Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: Abortion law

Statement from Oxford Students for Life Responding to Oxford SU’s “Right to protest, Right to choose” statement

With their latest statement, WomCam have decided to double down on their attack on free speech, while claiming that they are doing no such thing.

They claim in their statement that they “were not protesting Oxford Students for Life or their speakers’ right to free speech” and that they “were not breaking the law”.

We’ve received legal advice that WomCam were breaking the law precisely because they were denying our freedom of speech.

Under Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, the University is required “to issue and keep up to date a code of practice to be followed by all members, students and employees of the University for the organisation of meetings and other events”.

The code of practice is as follows:

“Members, students and employees of the University must conduct themselves at meetings and other events on University and OUSU premises so as to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the University and for visiting speakers. The University believes that a culture of free, open and robust discussion can be achieved only if all concerned avoid needlessly offensive or provocative action and language. The freedom protected by this Code of Practice is confined to the exercise of freedom of speech within the law.”

Given that the protesters shouted down the event continuously for 40 minutes, called the attendees and speakers “anti-choice bigots”, gave attendees the middle finger, and blocked the projector screen, we’re confident that they engaged in “needlessly offensive or provocative action and language” and did not “conduct themselves at meetings and other events on University and OUSU premises so as to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the University and for visiting speakers.”

Considering Oxford SU’s statement that “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate”, they confirm in their statement itself that they were not acting to facilitate “open and robust discussion”.

We’ve received legal advice that had they protested outside, or even staged a walk-out, they would have been within their rights. But disrupting the event for 40 minutes in this way breached the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. By ignoring security requests to leave the venue, they were also guilty of aggravated trespass.

WomCam of course have a right to freedom to expression. But a right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to prevent other people from speaking.

Press Release: Oxford Students for Life Expresses Sadness and Anger at Disruptive Protest by Oxford SU WomCam

Oxford Students for Life have expressed their sadness and anger at “a deliberate attempt to shut down discussion and dialogue through harassment and bullying”. The disruptive protest was organised by the Oxford SU Women’s Campaign to target OSFL’s “Abortion in Ireland” event on Wednesday 1st November at St John’s College.

Anna Branford, co-president of OSFL explains: “At the beginning of the event, I explicitly welcomed all people, whatever their views, to the talk, and emphasised that the format of the evening was such that half the time would be allotted to the two speakers – Breda O’Brien of the Irish Times and barrister Lorcan Price – and the other half would be fully open to questions.

“One minute into her presentation, a group of approximately fifteen protesters from the Oxford SU’s WomCam stood up and chanted slogans to shout down Breda and prevent her from being heard. It was impossible for the committee or security to engage in any meaningful manner with the protesters. This continued for approximately forty minutes: protesters shouted, jeered, stood in front of the projector and chanted from a pre-prepared “chant sheet” including ‘Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die’.”

OSFL secretary, Georgia Clarke, said: “the saddening reality was that we were not given any opportunity to respond to these hurtful claims, nor give any justification for our views. Instead, we were bullied into silence.”

Anna Branford went on to say: “We had attempted to create an atmosphere in which all views were welcome and everyone would have a chance to speak, but were instead met with shouting, middle fingers and vitriol. Realising that they were uninterested in talking, some of us made signs of our own. I held one that said “ I’m a woman, where is my right to speak?”, while Georgia carried one saying “Is this what dialogue looks like?

“St John’s had hired security because they knew there would be a protest of some kind. They asked the protesters to leave multiple times and were ignored. One of the security guards tried to remove one of the protesters and there was a brief altercation.

“On foot of that, the security guard called the police as they were now guilty of aggravated trespassing. Eventually, the speakers were moved into another room and the protesters were left to shout themselves out, but not before gathering outside the window of the second room and banging on the windows while continuing to shout at the people inside.”

She went on to say: “It is such a shame that the protesters never listened to what we actually had to say. Had they heard Breda O’Brien’s presentation, they would have realised just how much we do care if women die, contrary to their chanting, and they would have heard the truth about Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death. Their disruption and refusal to engage meant that we could not show them the evidence that Ireland is as safe a place to give birth as the UK.

She continued: “I was disappointed that we never managed to discuss the issue with the protesters or engage in any kind of debate with them, but I was glad that we were eventually able to continue with the event and they had ultimately failed to achieve their goal of silencing us.”

