Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: Abortion

Interview with Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS

Towards the end of the previous academic year, Ann Furedi (the chief executive of BPAS, which is the UK’s leading abortion provider) came to Oxford to debate with Sophia Kuby at an event organised by OSFL. Having read Ann Furedi’s book, ‘The Moral Case for Abortion’, Henry Drysdale (former Treasurer on the OSFL committee) visited BPAS HQ to interview Ann about her position. The interview took place against the backdrop of Ann’s recent appearance on the ITV show ‘Loose Women’, where she discussed reasons for viewing abortion as another form of birth control. A full transcript of the interview can be found below:

Henry: I think we started some really interesting conversations that I wanted to carry on with.

Ann: Yeah, sure. I mean I think it came out a little bit at the debate we had down your end.

H: On my turf.

A: Yeah, on your turf, where Sophia was making the point that she wasn’t really expecting me to take the approach that I did with it. I suppose what I’ve always felt is really important is to try to be really honest about what’s going on here, because I think that it’s not an intellectual game. Clearly I regard it as a practical service that women need, but I also know that it’s something that has got an ethical and a moral foundation to it, which I am incredibly unapologetic about. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I wasn’t able to pin it together, and intellectually justify it.

H: Yes, and that certainly comes out in your book, that intellectual honesty and that willingness to ‘go there’. I think many people, on both sides of the debate actually, because of the ‘ick factor’, sort of really don’t want to.

A: Well it’s hard, isn’t it? It’s genuinely quite a hard thing. If you look at the intersection between the two different parts of abortion: there’s the service side of it, and there’s the ethical and moral framework. The problem in some ways is this: women who need abortions do so not out of conviction. It’s not that you have an abortion because you are intellectually pro-choice, or you are demonstrating your support for something. What generally happens is that people approach it thinking “I never thought I’d be in this situation”.

H: Well I’m with you there. It’s not a good situation to be in.

A: It is an appalling situation to be in, which is the reason I feel so strongly about it I think. So you’ve got that that goes on, but then behind on a political, ethical, and lots of other levels, you’ve got the issue of when does life begin, and what the moral significance is.

H: Well on that, here’s something I wanted to ask you: you clearly value moral autonomy. In your book, you distinguish the political level, people deciding what the law should be, and then individual, private, moral decisions. Without getting into political opinions etc., that concept of private moral decisions I think is really important.

But moral autonomy is still a moral decision. So in order to make an autonomous moral decision for yourself, that involves some private discernment of what is right and wrong. And that’s why this woman is feeling so terrible about this. How do you then feel about the euphemistic language that’s used surrounding abortion. Now you tend to go there. Most people don’t: it’s the pregnancy, not the foetus. It’s the contents of the womb, not the foetus. It’s ‘not continuing with the pregnancy’, which of course is a euphemism for killing the foetus. With that value of moral autonomy, how do you then feel about euphemistic language, and not providing all the information?

A: Hold that thought, and remind me about that second thing.

On the first thing, I think the point that you raise is a really good one, because it sounds as though, and I’ve thought a lot about this, it sounds as though I’m saying: we’re intellectual people and we’ll debate this out, and then there are these plebby types who never actually think about it, and they need the service, but then I’m also saying that every woman who comes into this is making a particular moral choice for herself.

What I really believe is that one of the things that is so special about us human beings, no matter what level of education we have, is that sense of trying to determine what’s right and wrong for ourselves. Not just for ourselves, but for our families, and indeed society as well. All of the decisions that we take are not instinctive, and are not just reflexive in the way that I believe other animals are. We can have a different discussion about the humanity of apes and dolphins, but bear with me. I am an unashamed species-ist. I think one of the things we do is a kind of rational and moral weighing up.

I’m not setting the bar very high when I talk about rational and moral reasoning, but I am saying that I think it’s something people do. And they do it even when you think about decisions about expenditure of the family income. Do I get the packet of cigarettes? Or buy the kids some sweets? There’s a whole load of “I wish it could be this or that”. My sense is that that’s always going on in people’s heads.

