities should provide an environment of robust debate, a place where inquisitive minds can be challenged and opened up to uncomfortable ideas. Both sides deserve to have their views heard in an environment that fosters mutual respect.
ESFL is not the only society spreading an anti-abortion message on British university campuses. Almost three quarters of Russell Group universities have pro-life societies that oppose abortion and euthanasia, including Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Some of these find themselves at the centre of similar disputes, with protesters removing a pro-life stand at Oxford University freshers’ fair last week.
While it is my opinion that vehement opposition to the pro-life movement should be supported, calling for the disbandment of such societies may prove futile – it risks driving them underground and out of reach of much-needed scrutiny. Unlike other political or religious societies, where differences of interpretation are encouraged, ESFL promotes the sole idea that life starts at conception – with little (or no) room for compromise.
Such a standpoint, left unchallenged, may produce students with ideas guided increasingly by “echo chamber” dynamics. A highly stigmatised single-issue society, free of checks and balances, could enable a more extreme discourse to spiral out of control.
To avoid this, the university cannot take a purely laissez-faire approach whereby students feel they must take matters into their own hands. So, what could they do instead?
Well, redesigning the framework would ensure debate is done formally – rather than through petitions and sit-ins. In this way, both sides of the argument could come together and have their voices heard. Regular, structured forums for discussion (perhaps moderated by the university’s debating society?) would help maintain a respectful civil discourse and avoid creating potentially extremist fringe groups.
I, like so many others, wish women did not have to vehemently defend our most basic freedoms – to choose what is best for our bodies, freely and without shame, judgement or harassment. But with pro-life movements gathering steam at British universities, the conversation around these rights has never been more urgent – and attempts to shut down debate will only hinder progress.