Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Month: December, 2013

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 1: Alice Paul

On November 9, 1909, an American visiting student at the LSE was arrested for disrupting the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Alice Paul and her friend had snuck in disguised as cleaners, before surprising the guests (including the entire British Cabinet) by throwing their shoes and shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ They were sent to prison, whereupon Paul went on hunger strike. She was held down, choked, and force-fed: her screams were heard all through the prison, and afterwards blood was streaming down her face. It became a news story on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times sent a reporter to interview Paul’s mother Tacie. ‘I cannot understand how all this came about,’ she told him. ‘Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.’

In some ways, Tacie Paul was right. Paul was mild-mannered by nature, but she was set on fire by a cause she knew to be just. She had a paralyzing fear of public speaking; but when she returned to America, she became one of the chief orators for women’s suffrage, and eventually the leader of the movement. She was incapable of small talk; but it is hard to imagine a shrewder negotiator or a more effective lobbyist. She decided, after a dispiriting day of handing out suffragist literature to contemptuous Londoners, that she wasn’t ‘very brave by nature’; but it was her courage, as much as anything else, which brought about the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920, and guaranteeing women the same voting rights as men. Hard to believe this was less than a century ago: it is remarkable how quickly a proposal can change from being considered eccentric and dangerous to being universally accepted.

That, however, is not Alice Paul’s only significance for the pro-life movement. There is something else – a remark of hers which, though brief, tells an important story. ‘Abortion,’ she said, on almost the only recorded occasion when she talked about it, ‘is just another way of exploiting women.’

So powerful is this little statement that some ‘pro-choicers’ have tried to deny that Paul ever said it. But she did. Not only is the documentary evidence there, but it also sounds exactly like her. It has all her terse, unblinking honesty. Paul was not one to compromise – not with opponents, not with allies, not with herself. She thought that her love of detective stories might distract her from the campaign; well then, detective stories had to go. She carefully avoided bookshops, and kept her room freezing cold so that she would not be tempted to stay up reading. That was her way – when her mind was made up, she did not give an inch. She spoke like that, too. ‘Abortion is just another way of exploiting women.’

This baffles people because Paul was a women’s rights activist, wasn’t she? And pro-lifers only care about unborn babies, don’t they? But Paul, one of the clearest-sighted people of her age, knew better. She realised that when women are desperate enough to seek abortion, it is often as a result of (male) exploitation and irresponsibility. And that when society offers in response neither practical help, nor encouragement, nor the chance to develop a mother’s relationship with the soon-to-be-born child, nor the possibility of adoption, but instead offers a traumatising act of violence which takes away life – that sounds rather more like exploitation than liberation.

One fellow-suffragist recalled what it was like to meet Alice Paul: ‘When you ask her a question, there ensues, on her part, a moment of stillness so profound you can almost hear it. I think I have never seen anybody who can keep so still as Alice Paul.’ Out of that stillness she is still speaking, telling us that a protest against abortion is always a declaration of the rights of women.


Debate: ‘Abortion: Right or Rights Violation?’

We’re sorry for the delay on this post! In order to get the best third-party perspective on our recent debate, we’re sharing a piece from a guest writer, who was in the audience:

To begin, Oxford Students for Life must be congratulated in organising this successful and lively debate between two preeminent speakers. This event sent a strong signal to the University of Oxford that the question of abortion is by no means a closed case but one of pressing importance and concern to her students. The venue of Christ Church, renowned as the most prestigious of colleges, crowned this achievement by bringing the abortion debate from the fringes of the University to the echelons of academic power. The professional conduct of the event similarly served to dispel the myth that pro-lifers are hysteric extremists who cannot enter into reasonable discussion on the rights of women. These introductory remarks regarding venue and conduct, not to mention the phenomenal attendance, are important because they signal that the pro-life position has turned a corner in its standing within the University and thus now commands respect in the academic forum.

Sarah de Nordwall presented the pro-life position in an engaging and captivating manner. Whilst Sarah did include many of the philosophical arguments against abortion, the approach taken was one of providing a different perspective on women’s experience of abortion. In the course of the debate, Sarah helped to build up a different bank of stories related to abortion. Being myself from a background of systematic philosophy and theology, I was moved to reflect on why Sarah had emphasised individual experience rather than stick to the clear-cut philosophical truth of the pro-life position. I came to the conclusion that Sarah’s emphasis on individual experiences actually reflected a mature and perceptive grasp of the position of abortion in the UK mindset. Abortion is now so endemic that popular opinions are influenced more by a concern to be non-judgemental of their friend, neighbour or even to validate their own actions. By placing the key questions of ‘when does life begin?’ and ‘whose life has greater value?’ within a series of examples, Sarah was therefore able to present the pro-life case in a way that was sensitive and persuasive. These stories bore the powerful message that positions of power have allowed dictators, colonisers, and even mothers to become the arbitrators of the value of human life. The great triumph of Sarah’s argument was that the human life was recognised by Ann to begin from conception. In doing so, it was obvious to the audience that drawing any distinction in value between human life in the womb, the crib, the sports field, or the care home would signal that the powerful had committed a right-violation of the weak and vulnerable who we have a duty to protect.

It was instructive to hear the perspective of Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. It was evident that Ann’s support of abortion came from an intention to care for women, to uphold the dignity, and respect the autonomy of women in making decisions that affect their lives and their bodies. The case in favour of a right to abortion was first posed by questioning who else had the right to interfere with the wishes of a woman on her body. If others can interfere with our bodies this would also seem to be a power violation. Perhaps it is because abortion has been so normalised in Britain but it would seem to me that it is abortion that is interfering with the natural processes of the body rather than vice versa. The key question would surely be, who has the right to do violence to their body when another human life is at stake? I was amazed that Ann agreed with Sarah that a human life was indeed at stake and that the choice for an abortion was therefore always a privileging of the life-style or circumstances of the mother over that of the baby. This led to the second key argument, which was maintained to the end of the debate, regarding different degrees of value. Ann held that the mother, fully formed, educated in speech and independent was deemed more obviously of value than the child in the womb. Interestingly, Ann admitted that the newborn that is disadvantaged either through a disability or through economic circumstances is similarly not of a same value level as a healthy or wealthy newborn. I hope that in simply presenting the development of this argument the dangers are obvious. If not, we are really in trouble.

The debate is available for all to watch on YouTube.


VIDEO: Sarah de Nordwall answers questions about cases of rape and incest

This was one of the debate’s memorable moments. Several more clips, and the full video of the debate, here.

VIDEO: ‘Abortion: Right or Rights Violation?’ Ann Furedi vs Sarah de Nordwall

Here is the video of last month’s debate between Ann Furedi and Sarah de Nordwall. For viewers with shorter attention spans we’ll also be posting highlights from the debate on our YouTube channel.