One of things I think is that the area in which people have the capacity to make those decisions is as broad as possible, and for me the decision about when to have a child and how to manage your fertility has to fall within those areas. I think I used the example at your meeting about the girl who had the abortion because she didn’t want the father of the child there. That, to my mind, is an example of the complex moral reasoning that people go through.

Another one is, and I’m not making this up: I was in the middle of talking to one of our managers, and she suddenly breaks off from me and says “Oh my god I completely forgot, I promised to look up the lottery results!”. And she digs the copy of the newspaper out of her bag, looks at the lottery results, rushes downstairs, where it turns out there is a client who had asked Kelly, the manager, to check the lottery results, because if she won the lottery she wouldn’t have to go through with the procedure. It’s one of those things that just sticks in my mind because the point that I’m making is that everybody makes decisions in a context, however educated or not they are.

So that’s how I think that the moral reasoning thing comes through in relation to the service delivery side of it. But I think that people would say your decision about “Can I afford it or not?”, “Would it take a lottery win?”, or something different, isn’t something that you would normally stamp as moral reasoning.

H: No, agreed.

A: But it kind of is the reasoning that people do in the context of their everyday lives.

H: But people can be wrong.

A: People can be wrong, absolutely.

H: So it’s possible that these people are making morally wrong decisions.

A: Yeah, but my point would be, as I think I’ve written, that it’s theirs to make.

H: Well, in terms of the law.

A: The law doesn’t provide people with moral autonomy to make these decisions right now. I think it should, and I will do everything that is legal to facilitate that. And the law says that abortion is prohibited unless continuing the pregnancy would be more damaging to a woman’s mental and physical health than ending it. And that enables doctors to pretty much interpret it as “it would be more damaging to compel her to give birth to a baby that she doesn’t want than to end the pregnancy”. However, is every decision a woman makes the right decision? No, because we make bad decisions all the time.

H: So here’s a question. You have a woman who is pregnant, scared, and has lots of things to worry about: the father, money, etc. She has, as we have agreed, a morally important decision to make. Aside from any legal questions, for that woman, can choosing life ever be a morally wrong decision?

A: [long pause] It depends, I think, on what you mean by choosing life.

H: Choosing not to have an abortion.

A: I think it could be. It’s the flip side, isn’t it, of me saying it can be the right decision.

I think it can be, and I would say, you know, I don’t like using these hard cases, but the one that immediately comes to mind is a woman who will decide that she’s ending this pregnancy because she’s got other young children that she really feels she needs to care for, and that require 100% of her time. The one that immediately came to my mind, which is a struggle, is that we did an audit when there was a move to lower the abortion time limit, of women who were requesting very late abortions. And we were looking at the circumstances of all the women who were between 22 and 24 weeks. One of those really sticks in my mind was a woman who already had a son with Down syndrome who was having heart surgery at the time. The reason she was late having the procedure was that she felt she couldn’t even think about getting herself sorted out until her little boy had had the surgery, and she definitely didn’t think she could have another child at this time in her life, because she was utterly absorbed in the care of her existing child. Now what we find is that, you know I said on that program, half the women we see are already mothers. So often they are saying, “I want another child, but I can’t do this now”.

H: So that’s then a woman who is struggling. My point is that we get to choose how to react to that.

A: Yes.

H: My obvious feeling is that we should support that woman. That takes money, but so does abortion. We get to choose what to fund. Why fund abortion?

A: Because from the point of view of the woman… there are some woman, who might say “it’s a financial decision”. A while ago one of the charities, or one of the churches, I don’t remember which, said “we will give women money”.

H: Because there’s a life at stake.

A: Yeah, because there’s a life at stake. I don’t think there was a huge uptake. It certainly didn’t make a dent in numbers. When people say they have a financial problem, and there’s a money issue, it’s generally not a case of getting together a couple of hundred quid. The money is a code for a whole load of other stuff that’s going on.