Georgia Clarke added: “The irony was that the actions of Oxford SU’s WomCam, which ought to represent women of the university, resulted in the harassment of many women present for the event, some of whom were driven to tears. As committee members, we have a duty of care to those who attend our events, and it was distressing not being able to provide the supportive and open environment we had promised. We invited students to hear speakers, not to be shouted at. The shouting essentially amounted to an attempt to no-platform our speakers. In being party to this protest, the Oxford SU is making us feel like neither we, nor our views, are welcome to even be heard in this university.”

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

 

 

Amnesty International is wrong about the Eighth Amendment

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Liam Neeson recently recorded a voiceover for an Amnesty International video calling for abortion to be legalised in Ireland. As the camera pans over the ruins of a Catholic church, Neeson talks about a “ghost of the last century” that still “haunts this land”, bringing “suffering and even death to the women it touches.” That ghost is the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, in which the state recognises the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.

Neeson is one of Ireland’s great actors, but this isn’t his finest piece. As a piece of pro-choice advocacy, the video fails. (It’s been viewed over 90,000 times on Youtube, but has a thumbs-down to thumbs-up ratio of more than 3 to 1 – my impression is that most pro-choice people in Ireland are vaguely embarrassed by it). But its existence makes perfect sense. Those who want the Eighth Amendment repealed are committed to the story it tells: that the Eighth is a part of old, bad, Catholic Ireland, a place where women’s health is put at risk in the name of dogma, and we’ll only be a truly modern, progressive country when we get rid of it.

That story is so important to tell because the truth could hardly be more different. The reason campaigners for repeal are trying to make the debate about “ghosts of the last century” is that Ireland proves that it’s more than possible to be a modern, egalitarian democracy with world-leading maternal healthcare, all without abortion. It’s the embodied contradiction to the horror stories told by pro-choice campaigners around the world about what a country with pro-life laws would actually be like.

Ireland passed the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which ensured that abortion remained effectively illegal in Ireland until 2013. After a 1992 Supreme Court ruling interpreting the Eighth’s “due regard” clause to allow abortion when a woman is judged to be at risk of suicide, the Irish Medical Council cited the lack of medical evidence that abortion ever reduced suicide risk, and continued to define direct abortion in all cases as medical malpractice while making it clear that withholding necessary medical treatment from a pregnant woman would also get a doctor struck off the medical register. Did this policy lead to disaster for women’s health?

It lead to Ireland achieving one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world in 2010. That rate has recently increased to the same level as France’s, but it’s still lower than the UK’s. Every preventable death is a tragedy, but the idea that the Eighth Amendment is bringing “suffering and even death” to women just isn’t true.

The debate over the 2013 legislation that legalised abortion on the grounds of suicide gained a lot of its momentum from a cynical exploitation of the tragic death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital.

Three separate inquiries have since concluded Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis mismanagement, a problem that’s on the rise in hospitals in both Ireland and the UK  (there’s no space here to get into the details of the case: but Wikipedia’s page is unusually good), but that didn’t stop most of the Irish media running with a story about repressive Irish abortion laws leading to the death of a young woman (the story was leaked to pro-choice groups a few days before it as first published in the Irish Times.

Nor did the fact that her death had nothing to do with suicide make a difference: in the end, what mattered was the narrative – the same narrative that features in the Amnesty video calling for constitutional change.

Those who want to repeal the Eighth amendment are focusing our attention on the hard cases – and they are hard: because there are some situations in which there is no way to avoid suffering and heartbreak. When a baby won’t live long outside the womb, there’s nothing that can take away that grief.

But I know some of these hard cases: cases like that of Baby Liam Óg, who lived for nine weeks, three days and forty minutes after birth, and during that period received so much love from his parents Anne and Liam, his older sister Eileen, and the wider network of family and friends whose lives he touched.

Ireland’s abortion law wasn’t needed to save baby Liam’s life – but it did something else, something crucial. It recognised his dignity and his equality: it stood as a testament to the fact that this child’s nine weeks, three days and forty minutes outside his mother’s womb, as well as the 9 months he lived before he was born, were every bit as worth living, every bit as valuable, as the life of any other person.

Making Liam Óg’s short life shorter would not have helped him – and it would not have helped his parents Anne and Liam. When I speak to families who have continued with pregnancies where there child has a terminal condition, I hear about healing, about closure, about peace. The pain and grief doesn’t go away: of course it doesn’t. But it is not the whole story.

