Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Category: Uncategorized

Oxford Students for Life 2015/16: Reflections on the Past Year

This is the text of the speech delivered by Johnny and Jo, the outgoing OSFL Presidents, at the OSFL AGM

4 years ago, my friend Amy and I were doing an early morning soup run for the homeless around Oxford. We got chatting and she mentioned that she wanted to get a pro-life society running at the university and, in my naïve keenness, I offered any assistance she might need. And thus we found our first President and Secretary – the beginnings of Oxford Students for Life, the planting of the seeds of life! From the many conversations that we went on to have and the grand plans we discussed, I couldn’t imagine that OSFL would be where it is today.

We have gone from a mailing list of just 50, comprising mainly our friends as we hadn’t yet launched the society publicly, to a mailing list of over 600 names (I definitely don’t have that many friends!). From our initial trepidation faced with the opposition of governing bodies such as OUSU, we have gone on to build a great relationship with their Student Parent and Carers Officer. We’re so proud to have a number of great supporters who have shown such willingness to defend OSFL and the pro-life cause, as even the past week has shown, when with only a couple of hours notice a large group turned up to vote against an OUSU motion affiliating themselves with Abortion Rights.

This year, the society has held its first ever debate on assisted suicide and, with a very distinguished panel of professors and doctors, it was a great success! We have run another pro-life feminism week, hosting via Skype all the way from Texas the incredibly insightful and entertaining New Wave Feminists, and gained much important information in our Student Parent Hackathon which we are in the process of using to lobby colleges so that they improve their facilities for student parents. This year, a particular focus has been on equipping our supporters so that we are able to effectively communicate the pro-life message through our friendships and conversations. We welcomed back OSFL founding member Greg Jackson for two great apologetics workshops on the beginning and end of life, leaving us all far more confident to broach the topics in conversation with friends. The focus on community and our own supporters continued to grow through our brilliant college reps, as well as through termly socials, which culminated on a punt at the start of 7th. It has been so encouraging to meet so many people eager to promote the value of human life.

I would like to introduce now our newly elected committee members before Jo says some very important thank you’s. This committee is entirely new and so we are particularly looking forward to all of the new experience and enthusiasm that they will bring to OSFL. We are very excited to welcome Georgia Clarke and Ben Conroy as our new co-Presidents. We have every confidence that they will lead OSFL from strength to strength, along with Liesje Wilkinson, Henry Drysdale, and Anna Branford who make up the rest of the committee. Thank you all of you for taking up the baton and for joining us in this work. We can’t wait to see what you have planned and will always be there to offer support!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a few thank you’s are in order. Firstly to Spud, our dear senior member and biggest fan (he even got us mentioned in a book! The name of OSFL is in print!): thank you for your encouragement and support. To Meg, our poster-maker; to Isabelle, for printing all of those posters and sending them round – you have been an excellent head college rep; to Molly, our blog editor-extraordinaire; to Catherine, for booking many a room; Nathan, our brilliant debate chair; to our college reps, without whom we would not be able to reach so many people; to Toby, Sam, and anyone who has ever liked or shared one of our posts, who has invited friends to our events or come along themselves (special mention to Dane with his 100% attendance record!); our thanks too to the Alliance of Pro-life Students for the support that they give to all pro-life societies and all the great work that they do ensuring the establishing and long running of the best societies around!

And last but not least, I must thank those I’ve had the pleasure of working with this year. Thank you to Josh and Lucia, our medics in residence. Not only have you brought with you the authority and experience of your studies but, with quiet diligence and a heroic willingness to attend 7am meetings, you have helped build up OSFL this year and for that, I am so grateful.

It has been a privilege to be involved with this society during my time at Oxford. Though I may have spent more time planning OSFL events than reading Baudelaire, I do not regret it and would do it again. I can tell the new committee that you are about to take the reigns of the most important society at the university and, though you may never know it, you may help save a life in the process. What a thing to be a part of! The other night at our end of year committee dinner, we were speaking of Wilberforce and the making of history – well, friends, OSFL is making history!

Here’s to the future of OSFL – it’s going to be a bright one!

Professor John Wyatt – 5 things we learnt

Last week OSFL hosted Professor John Wyatt, a professor of ethics and perinatology at UCL, who worked for more than 20 years as a consultant neonatologist at University College Hospital. The talk was full of fascinating insights from a career spent caring for newborns as young as 22 weeks, and the minefield of ethical dilemmas that naturally occur when dealing with such fragile human life. Here are five things we learnt from his talk:

1) Neonatology is a high tech world and the technology is always improving.

It is incredible to see how many preterm newborns are surviving from as young as 23 weeks

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 12.21.03

and that of those who do survive, a very large proportion suffer little or no impairment. The study below shows that in 2006 90% of babies born at 26 weeks suffered no impairment later in life.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 12.21.15

2) The prediction about a future “quality of life” is often highly inaccurate and subjective.

The very concept of a ‘quality of life’ is entirely subjective and so judgments will tend to reflect the prejudices and presuppositions of doctors and parents. The idea also assumes a form of biological determinism which is not supported by the evidence, and so the concept of a single variable called ‘quality of life’ is incoherent. Any one life has multiple dimensions of experience that are impossible to quantify and summarize with a single number, such as motor function, sensory function, cognitive function, creative abilities, relational experiences and family bonds, social resources, mood and affective experiences, and many others besides.

