The unintended consequences of a pro-abortion clampdown on campus

A shockingly authoritarian motion approved by fewer than 15 per cent of the students of University College London (UCL) at the end of January has been strongly criticised for attempting to close down discussion about abortion  (see, e.g., Cristina Odone here, and Archbishop Cramner here.) According to the religious-freedom specialist barrister Neil Addison writing in the Catholic Herald, "the students who voted for this resolution have demonstrated a totalitarian intolerance unworthy of an academic institution". And the motion is anyway, he observes, completely illegal, both under the Education Act 1986 which guarantees freedom of speech at universities, and under Articles 9, 10, and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But according to the law of unintended consequences, the motion may, ironically, turn out to have the opposite effect -- offering an opportunity for Catholic voices to be heard where normally they are shut out.

That was certainly not its intention.

According to Diane Pinto da Costa of the UCL Catholic Society, the motion was spurred by a Society-organised pro-life event in October 2011 entitled “Abortion: the contemporary taboo”. The speaker was Lord Alton, whose talk was followed by a lengthy  Q&A and a very open discussion during which students voiced varying opinions. Among those present, exercising her freedom of speech and vigorously opposing Lord Alton's views, was one Anne Tidbury of the UCL Women’s Network.

Rather than organise their own pro-abortion event, Ms Tidbury chose instead to table a motion designed to ensure such a 'biased' event could never recur. The motion was initially rejected at a members’ meeting in December, but was eventually voted through with 2001 votes in favour, 818 against, and 402 abstentions. Thus, 2,000 students now claim on behalf of a largely silent student body of 24,000 -- students of different cultures, creeds and beliefs -- that "both men and women have the right to exercise complete control over their own bodies", including "the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy or not.”

Complete control over their bodies? Such an assertion of unfettered autonomy is an extraordinary idea, one unknown to any major body of morality or law.

Of course women have the legal right, within the 1967 Act, to seek an abortion; but does the UCLU believe that women have the right to break the law by seeking an abortion after the 24-week legal upper limit? Does the motion imply that women have the right, for example, to a partial-birth abortion? It appears so. By affiliating the UCLU to Abortion Rights, an organisation that campaigns for unrestricted abortion on demand, the UCLU motion was committing students to a radical pro-abortion agenda that is entirely out of step with Parliament and public opinion.

The motion notes that 75 per cent of the UK population is pro-choice -- by which it means, of course, that 75 per cent of the population believe that abortion should be legal. But it fails to add that -- according to a major Observer poll in 2006 -- most people, and especially women, believe the abortion law should be made much more restrictive. Fewer than 5 per cent of the population believes, as the UCLU motion suggests, that the legal upper time limit for abortion should be increased from 24 weeks.

Indeed, that statistic discredits the whole motion. Should someone who believes the limit should be lowered from the current 24 weeks be classed as pro-choice or pro-life? Nadine Dorries, for example, considers herself pro-choice, but favours lowering the limit.

Grimacing and holding its nose, the motion graciously allows that "an official pro-choice policy would not prevent students who disagree with termination on ethical or religious grounds from exercising their right not to seek a termination.” A "right not to seek a termination" is very odd and revealing language for the most basic of human rights, the right to give life. The assumption here is that a pregnant student needs some kind of metaphysical or philosophical justification for doing so. 

During the Women's Network campaign, supporters of the motion campaigned with the slogan “Keep Calm and Vote Pro-choice”; the term “pro-choice”  - -with which some overseas and even some British students were unfamiliar -- was portrayed as a neutral (rational, sensible) position on abortion, as opposed to the "anti-choice" pro-life students. 

The motion then went on to attempt to ban pro-life meetings -- "to ensure that any future open events focusing on the issue of termination 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" -- in resolving that: “When clubs and societies invite pro-life speakers they should also invite a pro- choice speaker to balance the debate and vice-versa.” 

The idea is, of course, violently anti-democratic, a serious violation of free speech, and deeply patronising: it implies that students are incapable of attending an event which proposes a view which they disagree with, without being brainwashed; it makes an ethical decision for them so that they don’t have to face deciding for themselves.

It is also, of course, ridiculous. If the UCLU voted in favour of Keynesian economics, would a neo-liberal economist giving a lecture need in future to be 'balanced' by an advocate of loosening the money supply?

However, if the Women's Network is serious about that "vice-versa", it must be that every time the Women's Network holds an event in which abortion is discussed, a pro-life speaker should be present, on an equal footing. Can this be true? Will they really make room for and give time to a speaker who puts it to them that the best "choice" for a pregnant woman is to honour the life in her womb, from the moment of conception, as desired by a loving God?

But of course, the Women's Network is not serious. They are not trying to open up discussion about abortion, but close it down. They are not planning to organise their own talks, but to prevent the Catholic Society from doing so. In the past year, the Women's Network has held not one event on abortion, and none is planned. That's why they suggested this idea of 'balance'. They know they will not need to invite a pro-life speaker, because they are not planning to discuss the issue. To achieve their goal of silencing the pro-life voice, the Women's Network simply has to carry on not talking about abortion . 'Balance' is a fig-leaf; they are not imposing balance, but silence -- at the heart of an academic institution.

But in reality, Catholics on campus have nothing to fear. The motion's definition of pro-choice ideology is so narrow and extreme, and its actions so brow-beating and authoritarian, that it will show informed pro-lifers who accept that abortion cannot be prohibited immediately -- including the bishops of England and Wales, who advocate incremental restrictions, but realise that a total ban is currently impossible to achieve -- to be the true advocates of moderate, rational and humane principle.

And that is why it may turn out that the UCLU motion will come to be seen not as closing down discussion of abortion but a major spur to opening it up.


Copyright Catholic Voices 2011. Registered Office: Cuckoo Hill Farm, Cuckoo Hill, Pinner, HA5 2BB.

A company limited by guarantee, registered in England 7493766. Registered Charity 1142482.