Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Month: October, 2014

“I realised that you could be pro-life and not be judging women”: Michaela Aston at OSFL

Michaela Aston used to be a teacher, and – in a good way – it shows. She knows the art of grabbing the listener’s attention and keeping it, and she is a natural storyteller. At her talk on Wednesday night, Aston told a little of her own story. “I managed to avoid the issue of abortion for a long time,” she said. “I just didn’t think about it.” Coming to political consciousness in the 70s, Aston saw around her a toxic culture which took for granted that women were inferior. Objecting to sexual harassment got you accused of being humourless. Employers were patronising and unsympathetic. Aston knew already that she wanted to resist that culture; and she assumed that, if you were on women’s side, you could hardly oppose abortion.

But a couple of experiences gave her pause. First, a couple of friends told her about their experiences of depression and anxiety, which they linked to their abortions. One had come close to suicide. Shaken, Aston read Susan Stanford-Rue’s semi-autobiographical study Will I Cry Tomorrow? Healing Post-Abortion Trauma. It was a turning-point. “I realised that you could be pro-life and not be judging women.” She also realised how many pregnant women lacked adequate help and information. Aston trained in counselling, which she still offers with the charity LIFE. “As a counsellor,” she explains, I would never lead or try to persuade; and I would never judge.” But what she has heard and seen convinces her that “women deserve better than abortion”.

One questioner put a challenge: how do we know that abortion creates post-abortion mental health problems? Might it not just as well be the rhetoric of the pro-life movement? Aston was sceptical: “You can’t manufacture the symptoms I’ve seen.” Of course, not all women feel bad after abortions. But some of the research – notably the Fergusson study, carried out by a pro-choice psychologist – suggests a connection between abortion and mental illness. It tallies with Aston’s long experience. “One woman said to me down the phone, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me I would feel like this?’ That was all she said, over and over.”

For Aston, being pro-life ought necessarily to mean being pro-woman. Feminists have traditionally defended the unborn – as we noted earlier in the week – partly because the two causes are bound together by their respect for the human. “Pro-life means: to value every single individual human being, whether you’re male or female, born or unborn, able-bodied or disabled.” As misogyny still blights our society, so does a prejudice against the unborn. Moreover, the law upholds discrimination on grounds of disability. “Abortion law allows abortion up to birth – if you’re not perfect.”

As for being pro-choice, Aston doubts that it’s the right term. “Most women,” she claims, “don’t want abortions. The phrase I’ve heard over and over again is ‘I have no choice’. ‘My mum will kill me…’ ‘My dad will throw me out…’ ‘My partner will leave me… I have no choice.’” For all Aston’s engaging style, this was a challenging talk, which reminded the audience of how often society fails women in seemingly impossible situations.

But Aston made a more hopeful observation. Sophisticated imaging techniques can now tell us so much about the life of the unborn: and finally, “it’s the truth that convinces.” Society is slowly waking up to the human beings among us who deserve our respect. As Aston points out, doctors do everything they can to care for pregnant women. And when they do, they see two patients in front of them.


PREVIEW: Pro-woman, pro-life with Michaela Aston, tomorrow at 7.30

It’s often been pointed out that, until comparatively recently, trying to find a pro-choice feminist was like trying to find a vegan whose favourite eaterie is KFC. According to Feminists For Life and their Herstory series, the founding mothers of American feminism were ‘without known exception’ pro-life. What is more, they were pro-life precisely because they were feminist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought abortion ‘a crying evil’ for which the only solution was ‘the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women’, and Stanton’s was the mainstream view. When the suffragette leader Alice Paul remarked that ‘abortion is just another way of exploiting women’, she was looking back to a long tradition within the women’s movement.


Sylvia Pankhurst

The tradition began in Britain. For Mary Wollstonecraft, often called the first feminist philosopher, the taking of unborn life was yet another tragic consequence of male exploitation. In the twentieth century, Sylvia Pankhurst lamented abortion as ‘grievous’ and called for the social changes which would make it unnecessary. Even Marie Stopes – after whom hundreds of abortion clinics around the world have been named – was opposed, accusing a male friend of ‘murder’ after he pressurised his lover into having a termination. The Marie Stopes International website omits that detail in its biography of Stopes – just as Planned Parenthood, in a lengthy tribute to their founder Margaret Sanger, don’t find room to mention Sanger’s horror of abortion. She called it ‘a disgrace to civilization’; but her voice, like that of so many other feminists, has been edited out of history.