One study asked a whole range of disabled adolescents to rate the value of their lives, then they asked the parents to rate the value of their disabled adolescents’ lives, and finally they asked the pediatricians to do the same. The research showed that the disabled people put the value of their lives the highest, the parents put it somewhere in the middle, and the pediatricians put it the lowest.

Clinicians tend to assume that a biological impairment such as impaired neuromotor function translates automatically into a loss of well-being or life-satisfaction. As a result they tend to be blinded to the effects of social, economic and political factors in the lives of disabled children and adults. The problems of living and coping with disability may be as much a consequence of poor social attitudes and the lack of aids, resources and support, as the medical impairment itself.

3) Everybody is coming from somewhere

When discussing these highly complex ethical questions, it is important to bear in mind that no one approaches the question from an entirely neutral perspective, but that everyone is coming from somewhere.

This is particularly important with respect to the relationship between parents and healthcare professionals. The ideal is that the relationship is seen as “expert-expert”, based on the mutual respect for the differing expertise of the parties. Healthcare professionals of course bring expertise on the level of technical proficiency, but should also make sure to  include humanity, compassion, wisdom, and ethical integrity.

4) A way to help with difficult decisions about whether or not to withdraw life support: balance the benefits and burdens of treatment

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 12.22.25

It is painfully difficult making decisions about when it is appropriate to withdraw life support from a newborn, but the most helpful way to look at it is to balance the benefits and the burdens of the treatment. As soon as the burdens outweigh the benefits, the treatment becomes abusive and there is a legitimate reason to withdraw them.

We must also bear in mind the key ethical distinction between withdrawing treatment and euthanasia: intention. Withdrawing treatment does not have the intention of death, whereas euthanasia does. Intentions matter in a moral universe, and are central to the legal analysis of actions, so should be carefully considered in the ethical implications of actions.

5) Neonatal care is a way of saying to these tiny little beings: “it’s good that you exist, it’s good that you’re in the world”.

Caring for these vulnerable newborns is a profound and rewarding experience. Even when intensive support is withdrawn, it is vital that care continues, in the form of food and fluids, pain relief, and tender loving care.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 14.03.58

Allowing a baby to die at peace, with symptoms controlled and in his or her parents’ arms, can be as much a triumph of neonatal care as when the child recovers and goes home.

If you would like to read more about Professor John Wyatt and his work as a neonatologist, consider buying his book, Matters of Life and Death.

A Ghost of a Chance? Turning all Feminists into Pro-Life Feminists


In 2014-2015, I somehow ended up chairing a college gender equality society. In doing so, I spent a year as a ‘closeted’ pro-life feminist – who’d only come to that position after taking up the role – amongst a group of very smart, idealistic, and compassionate pro-choice feminists.

During fresher’s week that year, I tried doing what I thought would be the most important part of the job – trying to win people who disagreed with me over to the feminist cause. One thing I noticed quickly was that at lot of ‘gotcha’ objections had something in common: “So if you’re interested in ‘equality’, why don’t you do anything about men’s rights?” (We have done at least one event on this a year actually!) ‘Why don’t you do events on the Middle East?” (We just did one.) ‘”Why are all you western feminists being culturally imperialist doing events on the middle-east in a pitying superior way without talking to women from the Middle East? (Our event on Iran consisted of a screening of Persepolis followed by a talk by an Iranian academic!).

The point of all this, is a general one: if you’re part of a movement that people have negative impressions of, these impressions can be quite difficult to dispel. People accuse you of things without checking that you’ve actually done them. A portion of those people will probably continue to believe that you are guilty of these things, even if you tell them they’re wrong. Winning them over can be a bit like convincing someone ghosts exists if they think you’re a crazy guy who believes in ghosts. ‘But there is a ghost in my house actually’ doesn’t cut it. You pretty much have to physically drag them over to the ghost. Seeing might not even be enough. Sometimes it feels like you have to do the equivalent of actually introducing them to, and making them shake hands with the ghost to get them to really believe you. It’s not easy.

This is sometimes what it’s like trying to convince people feminism isn’t some hypocritical, self-centred movement for rich western women. It’s also what it can be like for pro-life feminists trying to win over our pro-choice counter parts – there are some pretty common ideas that people will believe about you without necessarily having any good reason to do so: that you are motivated by paternalistic concerns and don’t trust women to be make their own decisions, that you are not genuine and just cynically using the feminist label as a talking point etc.

If you want to look for pro-life feminist arguments, or examples of pro-life feminist organisations they’re a google search away.

So I’d like to focus on something more specific. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to win over pro-choice feminists like the people I was on the committee with: how to win back the mainstream feminist movement and win over pro-choice feminists given that trying to do so can often be much like telling a ghost doubter you’ve seen a ghost.* Sometimes, because of the ghost doubter phenomenon, great points just aren’t convincing. Here are some ideas and tactics I think could help counter that.

1) Use pro-choice sources to back up your arguments. If you are talking about how the aftermath of abortion can often be difficult for women, or how women are sometimes pressured into abortions by male partners, and workplaces that expect women’s bodies to accommodate them rather than the other way around, try to start off by using pro-choice resources like 1-in-3 (a pro-choice website where women post their abortion stories anonymously). Pro-life websites aren’t credible sources here – it’s like backing up your claim about the ghost using testimony from the strange kid at school who set up a ‘ghost appreciation society’. Of course, pro-choice sources can take you only so far, but if you aren’t using a pro-choice source, try to use a neutral one instead, such as the NHS or Wikipedia, even if they gloss over some of the details.