I think the fundamental difference, and this is the point I’m coming to, is that you see, for many people, maybe for you, because you see that biological human existence, whether in the womb or outside, as being fundamentally the most important thing on earth that must always be preserved, then you will always be looking to do what can be done to preserve that biological life. For me, I have a huge presumption in favour of life.

H: Really?

A: God yes. I have a huge presumption in favour of biological life in the womb, because of what that represents and what that can become. Having said that, on a scale of what I think is important, I can say that life in the womb matters, and I think has a huge moral value, but for me it doesn’t matter as much as some other things: bodily autonomy, and indeed moral autonomy, the ability of that woman to weigh up for herself.

H: So let’s stretch the limits of bodily autonomy a bit. Bodily autonomy you might define as the right to choose what to do with your body, based on your own internal reasoning or feelings.

One thing I think is worth observing is that in a medical context, nobody has this. Even for a medical procedure, you cannot go into a hospital and demand a treatment. A doctor can only provide that treatment if it’s in the patient’s best interests. If somebody is demanding a treatment that isn’t in their best interests, because it involves certain risks, we can’t do it. So bodily autonomy doesn’t exist.

In the context of pregnancy, you would argue that a pregnant woman has the right to decide what happens to their body. And certainly whilst they’re pregnant, in your view, that includes the contents of her womb, the foetus. Do you think it’s wrong for pregnant women to smoke?

A: I think that, erm, it’s not in the best interests of her to smoke, and it probably isn’t in the best interests of the foetus to smoke.

H: Or drink, take drugs.. Let’s go for all three.

A: Or take drugs. But I do think it is for her to determine how she wishes to live her life and where she draws the line, in exactly the way that I think that it’s certainly not in anybody’s interests to be obese, or immobile.

H: Except that in this case it involves another person.

A: But you see, from your point of view, because you are giving that… and you see this is really where I think the whole thing becomes a way of there never being a meeting of minds. This is  a point really that I was trying to bring out in that debate: what matters for you about humanity is ultimately the DNA, the biology, the biological existence of those cells. For me, what matters more are qualities that that biology has enabled somebody to develop. For me, if that human has not yet developed those faculties, it is in a slightly different position. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I have a huge presumption in favour of human life, unlike, I should say, a significant number of people I deal with.

H: I imagine so.

A: Many of them who feel that there are far too many humans on the planet. And indeed the entire tradition of the birth control movement.

H: It all gets a bit ‘end of the world’ doesn’t it?

A: It all gets a little bit horribly caught between the end of the world and a state eugenic point of view.

H: I’m glad you share my discomfort.

A: I’m sure we share more than discomfort. I have absolute total contempt and loathing. However it then comes to me to saying how much it matters in relation to… And I think this is the problem that we struggle with, and we very often don’t get the opportunity to discuss that.

H: This brings me on really nicely to something that I wanted to ask you about. I’ve read your book, three times actually, ‘A moral case for abortion’. You devote a whole chapter to this, the question of personhood, called ‘Is it human? Do we care?’. I wanted to quote you, and then we can talk from this.

You say in this chapter: “Our ability to be aware of ourselves, and our self interests, to make decisions, to take responsibility for ourselves and others, to write the story of our lives, these are the things that define us as human.” and then you say “The presence of these qualities makes one life worthy of a kind of secular sanctity, and their absence subjects one life to the determination of others.”

So I’m a doctor, I work in an NHS hospital, and I currently work on a geriatrics ward. About half my patient have severe dementia. Progressive, irreversible cognitive decline. Many of them posses none of the qualities you list as defining us as human. My question is this: are they not human? Do they not deserve to be protected and cared for? Do they not have a right to life?

A: [long pause] My answer to that is.. Yes they definitely do. Yes they definitely do, and we should do all that we can to preserve their lives.