This matters because a lot of people defend the status quo on abortion from an uneasy feeling that if they don’t, they are standing against the advances of feminism; that being pro-woman involves being pro-choice as a matter of course. History suggests the opposite; but then, names as mighty as Alice Paul and Sylvia Pankhurst are still names from the past. They don’t necessarily prove that, in 2014, you can be pro-woman and pro-life. What proves it is someone like Michaela Aston.


Michaela Aston

Having been involved with the charity LIFE for 20 years, Michaela knows this issue in all its complexity. From her work counselling pregnant women, she understands the heart-wrenching difficulties many face. From her work in schools and the media, she knows the arguments back to front. Michaela, who happens to be a brilliantly engaging speaker, insists that a just society can no more neglect the rights of the unborn than it can disregard those of women.  ‘As a society,’ she has said, ‘we are failing to cultivate respectful attitudes to life, and failing to promote positive and responsible attitudes to motherhood, family life and sexual relationships.’ What would it mean to build a better society? Come along on Wednesday evening to hear more.

The Facebook event is here.

NB bring a Bod card if you have one – if you don’t, email studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com and we’ll put you on the mailing list. See you there!

The Man who Ate Life, and other Freshers’ Fair stories

‘Can I eat them?’

After three days of Freshers’ Fair, you think you’ve heard everything. But this was a first.

‘No,’ I explained, ‘they’re for planting. They’re wildflower seeds.’

‘I get that, but I mean – can I eat them?’

I turned for help to our Publicity Officer Alisha, who’s a doctor.

‘You won’t die,’ she advised.

Freshers’ Fair is a friendly event, but it’s also definitely a competition. There are thousands of visitors and hundreds of stalls, and only a few seconds in which to grab someone’s interest as they wander through on their way to the Domino’s special offer booth. Bowls of free sweets, that old standby, are not permitted, so you have to try something else. People get inventive. The Roleplaying Society have impressive costumes, the Chess Society put a board on their table – though they admitted, when I came by, that nobody had yet challenged them to a game on the spot. At the Fencing Society I was told that, if I joined the mailing list, one of them would put on that helmet which makes you look like a giant fly. The Oxford Union hire a large mock-up of a boxing ring. Passing the Geography Society, someone cried out, ‘Have you ever wondered – Geography? What is that?!’, to which one answer is surely, ‘Yes, at about age 7.’

What could Oxford Students for Life offer, in this crowded marketplace? But the answer is already obvious. It was our job, surrounded by sports teams and music groups and charitable ventures, to affirm the one thing which makes all these excellent things possible – life itself. We decided to make our stall a little life-affirming beacon. We had bunting and lightbulbs and a vase of flowers. We displayed photos of past OSFL events. We pinned up aphorisms and scraps of poetry:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
(Mary Oliver)

Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Freshers stall

Because I had absolutely no hand in the design – all praise here to our Secretary, Megan – I think I’m allowed to pass on some of the compliments we kept getting. ‘This is the best stall I’ve seen,’ we heard more than once. ‘If there was a prize for best stall…’ someone told us. A neighbouring stallholder came over to admit she had ‘stall envy’.

Plus we had seeds. It turns out you can get a big bag of mixed wildflower seeds pretty cheap. And what student room doesn’t need a splash of colour and nature? So we offered little envelopes of seeds, attached to our termcard, for anyone who wanted to get involved by joining the mailing list. ‘We’re all about life,’ we told inquirers.

‘I didn’t realise,’ one remarked shrewdly, ‘that was the kind of life you guys were interested in.’

Take your point – but don’t you agree that flowers are one of the things that makes life worth living?

A shrug. ‘Fair enough. OK, I’ll sign up.’

People did sign up, too, in their hundreds. Most loved the seeds, while a few were unsure if they could offer them a good home – though, as we were able to point out, and we’d like to repeat this message for the benefit of anybody reading this blog who picked up one of our mini-envelopes: You do not need a plant pot in order to make use of the seeds. You can put some soil in an eggshell or a mug. But whether they accepted the seeds, or took an info leaflet or a termcard, the response was seriously encouraging. Some people knew us already. (‘I’ve been looking for you!’) (‘I already follow you on Facebook.’) Faces lit up as soon as we began our spiel. Some had been involved with pro-life work already, and wanted to carry on now they were in Oxford.