2) Speak their ‘language’ (equal rights, discrimination, ableism, prejudice, dehumanisation!). The pro-choice stance of saying that some human’s rights are dependent on their value to other people, or their physical and mental capacities is not usual feminist rhetoric! Emphasise the fact that a pro-life culture requires a huge cultural shift, a revolution. You don’t want to return to the 1950s – like them you want a new, better world. Make sure they know this. This isn’t a culture war between them and you – you share a lot of values.

3) Emphasising the women’s welfare is important BUT the crucial issue at stake is that this is a human rights issue for humans who aren’t born yet. The worst thing about abortion is that it kills. It is awful that some (not all) women regret abortions they were pressured into, or got when they thought they had no other options, but the reason abortion is wrong, is not that women regret it or are hurt by it – make this very clear. I have been at a debate on abortion where a very large chunk of the Q&A was about the number of women who regret abortions. One person said ‘shouldn’t women be allowed to make their own mistakes even if they regret them’. This was a reasonable reaction because from his point of view, abortion is not the killing of a human being like us. Unless you bring it back to that to the fact that this is a human rights abuse, it will look a little like you are just saying ‘we need to protect all these poor silly women from themselves’. Which is of course not what you are saying.

4) Women are moral agents who are just as capable of making decisions as men. Make sure they know that you know that! Be careful about making general statements that focus too much on women who are victims or who are hurt, without going into the structures that put them into those situations or bringing up any suggestions as to how to help them – that is what they expect you to do…Because of background assumptions to the contrary, you really want to show that you know these are rational adults who are placed in difficult situations (except when they aren’t adults) – not little girls who are too silly to understand what’s at stake.

5) Acknowledge that there are cases where being pregnant is incredibly tough, and if women don’t get an abortion they will be making sacrifices to continue with the pregnancy and this is unfair. You don’t need to minimise the real suffering carrying pregnancies to term can sometimes involve to make your point. If you are talking to someone who is well versed in pro-choice feminism, and you never address this, you may not really deal with their main concern and you might end up talking past each other. If you do bring it up, talking about ways in which some of these unfair structures (like say the lack of support for student parents) can be changed is a great way to find common ground.

6) Don’t let them get away with saying opposing late term abortions, or ‘abortion on demand’ is misogynistic or to do with a mistrust in women, a ‘belief that women will just get abortions like sandwiches.’ Just say that women get late term abortions because they end up in situations that are genuinely difficult (and give examples or think of reasons, as usual using neutral or pro-choice resources when possible). They happen and we all know they do. But this is still a human rights abuse.

7) Go to feminist events (if you have the time). Don’t say you care. Prove it to them.

8) Acknowledge mistakes. I find that if you actually get caught out on making a mistake and acknowledge it, it makes people much more likely to do the same to you. Besides, they might have ghosts of their own to show you.

*By the way this is merely an analogy, I don’t believe in ghosts, or mean that people who are the ghost doubters in this analogy are irrational or silly.


Ciara O’Rourke is a Philosophy student at Trinity College Dublin where she was a Gender Equality Society committee member for two years (2013-2015)



Pro-Life and Conservative

Another article in our series “Pro-Life and Political”, in which several writers will explain how their different political opinions shape their pro-life views.

I have always been cautious about giving political allegiances or parties the same weight as moral issues: my moral beliefs come before my political stances. Nevertheless, morality is a political issue. The rightness or wrongness of particular actions occurs within society, and so our actions are necessarily both moral and political. If we value our morality at all, it will guide and impact upon the political sides of our lives. Being pro-life is not a party political issue, and does not even belong on any particular part of the traditional left-right political spectrum. But my ‘small-c’ political conservatism informs, and is informed by, my pro-life stance.

Conservatives generally want people to have a chance in life, what the Australians might call a “fair go”. This is the basis of why most conservatives have an instinctive liking for the market: everyone has a chance to succeed; the best ideas, if things work properly, will produce the best results. There is no “fair go” for the little ones aborted before they are born. The ‘terminated’ are never given a chance in life. They’re not even given a chance to breathe. It can sound silly, but how many great economists, great academics, great businesspeople, great sportspeople have been killed in abortion clinics? They haven’t been given their chance, which violates so many conservative principles.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that, “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person,” in Article 3. It also says, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” These are the ground rules that govern conservative rhetoric, which emphasises liberty and security for all. It seems obvious to me that this extends to the person inside the womb. What are the pre-born if not human? They have their human DNA in its completeness, they are growing, and their dependence on their mother should make us more, not less, compassionate towards them. The unborn child is a ‘person’, as even Hillary Clinton admitted recently, and so has the right to life, liberty, and security as all other persons.

The fight for every person to be equal before the law is a conservative fight: conservatism rails against the disregard for the individual, against the overwhelming power of the state, against the morphing of the individual into one greater collective. The individual person is the most important thing to a conservative; working together with other people, self-sacrificing for others, and fundamentally being recognised as an individual with their own – not just collective – inalienable rights. We must be liberal in giving these rights, and acknowledge that even an individual person whom we cannot see directly (though we can interact with them) has these rights.

Women, sadly, have many pressures to kill their children in the womb. Conservative values instinctively fight for measures to prevent these pressures: building strong family bonds; creating a strong society based on the family rather than the overarching state; creating local support structures; reducing dependence on the state (the same state that will give them an abortion if they ask for it). The conservative looks to the local community, guided by minimal but strong laws, to create environments where motherhood is valued. Creating multiple local environments, where life is respected and valued, requires strong community bonds based on positive ideals rather than state-imposed edicts or class war. Conservatives naturally gravitate towards this ideal.