Let me ask you this, as a doctor. If one of those patients went into heart failure. You have your heart, and you’re deciding to give it to one of those patients, or to give it to a child at the beginning of their life. Doctors make these value judgements: where is it going to go.

For me, the end of life decisions I think society is going to struggle with enormously. Partly because it hasn’t recognised some of the issues that I would pull out as being important at the start of life. And I’m thinking this through almost as I’m saying it here. I’m going to a slightly new place on this. But what I was going to say is that we all make decisions, so we say these people’s lives matter. Would a doctor making a decision between giving a heart to a 20 year-old or an 80 year-old, would he be saying that 80 year-old’s life doesn’t matter.

H: No, because it’s a different situation.

A: He would say it’s a completely different situation. He would weigh that up. I was going to make the point that there is something we need to do as individuals, and therefore socially, in terms of working through what we do think is important and what matters about human life at its various stages of development, both absolutely and relatively. Because from the point of view of what I’m morally privileging, in terms of where I stand on abortion, It’s a privileging of somebody’s decision about their own body, and about their own private life and their own private existence.

H: I think we’ve acknowledged already that it’s not, because there’s at least another human involved, a member of the human species. That’s the difference between obesity and pregnancy.

In answer to your heart failure question, which I think is a good one: we make decisions frequently not to actively treat people. However, those decisions are made in that person’s best interests. That is fully caring for that person at the end of their life.
That is not for the decision of somebody else. So for example, those patients are a financial and emotional drain on their families. Some families come in and say “I wish they would just die”.

The 96 year-old with dementia, and I currently fight every day for 3 such people, those people, by your definition, and let’s just get it right, are not defined as human. By the exact wording of this, they do not have these qualities, and therefore are not defined as human, not worthy of secular sanctity, and because of these absences, they are subject to the determination of others. The people most affected by their lives are their families. I don’t think either of us would agree that their families get to decide that they should die. But this is the case you’re making with pregnancy.

A: It is the case I’m making with pregnancy.

The reason why I’m making the case in relation to pregnancy is because with pregnancy you have a situation you have with no other. You have a direct conflict between what one individual thinks is the right thing to do about my body, and my personal circumstances, and my family, and my family life. Somebody has to make a decision in relation to that situation. Either they are going to prioritise the biological life of the foetus inside me, or they are going to prioritise my ability to make that decision for myself. That’s basically the run of it.

To my mind, it’s profoundly immoral to deny that woman the control over herself that pregnancy involves. The reason why that is a very specific situation is because you can only mitigate and preserve that biological life by directly conflicting with her bodily autonomy and her moral sense of what’s right in terms of her family, her offspring, the fruit of her womb.

When you’re talking about elderly people at the end of their life, you’re really talking about something I think that is very very different. You’re talking about people who, you know, they may be in that state then, but we know that they’ve had a life, they’ve had experience. I believe there’s something going on there, I don’t believe they are empty shells. But even if you believe they are, then us, you as a doctor, me as a fellow member of humanity, can have hopes and desires about how those people are treated, and to want to do the absolute best to nurture and nourish and all that with these people. But it doesn’t impact on somebody else’s bodily autonomy and physical abilities. So I might want my mother to die. But ultimately if I want nothing to do with my mother any more, I can walk away from the hospital, and leave her in your very competent and capable care.

H: I think that’s a fair distinction. I think we’ve moved away though from personhood.

A: We have moved away from personhood.

H: I want to bring it back, and just ask you: This definition you make of personhood… To be clear, I don’t think my patients are not people. They bring value to my life in so many ways. Acts of kindness even when they don’t know their name, for example. Made my day on Sunday. They can have such enormous value. But they do not fit this definition of human. By this definition, they are not worthy of secular sanctity, and they are subject to the determination of others. Do you agree that this paragraph needs revising?