Orla O’Connell is a midwife working in Cork University Hospital who specialises in caring for families suffering going through pregnancy loss. Some of the things families have told her about having their babies:

“It was unbelievably painful but the most healing experience imaginable”.

“Having Timothy has made me a better person, he gave me the gift of understanding what life is about, what I am about and living in the present.”

““The media campaign for termination of pregnancy made me feel like I had something to hide”.

“If abortions had been legal in Ireland I would have done it so I am glad it wasn’t.”

People who want to relieve the suffering of families in this situation by legalising abortion are motivated by genuine compassion. But their solution is the wrong one. There is a better path. There are as many better paths as there are children.

Opening those paths for women and families who feel that every way is closed off is the most important work of the pro-life movement in Ireland. We are not defending the status quo – far from it. The Eighth amendment was only ever a first step: necessary but not sufficient. We, like Amnesty International, think that the more than 4000 terrible journeys that Irish women make to the UK every year to have abortions are a disgrace. The difference is is that we want to address the reasons that women feel they have to make the journeys.

Amnesty would seem to be satisfied with making the journeys shorter, and bringing the clinics where so many women talk about being treated coldly and inhumanly to Ireland.

The Irish pro-choice movement used to be interested in reducing abortion: a conference in the 1998, 5000 Too Many, brought together some of the leading figures in pro-life and pro-choice movements who wanted to co-operate to bring that number down. Since that time, the Irish abortion rate, then the lowest in Europe, has decreased even further.

But now the movement to repeal the Eighth is lead by people like Senator Ivana Bacik, who stood up at that conference to protest its existence, saying that there was no right or wrong number of abortions. Presumably, the more than 16,000 abortions a year that would happen if Ireland’s abortion rate matched the UK’s would be, to her, no loss.

As pressure builds for repeal, the Irish pro-life movement will need to pursue a two-part strategy: a strong defence of the equal right to life that the Eighth Amendment recognises, and a big, broad, progressive campaign against all the things that prevent that right being vindicated. Sexism and family-unfriendly workplace policies; stigma and lack of support for student parents; prejudice against people with disabilities and economic injustice. All these are obstacles to the true abolition of abortion in Ireland, and while they still exist pro-lifers will always have a mission.

But it’s a mission that our constitution and our laws still recognise as a good one, and a mission that is both inspired and aided by the Eighth Amendment’s clear and unambiguous affirmation that all human beings are truly equal. I’m hardly the world’s most patriotic person, but the existence of the Eighth amendment has always made me quietly proud of my country.

Ben Conroy is studying PPE at St John’s College. He’s worked as a freelance journalist and has been published in newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic. He also blogs for Patheos.

Event Preview: Philippa Taylor on Abortion and Disability

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On Monday night, we’ll be joining Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at the CMF, for a talk on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’. So, why is this a pertinent topic for discussion, and why should you come along?

Ground D of the 1967 Abortion Act, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, allows abortion up to birth in circumstances where it is discovered ‘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.’ In almost all other circumstances, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks’ gestation. The question is, is this discrimination against the disabled, if indeed discrimination before birth is such a thing?

Statistics for 2013  show that 2,732 abortions were carried out because of foetal abnormality – 22% because Down’s Syndrome was detected. We’ve discussed the sadness of this fact before. Despite the wording of the law determining that the signs would need to point to the child being ‘seriously handicapped’, there have been claims that abortions have been carried out for such things as cleft lip and club foot – things which routine surgery can easily treat. But then, there are cases of much more serious disability where the child might not survive birth, or the child will live a life that is fraught with suffering. We must address the very acute problems and pains that such diagnoses can cause.

These are all very sensitive issues whose impact touches, or indeed overwhelms the lives of many. My Grandma was paralysed from the waist down for 10 years. My best friend’s dad was born with one arm. The boy I looked after on my year abroad had Down’s Syndrome. As individuals, we all know people with disabilities and we all know that some are lived with in relative ease whilst others render life unbelievably challenging. As a society, we are becoming much more aware of the lives of people with disabilities and the obstacles that they and their families face, as dramas such as BBC’s ‘Don’t Take My Baby’ help demonstrate. We too need to become more aware of whether the current abortion law is in line with the changing ways we are looking at disability or if it flies in the face of such progress.

Email us at studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com to reserve a place for Monday’s talk – details here

Jo Jackson is co-President of Oxford Students for Life