End of life care is a major pro-life issue that I feel is often overtaken in favour of abortion, but both have conservative aspects. End of life care is where the battle really is: this is where the culture of death is attacking now, and we must be ready to fight it. On this front, too, my small-c conservatism calls for a pro-life attitude: respect the individual, care for them, acknowledge their rights. Even if we talk dispassionately about market forces, where else do we find such a repository of wisdom than the elderly? Where else are caring skills able to flourish more than caring for the sick and the old? These people, with their innate value (as well as their opportunities and mines of valuable thoughts), cannot just be extinguished in the name of ‘progress’ in our throw-away society.

I was asked to write a short article about being pro-life and conservative. I hope this has explained something of how having conservative values and being pro-life go hand in glove. But I know – and am glad – that people from many different political persuasions are pro-life. Ultimately, I am pro-life because I believe in the inherent value of all human life from conception to natural death. That requires engagement in politics, but goes beyond political allegiance.

John Coverdale took his Ecclesiastical History degree at the University of Oxford in 2013, having studied at Campion Hall. He currently works in the heritage sector.


Pro-Life and Labour

Another article in our series “Pro-Life and Political”, in which several writers will explain how their different political opinions shape their pro-life views.

These days, it is becoming increasingly rare to be pro-life and a Labour Party activist. This is surprising given the commitment to human rights, which lies at the heart of socialism and its concern for the most vulnerable in society, together with its opposition to the death penalty. In his Maiden Speech in the House of Commons, during the Abortion (Amendment) Bill 1979, Dale Campbell Savours MP cited Aneurin Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’: The capacity for emotional concern for individual life is the most significant quality of a civilized human society’ .

Although the Labour Party has no plans to change abortion law, it is still expected that people who wish to progress in the Labour Party are pro-choice. Indeed, the Labour Party group set up to encourage women to stand as parliamentary candidates, Emily’s List, stipulates that women who put themselves forward support a woman’s right to choose.

Over recent years, abortion amendments have focused on time limits, but it’s important that abortion is seen in a much broader context, where women make decisions based on their housing , employment rights, and healthcare.

It is a great shame that so many in the Labour Party too readily dismiss the pro-life cause, since there is enormous potential to make common cause on a wide range of issues, which would benefit women faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

Labour has long campaigned for more affordable housing. One commitment that could be made would be to give women in poverty, faced with an unplanned pregnancy, a high priority for housing. This would certainly be a controversial move, given the belief of some – though unsupported by evidence – that some women only get pregnant to get a Council flat. It is also vital to provide supported housing for young women who might struggle to look after a child on their own.

Maternity rights, maternity pay and the right of women to return to work after having a baby have gradually improved since the 1990s, thanks to the Employment Relations Act which Labour introduced in 1999, and pressure from the EU. Pay and benefits for working mothers means that women no longer have to fear the loss of their livelihood when they have a baby. Children’s Centres were another ambitious but highly successful Labour Party initiative during the first two Labour terms in government after 1997. These were built on the belief that support in the early years of a child’s life are the most important for improving every child’s life chances.

Under Labour, Child Benefit rose significantly. Sadly it is now being cut back by the Conservative Government and limited to the first two children in a family. For many families on a tight budget and high housing costs, the pressure of an unplanned third pregnancy might tempt some couples to consider an abortion. The number of larger families is actually not very high in the UK. Financial support is important for all children, regardless of where they come in the family.

Insecurity of employment and housing bedevil British society today and place enormous pressure on relationships. Campaigning for more affordable and secure housing and for employment rights are both essential for helping families stay together as well as being longstanding planks of Labour Party policy. Women (and it is almost always women) who are left without either the emotional of financial support of their child’s father face a double blow. Not only are they reliant on a single income, often part-time, they are also unable to find suitable housing in many parts of the country since two incomes are needed to pay the rent. My own experience as a city councillor in Oxford has shown me that poor women, who are left to bring up children on their own, are the people who suffer most from cuts in benefits and public services.

The Labour Party has an excellent record in providing support for pregnant women and those with children. It can and should work together with its pro-life members to create a society where support for women with unplanned pregnancies is so good that abortion would very rarely ever be the choice a woman would want to make.

Mary Clarkson has been a Labour City Councillor in Oxford for the past 18 years and is a former student at the University of Oxford, having read English at St John’s.

Understanding an Alliance: Part 3

White House


IV. From the Jaws of Victory

The pro-life cause won a significant victory in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989). The court was answering the question about how comprehensive Roe v. Wade’s ban on abortion legislation was. Since the 1980s, in tension with Roe, some states had been limiting the use of government funds, facilities, and employees to perform or assist with abortions. Webster allowed for states to legislate in this area, effectively allowing states to restrict abortion. But it did not seek to address the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade. For Scalia, the decision did not go far enough: he wrote an independent concurrence admonishing the court for not handling that issue outright, arguing it would only arise again.

He was right. In 1992 came Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The case involved a challenge to several different restrictions the state of Pennsylvania had placed on abortion: a twenty-four hour waiting period, provision of information about alternatives to abortion, and requiring a married woman seeking an abortion to notify her husband. Only two judges, Blackmun and Stevens, wanted to strike these restrictions down entirely, showing how far the court had improved since 1973. Rehnquist and White, the two dissenters in Roe v. Wade, wanted to uphold the restrictions, as did Scalia and Thomas. They were ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving states free to regulate or ban abortion as they saw fit. This left O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy. There was a great hope that all three would vote down Roe v Wade—O’Connor had famously said that the reasoning behind Roe was “on a collision course with itself.” The pro-life cause seemed on the verge of a triumph.

Despite these hopes, O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy developed a different position. Roe would stand. But the three set aside the actual argument of Roe. Instead, they invoked the doctrine of stare decisis—the policy of adhering to judicial precedent—and argued that it compelled them to affirm Roe, whether or not the actual argument of Roe was mistaken. It was a curious argument, as many times in the history of the court, previous decisions that had been deemed incorrect were overruled.

The majority further argued that in light of the political controversy surrounding Roe v Wade, if the court were to “overrule under fire” it would damage “the people’s acceptance” of the “Court’s legitimacy.” The majority decided that abortion could be regulated as long as regulations did not place an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion. In practice, states could not prohibit early-term abortions. In the end, the majority seemed most concerned with forming a political compromise that could resolve the abortion issue once and for all.

Scalia, for his part, mocked this line of reasoning. Comparing Casey to the Dred Scott decision that tried to resolve the slavery debate by finding a constitutional right to slavery, he wrote:

It is no more realistic for us in this case…to think that an issue of the sort they both involved–an issue involving life and death, freedom and subjugation–can be “speedily and finally settled” by the Supreme Court, as President James Buchanan in his inaugural address said the issue of slavery in the territories would be.

The pro-life cause came within a hair’s breath of victory in 1992, but there was no breakthrough. Moreover, 1992 saw the election of the first President dedicated to keeping abortion legal: Bill Clinton. By then, the Democratic party had already defined itself as a pro-choice party. The 1992 Democratic Convention denied the Governor of Pennsylvania, Robert P. Casey—the same Casey who was the defendant in Planned Parenthood v. Casey—the chance to speak at the Convention.

As President, Clinton wanted to choose pro-abortion Supreme Court judges. This consideration was therefore a top priority for his selection team. The 1993 hunt for a replacement for White led to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but her appointment hit a stumbling block when the vetting committee found she had criticized Roe v. Wade. When it was revealed that she still supported a right to abortion, just on different theoretical grounds, they were relieved and went ahead with her appointment.


V. Casey’s Silver Lining

At the present moment, the result of the campaign to change the court has reached a drawn-out stalemate. Two camps are firmly entrenched, with one or two “swing voters.” George W. Bush and Barack Obama each chose two judges to the Supreme Court, filling vacancies for the both conservative and liberal camps. Since 1992, the court has only ruled twice on abortion, dealing with bans on partial-birth abortion. In Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), a narrow majority (5-4) struck down the ban as violating Roe v. Wade, but in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) another narrow majority (5-4) upheld a different federal law banning partial-birth abortion.

Nevertheless, Casey was not a total defeat. O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy were sympathetic to conservative jurisprudence: the Supreme Court’s authority had limits. Hence, they only struck down the regulation on abortion that required spousal notification. Casey, therefore, left a considerable gap for states to regulate abortion, provided laws did not place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion. The pro-life movement has poured into the breach, advancing in state legislatures the pro-life legislation that was undone in 1973. They have made tremendous gains since 1992:

  • The number of states with parental involvement laws has increased from 20 to 38.
  • The number of states with informed consent laws has increased from 18 to 33.
  • The number of states with abortion clinic regulations increased from 21 to 30.
  • 21 States have provisions to give women information about the availability of ultrasound services prior to abortion. Six of these states require an ultrasound for each abortion require the abortion provider to offer the opportunity to view the image.

These laws, as well as public funding restrictions, parental involvement laws, and properly designed informed consent laws all have helped reduce US abortion rates to a level not seen since the court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.

But these gains are fragile. They are contingent on the composition of the Supreme Court. The American pro-life movement is acutely aware that, with a single decision from the Supreme Court, all these gains can vanish overnight—as they did in 1973. And another such decision may be drawing near.

In 2013, Texas passed a law that requires physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and sets the health and safety standards for abortion clinics at the same level as those for an ambulatory surgical center. Because most abortion clinics do not meet these standards, it is possible that 34 out of 40 abortion clinics in Texas may close. Defenders of abortion have challenged this law in court, and it has now made its way to the very top of the judicial system. On March 2nd 2016, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Bearing in mind the “undue burden” standard of Planned Parenthood v Casey, the court will consider to what extent laws that regulate abortion for the stated purpose of promoting health place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking an abortion. This is the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case concerning abortion in a decade. Moreover, with the passing of Antonin Scalia, it is at a moment the balance of the court may tilt decisively against the pro-life cause. Much depends on who is elected in November.


At the end of his 2008 letter, John Haldane wrote that, “existing political alignments offer no easy home” for pro-lifers. He is indeed correct: one should never declare that the victory of one political party is a victory for the pro-life movement. Republican Presidents have a mixed record of appointing judges to the Supreme Court have resisted a supposed constitutional right to abortion—since 1980, only four out of seven have done so decisively. But Democratic Presidents have a perfect record. They have always picked pro-abortion candidates.

It is thanks to Republican Presidents that the present gains have been made. But they are not permanent. When the Supreme Court has lost its most vocal critic of a constitutional right to abortion, and the Republican Party may very well nominate a pro-abortion candidate for President, pro-lifers may look nostalgically back on the days when at least one political party gave them and their cause a fair hearing, and a chance to change the composition of the Supreme Court. The battle to overturn Roe v. Wade will continue—but friendly politicians and judges may grow fewer.


Nathan Pinkoski is a DPhil candidate in Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford



Understanding an Alliance: Part 2

White House

II. The Plan to Overturn Roe v. Wade

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers needed a new strategy. First, the pro-life movement tried to pass a human life amendment to the US Constitution, which would have protected human life from conception until natural death. Over the next decade, the multiple attempts to propose this amendment in Congress failed to reach formal debate. This strategy achieved little, so pro-lifers changed their tack, deciding to strike at the heart of the problem. The new goal was to overturn Roe v. Wade directly. The means would be to change the composition of the Supreme Court. After all, to overturn Roe, all one needed was five out of nine judges.

This aligned with the plans of conservatives. Frustrated by judicial activism that only advanced liberal policies, conservatives were searching for more restrained judges to appoint to the court. Their most powerful intellectual allies were constitutional originalists. Both originalists and pro-lifers began to focus on changing the composition of the Supreme Court. But they faced a difficult battle. A 7-2 majority had decided Roe v. Wade. To overturn it, at least three judges needed to be replaced.

By adopting this strategy, pro-lifers knew they were setting themselves up for a long, inter-generational struggle, for three reasons. First, Supreme Court appointments are for life. To change the composition of the court, one has to wait for judges to retire or die. Consequently, few Presidents ever get to choose more than one or two judges—and they would have to be the right judges. But that raises the second issue: one needs a President sympathetic to the pro-life cause. So to change the court, one would need the right President as well as an opportune vacancy. Third, the US Senate must confirm the President’s appointments to the Supreme Court by a simple majority. If no majority is reached, the President has to appoint someone different. So the Senate would have to be favourable to the President’s choice as well. These three forces could hardly align more than once or twice a decade. It was therefore, a strategy that depended on finding good judges, supporting good politicians, and good luck.


III. The Battle for the Supreme Court

In 1980, the conservatives gained the upper hand. They entered the White House with Ronald Reagan, who commanded an energetic and strongly conservative administration. But pro-lifers and originalists had yet to make their case for changing the composition of the court. In 1981, when a vacancy opened up, Ronald Reagan made his first pick for the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. Reagan was focused on fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a woman to the court, and was less concerned about scrutinizing O’Connor on conservative jurisprudence or on abortion. She was considered generally conservative and aspiring for a more restrained, less activist Supreme Court, but was ambiguous on the subject of abortion. Pro-lifers were somewhat disappointed, but hopeful that she would be on their side.

In 1986, Reagan had another chance. Warren Burger, who had voted for Roe v. Wade, resigned as chief justice. This time, the originalist and pro-life alliance had picked up political influence. It had a strong advocate within the White House, in the person of Attorney General Edwin Meese. Meese advised Reagan to move William Rehnquist, who had written a forceful dissent to Roe v. Wade, to Chief Justice, leaving a vacancy for associate justice. To replace him, Meese suggested Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, the most prominent originalist judges in the country. Reagan chose Scalia. The Democrats in the Senate decided to fight the decision to move Rehnquist, but they lost 65-33. Having tried to stop Rehnquist and failed, the Democrats had no political capital to thwart Scalia, and his appointment was confirmed unanimously.

In 1987, another seat opened up. This time, Reagan decided to choose Robert Bork. But liberals were gathering a fight. They were anxious that with Bork on the court, their liberal majority would be decisively weakened. They decided to block him. In fact, “block” is something of an understatement. A more appropriate term is “carpet-bomb.” Through an impressive national mobilization, the “Block Bork” campaign set out to destroy Bork and his reputation.

On July 1st Reagan announced Bork as his nominee. Forty-five minutes later, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy took the floor, declaiming:

‘Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens…’

It was blatant slander—not a single line was an accurate representation of Bork’s judicial philosophy. But as a way to organize opposition, it worked. Senators swore to filibuster the appointment if Bork did not accept Roe v. Wade as law. Labour unions, women’s groups, bar associations, civil liberty groups, many of which had hitherto kept themselves neutral over court nominations, spoke out against Bork. Across the country, public protests were organized. On the first day of the Senate’s hearing, Gregory Peck narrated a nation-wide television advertisement against Bork. Bork was defeated handily in the Senate, 58-42. So ferocious, yet so successful, was the savaging of Bork’s reputation that a neologism emerged, “to Bork,” now featured in the OED:

To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way.

Reagan and Meese were infuriated by the whole affair, but they knew they were beaten. The White House at the time was reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was deemed expedient to pick a moderate conservative who would be confirmed. They picked Anthony M. Kennedy. He was asked whether he supported a constitutional right to privacy—in light of Roe, code for “a right to abortion.” He did. The Senate confirmed him without incident.

Following Reagan as President, George H.W. Bush had the opportunity to appoint to replace two justices who supported Roe v. Wade with two who did not. He chose David Souter and Clarence Thomas. In the first case, Bush opted for an uncontroversial pick—Souter’s record on contentious topics was vague. In the second case, Bush opted for a well-known conservative. It provoked a vicious nomination battle, but the Senate confirmed him 52-48. With five justices appointed between them, Reagan and Bush had succeeded in changing the composition of the court and appointing a majority. But would this majority take down Roe v. Wade?


Nathan Pinkoski is a DPhil candidate in Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford

Understanding an Alliance: the Pro-Life Movement and Conservatism in America

White House

OSFL represented outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington, D.C.


This article is the first of three instalments in a history of the American pro-life movement and its alliance with American conservatism.

What does being pro-life have to with political conservatism? In the United States, it matters a great deal. But outside of the United States, pro-lifers remain suspicious of the American alliance between political conservatism and the pro-life movement. Non-Americans argue that the pro-life movement has gained little from supporting political conservatives (usually from the Republican Party) who are against abortion. In 2008, just after the US election, the Scottish pro-life philosopher John Haldane delivered an eloquent version of this argument, published as an open letter to American pro-lifers. He offered a bit of “friendly advice”: do not ally the pro-life cause too closely with the Republican party. Haldane’s letter remains insightful eight years later, as the Republican party has degenerated into civil war in the face of this year’s presidential election.

Yet the unexpected passing of the United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, considered one of the most politically conservative judges on the court, offers the chance to examine the legacy of the alliance between conservatism and the pro-life movement in America in a different light. Contrary to casual portrayals, it is not an alliance between the pro-life movement and the Republican party per se. Rather, it is an alliance between the pro-life movement and a school of constitutional jurisprudence, “originalism.” Republican Presidents sympathetic to both the pro-life movement and originalism have made a more pro-life jurisprudence possible. As Scalia was both the court’s most vocal proponent of constitutional originalism, and also an unceasing critic of a constitutional right to abortion, his career as Supreme Court Justice personified this alliance. And the alliance between originalism and the pro-life cause, while not a total victory, still deserves to be recognised as a success for the American pro-life movement.


  1. The Rise of Judicial Activism

The basic reason for the alliance between the pro-life movement and originalism concerns the character of American law. What is the supreme law in the United States? The answer is the US Constitution. It is a single, written document with authority over all other laws and customs. It limits the actions of all government officials, and sets forth the rights and liberties of the people. As it is a written document, the words and phrases of the Constitution are immensely important. They cannot be ignored, or assigned whatever meaning the interpreter wants. If they were, there would be little purpose in having a written Constitution. Yet there is an interpretive problem with understanding the meaning of these words. Do the meanings of the words change with the times, or ought they to be read exactly as they were intended in the Constitution’s first drafting?

Proponents of constitutional originalism argue that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed by the meaning of the words they had at the time they were adopted—their “original” meaning, as it were. New meanings cannot be invented, and old meanings cannot be avoided. The American people can change the Constitution by amendment, but they cannot alter its meaning to suit present purposes. Constitutional originalism is an argument that the majority may rule and legislate in the manner they please, as long as they do not violate the express terms of the Constitution.

By the 1960s, the Supreme Court – which is tasked with the interpretation and application of the Constitution – had set originalism aside. The new fashion was “living constitutionalism,” where the meaning of the words of the Constitution changes with the times. This gave the Supreme Court considerable flexibility in interpreting and applying the Constitution; Supreme Court judges now had considerable power to strike down laws they found objectionable. During the 1960s, the Supreme Court became a court of judicial activism. It used its power to interpret the constitution in order to advance particular policy ends, such as redrawing election districts, ending government-directed school prayers, striking down laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives, or obliging police to recite criminal suspects their rights upon arrest (the famous “Miranda” rights popularized in television police dramas). Some of their decisions arguably realized good policy outcomes. But the Supreme Court’s analysis bore little relation to the words of the Constitution. The Court was assuming a sweeping authority for itself. Moreover, political conservatives were increasingly troubled that the Court only used its authority to advance ideologically liberal policy outcomes. As the 1960s progressed, the Court’s decisions provoked greater controversy than ever before. Conservatives became highly critical of judicial activism, but the Court was proving difficult to restrain and its decisions were more and more unpredictable.

In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the activist Supreme Court went nuclear. It declared that the US Constitution provided a privacy right to abortion. It was an egregious case of judicial activism that flagrantly disregarded the text of the Constitution. The Constitution provided no right to privacy, so the court had to at once invent that right, and then argue that the right of privacy further entailed a right to abortion. The Court then claimed this right was to be protected from government restriction, making it, as a matter of constitutional law, absolute. What dismayed many about Roe, even supporters of abortion, was that it could not possibly be defended as an interpretation of the Constitution.

The consequences of the case were catastrophic, and not only in human terms. Since the 1960s, pro-lifers had been advancing the pro-life cause in legislatures and in the courts, advocating for protecting the life of the unborn. They had been winning noteworthy successes in the early 1970s, encouraging states to pass laws that restricted abortion. But Roe wiped all those gains out. Pro-lifers lost the chance to advance their arguments through democratic means, and were at once excluded from making legal arguments. Roe was a great political defeat for the pro-life movement.

To be continued…

Nathan Pinkoski is a DPhil candidate in Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford

What is the Unborn?

This article has been adapted with permission from the Alliance of Pro-Life Students


Have you ever tried to provide a scientific answer to the question ‘What is the unborn?’ without using the words ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘embryo’, ‘child’, zygote’, ‘blastocyst’, ‘clump of cells’ or ‘a pregnancy’? Perhaps not. It’s easy, in the context of popular debate, to use the same terms over and over again. But it’s of vital importance to know exactly what you’re talking about when you use those terms. So, let’s give it a go.

From the earliest stages of development, the unborn is a distinct, living and whole human being.

And this can be proven by turning to the science of embryology.

Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote”

(T. W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition, Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006, p. 11)

‘…a new cell is formed from the union of a male a female gamete. The cell referred to as a zygote, contains a new combination of genetic material, resulting in an individual different from either parent and from anyone else in the world

(Keithe L. Moore & T.V.N. Persuad, Before We Are Born – Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects [W.B. Saunders Company, 1998. 5th edition) p. 500

Both of these come from standard textbooks in embryology, and if you look, you can find many more. These facts about the development of a human being have been known for a long time. It is not controversial in the medical/scientific community to say that life begins at conception/fertilisation. This is a scientific fact. To deny that a foetus, embryo or zygote is a human being is to show your scientific ignorance.

But let’s flesh this out a little more.

As was said, the unborn (or what exists in a woman’s womb when she is pregnant) is a distinct, living and whole human being. But what is meant by each of these and how do we know they are true?

  1. Distinct: the unborn is a distinct human being. He/she has a unique DNA structure, different from his/her mother’s (and father’s) DNA. When sperm and egg combine at fertilisation, there is a new combination of genetic material.
    Furthermore, the unborn is not an organ of the mother. The unborn is not like a woman’s pancreas. The unborn is a distinct human which lives for 9 months or so in her womb.
  2. Living: in the category of things which are alive (as opposed to things which are not capable of being alive or dead like plastic or water) the unborn are undeniably alive. How do we know this? How do we know that they are not dead? Simple – dead things don’t grow. The unborn is growing extremely rapidly throughout its wombly existence, something it could not be doing if it were not alive.
  3. Whole: the unborn is a whole human being. It is not a part of a human being.
    Sperm and egg are parts of a human being. Left on their own they will never become a human being. Only when they combine at conception/fertilisation, does a whole human being with a complete genetic code come into existence. The 23 chromosomes from the father and the 23 chromosomes from the mother combine to give the complete 46 chromosomes that is typical of the human species.
    The unborn does not become a human being because he/she is already completely and fully human. Nothing more needs to be added to make the unborn a complete human. Yes, there is much development that must take place. Yes, he or she does not have a heart or brain at the very beginning of his or her existence, but at the very beginning of his/her existence, no heart is needed. When a baby is first born there is much development which needs to take place, but we do not deny that they are fully human. They are immature but they are no less human.
    Perhaps we can illustrate this in the following way. If I have a car chassis, I have part of a car. There is much more that needs to be added to make it a whole car. Similarly, the car engine is part of the car, as is the steering wheel, as is the gear box, as is the petrol tank. It is only when all these parts are added together (and many more) that we have a whole or complete car!
    Living things are not like this. They are not parts which are constructed from the outside. Rather, from the first moment of their existence, they are a whole and they are internally directed towards their mature selves. This is the same for all animals and plants. The unborn is a whole human being which needs time, nutrition and the right environment to mature.

Finally, we should note the species. An unborn human being is clearly a member of the species homo sapien. A male and female of the human species, when they procreate, can only produce another member of that species. And what is made in procreation, at the moment of fertilisation, is a distinct, living, and whole human being.

Greg Jackson is a former Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, and a former OSFL committee member

Event Preview: Greg Jackson on the Ethics of Abortion



Flash back to the Sixth Form common room: I, an enthusiastic pro-lifer, was willing to get stick for my beliefs, but really had very little idea how to communicate them. I remember one of my male friends making an off-hand comment that if he ever ‘got a girl pregnant’, of course he would tell her to have an abortion. Cue my outburst. I shouted. I told him how awful he was to think that: to talk about choice one moment and then to offer this hypothetical woman none. I was angry, and I was rash. The rest of our friends in the common room looked on as I got more and more exasperated and he just shrugged off what I had to say. The bell rang. We went to class. He probably forgot the conversation fairly quickly.

This was not an entirely fruitless conversation. I had a message a few months later from a friend who had witnessed this argument saying that he had changed his mind about abortion because of it. But really, I’m surprised that I got that note – I didn’t think I deserved it. I still worry that someone in the room who heard me decided, then and there, that they could never speak to me about abortion because of my reaction, or that one of my friends who might have been affected by abortion felt they could not tell me about it. Instead of showing the reasoning and the compassion that support my view, I might have made a lasting impression of anger. Part of me thinks that, carried away by emotion, I did not remember what it really was that we were arguing about.

This is not the kind of conversation that you want to have about abortion. When a friend makes a passing comment, you certainly need to talk to them about it, but hopefully with much more wisdom than I demonstrated that day. You need to be able to explain calmly why you are pro-life: why you know life begins at conception, why this matters, and why we have to provide real care for mothers and their children before and after birth. These are hard conversations to have, but they are some of the most worthwhile ones. I have learnt a lot since that argument, and am still learning with each person that I talk to about such a personal and important subject.

On Monday, Greg Jackson, former OSFL member and former Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-life Students, will be talking to us about the ethics of abortion. It’s the kind of talk that would have helped me a lot in my Sixth Form days. He’s going to get us thinking about the questions at the heart of the abortion debate that each person must consider, and help us to understand the arguments behind the slogans we so often hear. If you’re pro-life but struggle to articulate why, if you think you’re pro-life but don’t really know why, or if you’re pro-life but struggle to keep calm and find yourself saying the wrong thing when talking to friends, then this is the event for you. Looking forward to seeing you on Monday!

RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/205661023120355/

Jo Jackson is co-president of Oxford Students for Life