A: I would say that what I’m writing about there is I’m dealing with the embryo, and the personhood of the embryo, and the difference between embryonic life and life after birth. So I think I’d need to read that in context. But I think that it’s pretty clear in the context of a book about the morality of abortion what I am talking about.

H: But what you’re doing is generalising what makes us human and applying it to the foetus. And what I’m saying is that generalisation that you make is false.

A: And I think that if I was writing about the end of life, which I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about recently, then what I would be doing is developing that point, to make that point that the situation that the embryo is in, of one that has no sense, that can have no sense of life, because it has not developed the faculties..

H: Yet.

A: …Yet. But that ‘yet’ is a very important point. It has not yet developed the faculties to have that appreciation. It’s different to your old people, who may have lost faculties, but certainly…

H: Have had them at a different time.

A: …Had them at a different time, and who us of* know? As you say, the person who is no longer capable of remembering their name can be capable of a whole range of other human responses. We don’t revert back. What I’m saying is that I am not entirely convinced that in a kind of aged before death situation we revert to the simple state of an embryo. I don’t know enough about this, I know f*** all about this, but I would find it quite difficult.

H: [laughs] I agree.

A: One of the things that I find utterly compelling from people who have taught me about embryonic development is the inappropriateness of projecting backwards in time from the knowledge that we have of the world around us to the way that that is perceived.

H: In what way?

A: Well, one of the things that… actually if you get the chance to hear him talk he’s really worth listening to – Stuart Derbyshire, who I work quite a lot with, writes for spiked, who is a psychologist who tends towards the neuroscience end of it. His specialist area is pain. He spends a lot of time torturing students, trying to work out how people perceive pain and their understanding of it. His point is about how important the kind of total appreciation we have of our social context is in terms of how we appreciate even stuff that appears to be very very elementary, in terms of how we see things and hear things.

And therefore the stuff which I’m sure you wouldn’t necessarily buy into which some of your colleagues might is that the embryo in the womb is just that fully formed little thinking person who knows who his mummy is and listens to Mozart and appreciates things. It’s not really like that.

H: No, agreed.

A: And that’s why I think that there’s a huge distance… I don’t think there’s an inverted bell curve in terms of human…

H: Right, we don’t revert back. But I do think that when we are trying to work out when a human life becomes a person, we do assign certain attributes, and it’s worth thinking about other people.

A: Absolutely, I agree with you.

H: So is it the ability to feel pain, clearly not.

A: No.

H: Is it consciousness? No, because we all spend a third of our lives unconscious.

A: Yeah, but I think the thing is that there’s a certain thing we do – we can go through these exercises, and so on, we can try and put things down. It’s very interesting, even in writing this book, talk about going down the rabbit hole, and so much of it ends up on the cutting room floor.
It’s absolutely pitiful. I’ve got more stuff about the consciousness of animals than you’d ever want to know. Somebody said to me there are way too many cats in that book, and it’s really true.
There’s all kinds of things we can bring in, but ultimately what it comes back to is, and this is where we get into the scratched record thing – you are looking at it from the point of view of embryo to human and consistent moral commitments and a continual privileging of that human life above all else, yes?

Whereas for me, I think what I am privileging is the moral and bodily integrity of the existing conscious human being in that situation who contains that embryo to begin with, but then will give birth to her child. I’m saying that that human life matters to me, I think it has value and worth while it’s inside her, for what it will become.

For when it’s in early infancy, and people often say to me if you’ve got that approach to abortion how do you feel about infanticide and so-on, what’s magical about the passage through the birth canal – well actually it’s because it’s then outside of the woman, and good doctors like yourself can take responsibility for that.

I think it’s got a certain degree of moral worth when it’s inside the woman, it’s got a certain amount of moral worth as it’s growing up, and then it’s got moral worth at the end of it’s life, and it’s different. I’m not going to say that it’s more or it’s less, but what I’m going to say is that until it is born, you can only realise the status that you want to give it, if there is a conflict, by somehow taking away something from that woman. And that’s what I can’t bring myself to do. I cannot bring myself to say to a woman who is pregnant and feels that is wrong for her to be pregnant and that it is wrong for her to have this child…

H: Morally wrong?