Freshers visitor

And – just as hearteningly – visitor after visitor told us that they really wanted to think more about these questions; that they didn’t know quite where they stood, and would like the opportunity to discuss the issues; that they were clear on abortion but less so on assisted suicide, or vice versa. We explained that, while we take a pro-life stance, we want to hear from everybody – the pro-choice, the undecided, the confused. People responded well to that. It’s one thing you hope for in a university, that you’ll be able to work out what you think, in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

As for the pro-choicers, they were mainly polite and good-natured. One of our neighbouring stallholders came over to cheerfully berate us every so often; eventually she concluded: ‘You seem like lovely people, but what you’re doing is… insane.’ But it was said with a smile. So were most things. Of course, not everybody was friendly. One man announced imperiously, ‘I disagree with you. Goodbye,’ and turned on his heel, which sounded like an epitaph for democratic pluralism if ever there was one, but that kind of response was in a tiny minority. Literally not a single person told me that, as a man, I had no right to be there.

All of which indicates that we are onto something. The debate about human life is not over. It is ongoing, and a lot of people are coming to it with unprejudiced eyes, eager to make up their own minds. As one fresher said to me, ‘it doesn’t get much more important than this, does it?’

Oh, and we never finished the story about the man who wanted to eat the seeds. Having ascertained that they weren’t lethal, he tore open the envelope and tipped it back like a packet of dry roasted. He chewed, swallowed, and frowned. Then he gave his verdict. ‘Pretty bland.’ By now, several of our neighbours had crowded round. One woman, from a charity in the row behind us, poked her head between the banners. ‘Do you eat everything you get given at Freshers Fair?’ she asked.

It was one of several memorable encounters. One of the nicest was speaking to a firmly pro-choice student. We offered a leaflet and she demurred. ‘But’ – she added, turning back – ‘I think it’s good you exist.’ We were touched. Same to you!

(Dan Hitchens)

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No.7: Mildred Jefferson

Of all of the pro-life heroes and heroines we’ve featured in this series, perhaps none is more worthy of her place in the pro-life hall of fame than Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Certainly none could be more qualified to speak out on the subject of abortion, as Dr. Jefferson spent her life doing. As a woman, a doctor, and a member of a long-oppressed racial minority in the United States, Jefferson experienced firsthand the struggle to defend the rights of the vulnerable against the will of the strong. And so she devoted her life to the pro-life cause, which she called “the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man”.

Born in Pittsburg, Texas in 1926, Jefferson distinguished herself at an early age. After graduating summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree from Texas College at the age of 16, and earning her master’s degree from Tufts, Jefferson became the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951 and went on to be the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital and the first female doctor at the Boston University Medical Center. The timeline of her early career is impressive enough, but it was in the early 1970s, when increased cultural and legal trends towards abortion gathered momentum, that Jefferson came to the fore as one of the earliest and most outspoken leaders of the modern pro-life movement.

Many argue that abortion is a moral grey issue, absent a clear-cut right or wrong. Dr. Jefferson knew this was not so. She famously said:

I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.

Jefferson helped found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Black Americans for Life, and the National Right to Life Committee (of which she served as President for three terms), and ran as a political candidate on a pro-life platform in the 1980s and 90s. She served on the boards of dozens of pro-life organizations and lobbied to support other pro-life political candidates. Up until her death in 2010, Jefferson gave speeches against abortion and in support of other pro-life advocates.

Beyond her commitment to the cause – evident in the bare facts of her life – Jefferson’s strength as a pro-life advocate stemmed from her talents as a leader and orator, and her ability to understand the issue from several different perspectives. As a doctor, Jefferson knew that abortion is killing, and that licensing doctors to kill is a perversion of medical care. She insisted that “my earnest effort is to uphold medicine as a high calling, a sacred profession.” As a black woman raised in the United States before the Civil Rights movement, Jefferson knew all too well that many pro-choice advocates at the time saw abortion as a way to control the poor black population. She witnessed firsthand the efforts of the strong to oppress the weak in the racial battles of the 20th century, and identified abortion as yet another manipulation of power, arguing that “it is unconscionably unfair that the victim selected on which to test the social remedy of expendable lives is the most defenseless member of the human family.” And, in her own words, “as a woman, I am ashamed” – ashamed that abortion was advanced in the name of women’s rights, and that mothers might willingly choose their own interests over the lives of their unborn children.

Jefferson’s influence was compounded by her natural ability as a speaker and debater. She was famously articulate. As Darla St. Martin of the NRLC put it, “She was probably the greatest orator of our movement. In fact, take away the probably.” Jefferson has been credited with changing Ronald Reagan’s stance on abortion; in a letter to her, he wrote “You have made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life, I am grateful to you.” In her numerous appearances as an ambassador of the NRLC and other pro-life groups, Jefferson high standards for pro-life advocates, demonstrating the grace, precision, and confidence that pro-life advocates today should and do strive to emulate. In her dedication, intellectual sophistication, and compelling composure, Jefferson can serve as a model for all of us who work for the cause of which she was one of the greatest champions.

(Molly Gurdon)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid.