Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

‘This Bill is about me': Baroness Campbell’s speech at yesterday’s Lords debate

The Falconer Bill was debated yesterday in the House of Lords. (A good report is here.) The speeches were about half-and-half for and against the Bill. Many peers spoke from their own personal experience, including Baroness Jane Campbell, who has spinal muscular atrophy. The full text of her speech is below.

Campbell

My Lords, I have fought for autonomy the whole of my life. I have fought for that for myself and for others. I do not want this Bill.

First, I must declare a very important interest. This Bill is about me. I did not ask for it and I do not want it but it is about me nevertheless. Before anyone disputes this, imagine that it is already law and that I ask for assistance to die. Do your Lordships think that I would be refused? No; you can be sure that there would be doctors and lawyers willing to support my right to die. Sadly, many would put their energies into that rather than improving my situation or helping me to change my mind. The Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because, in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges which life holds for me.

However, it is not just about me. My story is echoed by the majority of disabled and terminally ill people in Britain today. Many of them are outside this House, protesting against the Bill. I urge your Lordships to go and talk to them. Many more will have written to your Lordships. Supporters of the Bill argue that there is a hard and fast distinction between terminal illness and disability. I can tell you absolutely that there is not. We, the folk this Bill claims to serve, know that. The Bill purports to offer choice – the option of premature death instead of pain, suffering and disempowerment – but it is a false choice. It is that of the burglar who offers to mug you instead. That is not choice. Pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable – I have to believe that – and they should always be treated. My long experience of progressive deterioration has taught me that there is no situation that cannot be improved.

Campbell 2

I have spent my life developing ways to prevent people in vulnerable situations feeling powerless and burdensome. They do get cajoled and do feel a burden, especially when they are at home with no one to come and assist them to go to the toilet and to have dignity. I have seen this transformation when people have been helped. Those whom society once saw as totally dependent have become active and valued human beings. I am afraid that assisted dying will bring back outdated beliefs that devalue disabled and terminally ill people, when we have tried so hard to get away from them. Small wonder then if some succumb to those beliefs and see premature death as the only answer. Small wonder if family, friends, doctors and others see it as their duty to support that goal. It appears easier, cheaper and quicker – and it is.

The Bill is motivated by fear and pity but as the greatest French novelist Balzac observed,

“pity is death to us – it makes our weakness weaker still.”

Death is seen as a release from pity, for both giver and receiver, but there are far better ways of responding. We must put our energy into providing the best support, be it medical, social, practical or emotional, to disabled people and terminally ill people. We are nowhere near there yet. Helping people to live with dignity and purpose must surely be our priority. Disabled people and terminally ill people do not deserve pity. They deserve so much better. The Bill has become a runaway train, and the more frightening because of that. Please let us pause and find ways to reflect further. The Bill is not the answer.

The very wording of the Falconer Bill reveals its implications for the vulnerable

About the author: A former OSFL committee member, Greg Jackson is currently studying for an MA in Ethics.

For those of you who have not yet had a chance to read Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, here are some of its key phrases.

To begin with ‘assisted dying’: The phrase is a euphemistic attempt to make it seem as if what is here described is a part of the practice of palliative medicine. All it really amounts to is assisted suicide under certain conditions – conditions that we may fear will expand in the future, perhaps without limit.

Much of the Bill’s wording, when looked at closely, gives cause for real concern.

 

a person is terminally ill if that person –

(a) has been diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition which cannot be reversed by treatment (‘a terminal illness’); and

(b) as a consequence of that terminal illness, is reasonably expected to die within six months. 2 (1)

As a previous blogpost explained, this is an unworkably vague criterion. But in any case, why is the cut-off at six months? Why is it only these people that are to be given lawful assistance in ending their own lives? This is surely discriminatory. The law, in effect, is putting these people in a category which is not worth protecting, and therefore is failing to recognise the equal worth of such people. The Assisted Dying Bill, were it to succeed, would be telling people in this category that society has given up on them; that they are no longer valued enough for the law to be concerned with their protection to the extent that it is concerned with others’. At the time when they need hope more than ever, the law is telling them that their case is hopeless.

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‘[the [patient’s decision must have] been reached voluntarily…without coercion or duress.’

3 (3) (c)

One may wonder how such a thing could ever be accurately determined. After all, ‘coercion and duress’ can be extremely subtle forces, difficult to detect. We cannot simply rely upon the patient’s word that he or she is not under coercion or duress. Financial and familial pressures can exert a powerful influence on all of us, but perhaps even more so on the sick and the dying, and such pressures can remain virtually impossible to detect. Surely some terminally ill people will end up making this decision against their own will.