A: Yeah. I cannot bring myself to see that it can be morally right to override her agency in that situation. What it comes down to for me is that somebody is going to have to make that decision, and so the only person who I think…

H: Well, if abortion is available, and we say “abortion is fine, carry on”.

A: Well, the point about is that, you know from medical history, people have been taking decisions about whether or not to have babies for probably as long as we have connected a swelling abdomen and absence of menses with having babies. Somebody decides, and the question is who. And that’s where it’s really hard.

When I was saying to you earlier about really needing to do more thinking about the end of life stuff. It’s because that’s why I have got a position perhaps, a moral positioning in terms of some of the end of life stuff, that’s probably quite different from somebody who would say there’s an absolute and complete equivalence, because it’s simply a matter of the nature of the entity that was once the embryo and is now the ancient demented useless person.

Whereas for me, the situation and the way that society can react, the way that we as other people can express our humanity towards that, and I do think there’s something that is, again, remarkable, in the way that we express our humanity in terms of our caring and love of other more vulnerable people, right the way through.

People say to me “isn’t this a remarkably, you know, selfish, dim view of humanity, are you only saying it’s only rational people etc.”. Absolutely god no, you know, because why would you not treat people well?

And that’s why I say I have a presumption in favour of life. It doesn’t concern me at all to say that, and I think that most women would rather prevent pregnancy than end one, and I think that is because we have a sense of when conception has happened, that that is something that is special and distinct. It may be something that we are abhorred by, or it may be something that we think, you know, the circumstances… Most women who come to BPAS are pregnant by someone who they actually liked! Most people are actually in a relationship with that person. In fact, overwhelmingly they come to the clinic with their partner, and it is a decision they have made together, that this is for the best. So many women will say “in different circumstances I would continue this pregnancy”.

H: It’s almost like they’re so close…

A: Yeah, and honestly, the way I look at it is there are a certain number of women who will basically say “get rid”. But for most women, there is a… if circumstances were different, they would make a different decision. Now, it may be that those circumstances are so wildly different that it’s not close at all. So it may be that “if I wasn’t 14”, “If I was 10 years older than I am now, I would make a different decision”, “If I wasn’t in the middle of my exams”, “If my boyfriend loved me”, “If my husband wanted the baby”.

In fact, one of the things that frustrates me enormously when we have discussion about legislation and so on, is people who have got a thing about wanting to reduce the time limit, because they can cope with the idea of early abortion, but not late abortion. Very often, the reason why you’ve got someone who’s presenting later is because they’ve been trying to make it possible for them to have the baby.

H: These difficult circumstances… Let’s make it worse: husband’s a drug addict, girl’s 14, they have no money. Whatever that might be, that’s really hard. It might be that they struggle. It might also be that 10/15 years later, they come out of that, and they have a son, or a daughter, who’s going to school, who they love. I would also say that when they’re in that situation, it’s really hard, but there isn’t an option to just passively undo it.

A: That’s right.

H: ‘Not continuing with the pregnancy’ is a euphemism that is used to create that illusion, but there isn’t an option to undo it. In order to get out of that, you have to kill someone.

A: Well in order to do that, you have to do one thing or the other.

H: You have to kill the foetus.

A: You have to kill the foetus, that’s right. You are ending that life that has started.

H: And it’s that woman who has to live with that. It’s nobody else, not the abortion provider, not the legislation, it’s that woman who has to live with that. I fully believe that you are somebody of compassion and caring, and that you are a truth-seeker who is really trying to work this out. I’m not sure if this has happened, but how would you feel about a woman coming to you 5 years later utterly distraught? Maybe they can’t have a baby now, maybe they say “I made the wrong decision, I was scared, I panicked, someone told me it was ok, I cannot live with myself.” How would you feel about that?

