Our debate was censored this week. Here’s our side of the story

by Oxford Students for Life

We didn’t ask to be in the middle of a free speech controversy. But free speech does matter, and we’d like to set out why we think Tuesday’s planned debate – between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill  on ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’ – should have gone ahead.

While we have hosted two all-women panel debates over the past year, this motion was about the wider social questions raised by abortion, and Tim and Brendan were invited as well-known commentators who have something to contribute to the discussion. But last weekend, a Facebook page was set up by OxrevFems denouncing us for our choice of two male speakers and threatening to sabotage the event by using ‘oh so disruptive instruments’.

In one exchange on the page, a student of Christ Church – where the debate was to be held – asked a campaigner from Abortion Rights for ‘help drafting [a] motion for this evening to cancel the event’. The campaigner replied: ‘I’d say the best grounds to try and get it removed is safety cos no doubt they’ll be saying a lot of horrendous stuff.’ (The page is no longer visible on Facebook.)

That evening, two of our committee members went in front of a standing-room-only Christ Church JCR meeting to answer ‘short factual questions’ about our event: related, we were told, to safety issues. But there were tough questions for the motion’s proposers too. Several JCR members were asking: was this an ideological attack on free speech under the guise of ‘safety’?

Meanwhile, the OUSU Women’s Campaign took a stand: in a statement signed by the WomCam Committee, they ‘condemn[ed]’ OSFL, called for an apology from us for hosting the event and asked us to cancel it. In case we didn’t, they added: ‘We also support those within Christ Church who are working to stop the event going ahead. However, if it does, we encourage everyone who can to go along to the disruptive protest.’ (The statement is no longer visible on Facebook.)

It would be interesting to know how OUSU – who represent all students – feel about OUSU Women’s Campaign participating in censorship. In any case, WomCam got what they wanted: Christ Church decided not to host our event on security grounds. Though we put out a public call and contacted other colleges, we were unable to secure an alternative venue.

So, what does hosting an all-male debate say about Oxford Students For Life? Maybe less than you think. Our last three Presidents, and most of the officers on recent committees, have been women; so were both our previous speakers this term – Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on assisted suicide, and Michaela Aston on being ‘Pro-Woman and Pro-Life’. Both speakers at our last debate had had terminations.

Unquestionably, abortion affects women more than men. But the issue isn’t that simple, because a culture in which abortion is practised commonly and legally – an abortion culture – has implications for everyone. For that reason, it is debated all the time in classrooms, in academic seminars, in the media, and in Parliament, where earlier this month MPs voted to condemn sex-selective abortion. However, UK Abortion Law still discriminates against the unborn when they have disabilities, which has included Down Syndrome and cleft palate: they can be aborted up to birth, unlike the able-bodied, for whom the limit is 24 weeks. These are issues – about equality, disability, and respect for life – which go beyond the private sphere into the question of what kind of society we want to live in.

We would like a society which respects unborn life, male and female, able-bodied and disabled, and which provides adequate support for young mothers and women in crisis pregnancies. As well as engaging in debate, OSFL is committed to supporting women in the often incredibly difficult circumstances of pregnancy: for instance, we’re holding a fundraiser later this month to help young mothers in vulnerable situations. We applaud the brilliant initiatives for student parents put forward by WomCam officers, including the planned appointment of a Student Parents and Carers Officer, which will help to make this University a more welcoming place for a group often forgotten and marginalised.

Having said that, we don’t agree with WomCam about everything. We believe that the unborn have the same right to life as the rest of us, and that women are badly served by a society which doesn’t offer a better choice than abortion. (A point made long ago by Mary Wollstonecraft.) So we’ve invited WomCam to co-host a debate on abortion next term. At the time of writing we’re waiting to hear back, but we’re hopeful that a healthy dialogue can take place.

It’s remarkable how much you can learn from people who don’t share your views, and university is the best chance most of us will get to do that. So here’s our response to our critics. If our arguments are weak, argue with us. If our motives are bad, expose them. If our events annoy you, come along and engage in discussion. But, we suggest, don’t try to shut down debate. Don’t be ‘oh so disruptive’. Because if you go down that route, people will start asking: What exactly is so frightening to you about free speech?

This is the question facing all those who took part in the censorship campaign. The story has gone round the world – it is already the lead item in this week’s Spectator, and has been covered in places as august as The Washington Post and as far away as The Philippine Times – because people are shocked. They think Oxford is better than this. Call us optimists, but we’re pretty confident they’re right.

The OSFL Committee