 

‘…the attending doctor and the independent doctor must be satisfied that the person making it has been fully informed of the palliative, hospice and other care which is available to that person.’

2 (4)

Here as elsewhere, we see the enormous trust that the Bill places in the medical profession. It relies upon the medical profession policing itself. Who else, after all, is going to determine whether a patient kills themselves in accordance with the criteria set out in the Bill? While we can assume that the majority of medical professionals are upright and conscientious individuals, can we trust that each and every medical professional will fully inform a patient of other options?

Furthermore, the Bill undermines the grounds upon which our ordinary trust in the medical profession is based. People look to doctors for cure and care, and they entrust themselves to them in the confidence that doctors are dedicated to those ends. But if doctors are not dedicated to these ends then a relationship of trust with them is no longer possible.

 

The attending doctor of a person who has made a valid declaration may prescribe medicines for that person to enable that person to end their own life.

4 (1)

The Bill refers to ‘medicine’ used to end one’s life. But this is a clear abuse of the term – ‘medicine’ being, of its nature, directed towards treatment and healing. In this case the lethal drug is not directed towards treatment and healing, but rather towards the death of the patient.

Baroness Finlay: the former President of the Royal Society of Medicine opposes the Bill

Baroness Finlay: the former President of the Royal Society of Medicine opposes the Bill

 

‘the attending doctor and the independent doctor, having separately examined the person and the person’s medical records and each acting independently of the other, must be satisfied that the person…has a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily’. 3 (3) (c)

The Bill makes no requirement whatsoever that the person who seeks to end their own life need undergo psychological assessment – which is not a small matter. There is no procedure to assess whether or not the patient is suffering from depression or some other psychological condition that will affect their decision-making capacity. All that is necessary is that two physicians determine that the patient ‘has the capacity to make the decision to end their own life’, and one might legitimately wonder how that might be determined as well. Again, the Bill places an awful lot of trust on the medical profession to police itself in these matters, yet as said, this Bill undermines the very foundations of that trust.

 

‘The Secretary of State may issue one or more codes of practice’.
8 (1)

And ‘the Secretary of State may specify in regulations’ what experience a doctor needs (3 (7)); ‘The Secretary of State may by regulations specify’ how the ‘medicines’ are to be administered (4 (7)); ‘the Secretary of State shall consult such persons as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate’ (8 (2)). A lot of the Bill’s implications are left to unknown circumstances.

 

Much has been made of the safeguards in the Bill, yet in addition to the issues that we have noted, legislation that permits assisted dying can never have adequate safeguards because the essence of such legislation is to make respect for the lives of the dying dependent upon the strength of their will to survive. The Bill represents society losing hope. And it detracts our efforts away from palliative care, a holistic solution which recognises the true value of the sick and the dying.

**

You can still email peers and ask them to oppose this dangerous Bill.

Why doctors oppose Falconer: a medic explains

The author is a medical student currently at Oxford University.

The major organisations representing UK medical professionals have raised their voices in resounding opposition to Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill. But why? Do they not care about suffering patients? While their position may continue to strike Lord Falconer’s supporters as odd, it turns out that, given their specialized knowledge about care at the end of life, they have very good reasons for opposing the bill.

RCP
The medical profession has always understood itself as a healing profession – and intentionally facilitating someone’s death is strikingly contrary to that goal. As put by the Royal College of Physicians: ‘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’. The RCP is pointing out that assisted suicide is not medicine and if a physician is asked to participate in assisting a patient’s death, the request must be denied.

Treating assisted dying as ‘just another medical procedure’ threatens the integrity of the profession, insofar as the profession aims at health. Hippocrates included an explicit prohibition on the provision of deadly drugs for precisely this reason. If an explicit commitment to healing patients is lost, medicine is at risk of losing its way as a profession. It is the unwavering commitment to the health of her patients that gives the doctor a privileged position in society and the trust of her patients.

Consider also that the modern hospice/palliative care movement began in the late 60s – less than 50 years ago. Since that time palliative care has become much more widely available, physicians have refined it as an art, and they know that it will continue to improve. In a recent conversation, a palliative care physician told me that in his experience patients who express an interest in dying ‘if things get bad’ are afraid more than anything else. Once he explains that he will not be shy in using medications – pain relievers and others – to alleviate their symptoms, their fear subsides and they stop enquiring about being helped to die.

Palliative care

Medical professionals are resolved to continue to improve palliative care as an art so that the fears that often drive patients to ask about assisted dying can be better quelled with the promise of effective palliation. It is crucial that, while physicians realize that even with the best palliative care some may still be resolved to pursue suicide, ‘helping their patients to die’ is off the table, as it is out of the scope of their profession. Instead, their focus is on getting better at relieving pain and other symptoms and caring for their patients attentively at the end of life.

Moreover, while the bill attempts to build in protections for the vulnerable – based on prognosis, depression screens, etc. – doctors know better than anyone that these simply are not effective enough to provide reliable protection. Whatever the rationale for identifying having 6 or fewer months to live as the point at which a patient may choose assisted suicide, doctors know that providing a prognosis is more like predicting what Germany’s goal total will be over the course of the World Cup than it is like calculating how long it will take for a drug to be cleared from circulation. There are too many variables for it to be reliably precise.

A number of studies have reinforced this – and the further away one gets from the end of life the less accurate predictions tend to be. Whether or not the expected time remaining should be treated as important, physicians approach their estimates with humility and realize that it is shaky at best to base policy on them.

Even more importantly, doctors realize that they cannot reliably do what the bill asks them to do – screen out depressed patients. Depression comes with an impaired sense of judgment and often feelings of despair. Those who are depressed are ‘not themselves’ and thus, when they have suicidal ideation, it is our duty to protect them from themselves – not to facilitate self-harm. The legislation tries to combat this danger through screening, but screening for depression is not at all like measuring cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar. The screening tests are based on patient responses and while somewhat reliable in patients who do not have an agenda, a depressed person set on gaining assistance in committing suicide could easily dupe the test. It would only require fairly basic knowledge about depression. Physicians – psychiatrists in particular – are aware of this and realize that even the best screening methods we have are unable to correct for this. As such, doctors are very much justified in pointing out that, even if it tries, the bill cannot reliably protect those with mental illness – thus making the legislation unsafe.

doctor arms

As we have seen, physicians have very good reasons for opposing Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill. They recognize their profession to be one of healing and are unwilling to undermine its integrity by permitting the medicalization of suicide and codifying it in law. Their objections are also based on a strange mix of confidence and humility – confidence in their ability to improve palliative care and humility in recognizing their own limitations. Physicians realize that they are being looked to not only to irrevocably alter their profession, but also to ensure safeguards that they simply cannot provide.

**

Keep Britain safe for the elderly and ill. Here’s how to write to the House of Lords.

5 things to know about the Falconer Bill

Lord Falconer’s Bill will come before the House of Lords for its second reading on the 18th July. Here are 5 things to know about the Bill:

(1) The Bill was put together by an independent Commission. The Commission on Assisted Dying was set up in 2010, chaired by Lord Falconer, and funded by Sir Terry Pratchett and Bernard Lewis. It aimed to investigate the “circumstances under which it should be possible for people to be assisted to die” and to “recommend what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be assisted to die”.

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(2) The Commission itself has not been free from criticism. It was set up in response to two independent Parliamentary Select Committees, who examined the issue and concluded that no change in the current law was necessary. Around 40 leading medical, ethical and disability rights organisations boycotted the Commission’s call for evidence submissions due to a perceived bias in the way the Commission was set up and how it intended to conduct its research. The British Medical Association passed a motion in June 2011 disputing the Commission’s claim to impartiality and independence.

(3) The Bill in its current form aims to change the existing law so that terminally ill adults are provided “at their request with specified assistance to end their own life.” This is only possible where the person fulfills certain conditions: they must have a “clear and settled intention” to end their own life; they must be over 18 and have resided for more than one year in the UK; their illness must be confirmed as ‘terminal’ by a registered medical practitioner because it cannot be “reversed by treatment” and as a consequence of that illness the person is “reasonably expected to die within six months.”

(4) There are many arguments against the Bill. The Bill is clear in expressing the criteria required to be eligible for assisted suicide, but fails to provide guidelines on how to assess whether any of these criteria have been met. This poses a serious threat to the safety of vulnerable members of society. Evidence can be found in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1998, of the dangers of not ensuring that psychiatric assessments are used to rule out judgment impairing mental conditions. A 2008 British Medical Journal paper concluded that Oregon’s law failed to protect mentally ill patients since cases of clinical depression had passed undiagnosed.

Another problem with the criteria in the Bill is that patients are required to have a terminal prognosis of six months or less. However a terminal prognosis is extremely unreliable, and the Royal College of GPs have said when estimates are being made for people living a matter of months, the “scope for error can extend into years.” The Bill would also have a very negative effect on clinical practice, since it would directly undermine patients’ right to life and medical care. Baroness Campbell wrote last year that the existing law rests on “the principle that we do not involve ourselves in directly bringing about the deaths of other people”. She argued that the Falconer Bill tries to replace that clear principle “with an arbitrary and permeable one.”

One of the greatest problems with this Bill is the false assumption that the value of life diminishes closer to death. The value of life never diminishes, and so the challenge is for us to offer support and love to the terminally ill so that they may have true ‘dignity in dying’, rather than try to provide a false dignity through control over the time and manner of death.

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(5) The Bill will come before the House of Lords on the 18th July for the second time, the first of which was at the start of June. The second reading is the first opportunity for the members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purposes of the Bill. After that it goes through a couple of different stages where amendments can be made before a third and final reading in the Lords. All this takes place before the Bill can reach the House of Commons, Royal Assent and be passed. Now is therefore the time to write to Peers to make sure all the arguments for the case to keep the current law are heard, and to express your concerns and hesitations with the Bill.

(J.C.)

Who could possibly be against assisted suicide? Well, all of these people…

It is hard to doubt the good intentions of Lord Falconer, whose assisted suicide bill is being debated in the Lords on 18 July, two weeks from today. It is even harder not to be moved by the personal accounts of people who want to die, and their carers. But there is another side to this – one which has received less media coverage, but has convinced many of us that the Falconer Bill is extremely dangerous to public safety. When all is said and done, the Bill proposes to add ‘death’ to the services offered by the NHS and other health providers. And it creates a category of ‘lives not worth living’, which seems likely to expand over time. Baroness Warnock – as distinguished and respectable a supporter of assisted suicide as you will find – has said:

Warnock

‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service… I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.’

No wonder that a striking number of people and organisations, of many different kinds, have come out against assisted suicide.

Firstly, doctors. The British Medical Association’s crystal-clear policy, held consistently since 2006, is that assisted suicide threatens lives, weakens the ethos of the whole profession, and neglects the care which can be offered to patients in distress. The Royal College of Physicians is ‘firmly opposed’ to assisted suicide, arguing that ‘our duty of care is to work with patients to mitigate and overcome their clinical difficulties and suffering. It is clear to us that this does not include being, in any way, part of their suicide.’ The World Medical Association calls assisted suicide ‘unethical’; The Royal College of GPs reaffirmed its opposition in February.

Portrait of new BMA president 2012 at BMA House London

The psychiatrist Baroness Sheila Hollins has argued that safeguards for a ‘clear and settled intention’ are practically impossible to implement. She adds: ‘Fear about dying calls for better palliative care services, a field in which Britain is already a world leader, and for a public that is better informed about the realities, rather than the scare stories, about death and dying.’

Secondly, people with disabilities. A recent statement signed by the respective leaders of Disability Rights UK and Scope warns: ‘We are deeply concerned that a change in the law will lead to disabled people – and other vulnerable people, including the elderly – feeling pressure to end their lives.’ The great Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, another signatory to the statement, comments that reading the Falconer Bill sends ‘a chill down the spine’. As Baroness Jane Campbell and Richard Hawkes of Scope have both noted , Belgium’s child euthanasia laws are themselves a warning about the slippery slope.

Thirdly, parliamentarians. The Scottish Parliament voted against assisted suicide in 2010. The House of Lords rejected similar legislation to the Falconer Bill in 2009 and 2006.

Winston

Lord Winston, speaking in 2006, pointed out: ‘We cannot predict how people may feel about the future and to take that view is ultimately the most presumptuous thing that we can do.’

David Cameron is opposed: ‘My worry has always been about whether people will be unfairly pressurised.’ Nick Clegg, whose mother is Dutch, is also against changing the law: he remarks that the euthanasia laws in the Netherlands have ‘created a permissive culture, where people start going beyond the letter of the law.’

Fourthly, faith communities. The fullest statement came in a 2005 letter signed by the national leaders of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities. Assisted suicide, they wrote, would ‘radically change the social air we all breathe by severely undermining respect for life’. And this is not only a conservative concern: the prominent liberal Anglican Giles Fraser has written movingly in his Guardian column against a new law.

Fifthly, legal experts. An exhaustive report by Lord Carlile, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Lord Brennan has concluded that changing the law is unsafe. In the words of Butler-Sloss, ‘The law is there to protect us all. We tinker with it at our peril.’

Finally – and this should count very heavily – there are all the voices of the terminally ill and the vulnerable, and their families and carers. Just read some of the comments on this petition against the Falconer Bill:

‘As a disabled person, the thought of starting on that slippery slope towards a right to die, rather than a right to live, is terrifying.’

‘This is literally a matter of life and death – changing this law could well lead to people like me being euthanized because someone else has decided I am terminally ill, and I’m so brow beaten that I agree with them to stop being a “burden”.’

‘I have just reached eighty, and can feel the pressure that I would be more use to some, if dead!’

If we won’t listen to the voices of the experts, we must at least listen to those who are frightened of coming under pressure to end their own lives.

Go here to write to members of the Lords about the bill.

(D.H.)

Oxford Students for Life 2013-2014: Reflections on the Past Year

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I remember preparing for our first term as an official student society in the weeks before Michaelmas 2013; from the creation of our Facebook page and blog, to frantic email exchanges about guest speakers, to plans for what would be the first of many, many 8 am breakfast meetings with the committee, to looking forward, apprehensively and excitedly, to our first Freshers’ Fair. I did not, and could not have imagined then, what an incredible year it would be. From a mailing list of about fifty people, we have grown to a list of over three hundred. Our blog, which began with a small handful of followers, now has hits in the thousands. We have been fortunate to have some really excellent speakers address us, from Lord David Alton to Abby Johnson and Shawn Carney. We’ve had two big debates, which drew large crowds and attention from groups around Oxford and around the country. We’ve been featured in numerous media outlets, including the Huffington Post, the Cherwell, Life Site News, the Catholic Herald, and were lucky enough to win the Alliance of Pro Life Students’ award for ‘Best Student Society of the Year’. Among these highlights, we’ve had many memorable moments – who could forget when Kate Smurthwaite asked us all, at our debate on the 1967 Abortion Act, to leave and donate our kidneys? Or perhaps when, with 36 hours’ notice, we gathered a group together to fight (and defeat) a motion to censor us in the Students’ Union? It has been a tremendously eventful year, and I could not have asked for a better start to what I am sure will be many years of OSFL success.

Our hope in the coming year is to develop initiatives in practical help and support for student parents, particularly expectant mothers. We’re also hoping to bring in some even bigger speakers, so keep an eye out for our next termcard! Our aim has been, and continues to be, to spread the pro-life message to those who have not heard it, to develop a culture of life in the university, and to encourage and unite other pro-life students. The student pro-life movement is not only here to stay; it is growing, and our hope is to remain at the forefront of that growth. We cannot do this alone. We need the continued and increased support of our community, and I hope that everyone reading this will consider the ways in which you might support OSFL’s efforts in the future. We have come a long way, and there is a long way still to go.

Many people have contributed to Oxford Students for Life’s success this year, and I would like to thank them here. Firstly, I’d like to Dr. Michael Ward, our senior member, who has been a constant source of support and encouragement over the past year. We’re also very grateful to Ed Smith, Eve Farren, and the entire team at the Alliance of Pro-Life Students; it’s exciting to watch the student pro-life movement develop and strengthen across the UK, and APS is the engine behind that growth. I’d like to thank Amy Owens and Amy Pether, who were both on the committee last year, and played a big part in getting OSFL off the ground. I also want to thank all of the people who have helped at our events throughout the year: Nathan, our debate chair; Toby, Sam, and Mike; Martin, our ally in room-booking; and everyone who’s put up a poster, shared an event, or brought a friend along to one of our meetings – thank you.

Finally, and most importantly, I would like to thank my outstanding committee members. I know I’m not the first enthusiastic student society president to be supremely confident that the people she works with really are the best people on Earth, nor will I be the last. That said, Oxford Students for Life would not be where it is today without Dan Hitchens, Jo Jackson, and Alisha Gabriel. I could not have asked for three more hardworking, talented, dedicated, and impressive people to spend this year with. Both I, and this society, owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Being OSFL president has been an honor, a privilege, and a total joy, and it’s because of Dan, Jo, and Alisha. All glory, laud, and honor to them.

Leaving is always bittersweet, but I cannot be sad to go while I am so excited for Oxford Students for Life’s next year. I know the incoming committee will do a fantastic job and make us all proud. I can’t think of a better group of people to take this society “further up and further in”.

Molly Gurdon, OSFL outgoing president

Another way of seeing Down syndrome

Not long ago a friend of mine – who is in his late thirties – said something which I can’t get out of my head. ‘Twenty years ago,’ he remarked, ‘walking down the street, you would see plenty of Down syndrome kids. And now – you just don’t see them.’

Down

The reason is not a secret. According to the 1967 Abortion Act, abortions can be carried out on four grounds, the most commonly applied being ground a):

that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family.

But there is also ground d):

that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

No 24-week limit here: in other words, if you have ‘abnormalities’ – which is interpreted to include Down syndrome – under UK law your life counts for less. And as recent news has shown, not only do many of these deaths go unrecorded, but over 90% of British boys and girls with Down syndrome are never born. Hence my friend’s observation.

It all suggests that our society has chosen to see Down syndrome as meaning ‘not good enough’: not meeting our standards of conventional physical appeal, or intelligence, or economic productivity. But there is another way of seeing Down syndrome, expressed very movingly in this beautiful video. Please watch it – it’s only two minutes long:

(D.H.)

OSFL in the news – a roundup

The last fortnight has been a particularly busy one for OSFL. The attempt to block our right to free speech has understandably been met with a considerable reaction well beyond the dreaming spires of Oxford. An eventful OUSU Council meeting, where the attack on free speech failed but a motion to ban LIFE advertising passed, has been reported comprehensively not only in university newspapers but also in national and international media.

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The Cherwell, the oldest independent student paper in Oxford, focused primarily on OUSU’s decision to ban LIFE advertising. The OSFL President is briefly quoted as saying: “we’re very pleased that OUSU Council voted to defend free expression against an undemocratic no-platform clause”. The response of LIFE is also quoted, questioning whether a truly pro-choice group would seek to deny its pregnant women non-directive counselling and the opportunity for accommodation and practical support.

LIFE themselves published a response to the motion on their website. It was very similar to what was quoted by the Cherwell and strongly questioned the legitimacy behind OUSU’s claims that they offered only a directive service. They also commended OSFL for “resisting this authoritarian attempt by a small group of students to stifle freedom of expression at the University of Oxford”.

The story also reached the Catholic Herald. It picked up on the fact that the clause in the OUSU motion never to platform pro-life groups raised concerns not only among pro-life students but the majority of students who wished to uphold the principles of free speech.

The blog ‘Conservative Woman’ published an article about the suppression of free speech on campus. They used OSFL’s fight at the OUSU Council as an example, as well as a demonstration outside an abortion debate held in Cambridge by their feminist society. The blog quotes Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS, talking about the “the moral cowardice of no-platforming”.

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Life Site News, perhaps the biggest pro-life news website in the world, described in detail the OUSU Council meeting and its results. The article also mentions in tandem the demonstration in Cambridge, and the importance of making sure there is enough opportunity to see these issues discussed.

For those of you learning Finnish in your spare time, news of the Council meeting even reached Finland. I would love to summarise it for you but fear that may be a little beyond me.

(J.C.)

Ten great quotes about free speech which aren’t from Voltaire or George Orwell

What would it matter, anyway, if Oxford Students For Life were to be no-platformed by Oxford University Students Union? Student politics isn’t that big a deal, is it? Well, perhaps not, but here’s the point. The difference between liberal democracy and authoritarianism does often lie in little things. In a liberal democracy, if someone tries to take away your basic rights, you can have recourse to the existing institutions and they will defend you. That’s what happened last week: someone tried to take away our free expression, we had recourse to OUSU Council, and OUSU Council defended us. Well done, OUSU Council.

Even so, the vote was close enough that this might be a good moment to remember some of the most powerful statements in favour of free speech. And though we may not include the one by a certain French author, we will defend to the death your right to quote it.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi

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‘Democracy acknowledges the right to differ as well as the duty to settle differences peacefully. Authoritarian governments see criticism of their actions and doctrines as a challenge to combat. ’

2. Benjamin Franklin

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‘Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.’

3. Noam Chomsky

Noam

‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.’

4. Lucien Bourjeily

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‘Freedom of expression is actually a way for people to know themselves better, and to understand themselves better. Because without it, you become a stranger to yourself.’

5. John Stuart Mill

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‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’

6. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

7. Philip Pullman

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‘No one has the right to live without being shocked.’

8. Peggy Noonan

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‘We don’t need to ‘control’ free speech, we need to control ourselves.’

9.  Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun

‘Democracy, to maintain itself, must repeatedly conquer every cell and corner of the nation. How many of our public institutions and private businesses, our schools, hospitals, and domestic hearths are in reality little fascist states where freedom of speech is more rigorously excluded than vermin?’

10. Neil Gaiman

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‘If you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.’

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.

ousu sign

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.

ousu vote 2

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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