A: First of all, I would say that there will be women who make decisions they come to regret making. You know, we all do that, and you’re right – when you say the weight of that decision lies with that woman, I think that’s absolutely right, and I think it’s an incredible burden to place on her, it’s an enormous responsibility. But ultimately you can’t put the clock back. Every woman, and I’ve made this point publicly, there is no woman sitting in an abortion clinic who isn’t wishing she could put the clock back, because it’s a s*** place to be. You’re right, she has to do one thing or another.

But the point is that that is the responsibility that sits with us in the context of our lives and our position as mothers. We take responsibility for the lives that we create, and we take responsibility for the lives that we don’t. And there will be women who come back and say “I wish I had done something different.” But, you know, there will be women who will say “I wish I hadn’t had that child”, there are women who will say “We make mistakes in life”. But I agree with you – for you, because you take the view that you do, you find it almost unimaginable that someone can take that decision and live with it without being in some kind of complete denial.

And the only thing I can say is that it’s our job to, and I really mean it when I say that BPAS is an organisation that is driven by a very very very strong value based ethos, which is about putting women in the position where they are able to make the best decision for them in this situation, where it’s going.. You know, she’s there, she’s going to take one road or the other. And the best thing you can do is to ensure that in making that decision, women are able to genuinely weigh up all the possibilities, and all the help they can get, and that they understand exactly what it is that they are deciding.

When somebody comes as says “I have no choice”, it’s the job of our councillors to say “let’s talk about that, and let’s talk about the choices that you have”. “I haven’t got any money”, well have you thought about … The last thing that you want to do is to have someone going through a procedure and then saying “I wish I hadn’t done that because of …” Typically what will happen is that a young girl will come to you and say “My parents will kill me”. Your job really is to say “do you know what? They really won’t. Talk to your parents. They might be really cross with you, or they might not be”. It would not be a humane or good service to be in any way trivialising or downplaying or coaxing.

H: I trust that you fully believe what you are saying. But I should point out that the reality of it, even in BPAS, can become a case of “you want an abortion? Right, let’s get on with it”. That happens in BPAS.

A: That’s very interesting, because a doctor made that point at your meeting, and has subsequently written to me. We had a bit of a chat after the debate, and I said please put down what you’re saying.

H: Right, ok.

A: I think it’s absolutely true. If somebody comes and says “Yup, this is what I want. I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to talk about it.” You can’t compulsorily council people through it. Not everybody has got the…

H: We do in medicine all the time.

A: Yeah, I know.

H: And it’s absolutely right. If some asks you to chop their arm off, and don’t want to talk about it, you don’t just do it. And this happens. You know “I want my gallbladder out”. We take people’s gallbladders out all the time, but we don’t do it just because they say they want it. You can die from that procedure. If they don’t need it, we don’t do it, because it’s not right for them, not because we want to exert any kind of power over them. It is better to say that if it’s not right for you, we’re not going to do it.

A: Sure. And there are some doctors who will take the view that abortion isn’t in the interests of a woman’s health, and will take a decision based on that. But that’s a different discussion. What we’re talking about here is where doctors believe that it would be legal, and where the woman does meet the grounds of the act. And then there’s a thing about how much you have a responsibility to unpick her decision. And it’s so hard.

H: You describe various situations of hardship, like if a woman has problems with finance. “Well have you considered this?” Oh well if you have considered this and it still would be difficult, then fair enough. Or have you considered this about your relationship, or your parents.. Oh well if you have, then fair enough, and let’s go ahead.
I do not buy this idea of “maybe it will be hard, so that makes it the right decision.” I think of my mother, for example, who has had 5 children, and is a surgeon. She was both advancing in her career, and there all the time when I was a child. A lot of my friends who are now young professionals in their late 20’s and thinking of having children really look up to my mother as an inspiration.

I think we really have a choice about what we say to young women. I think we can either say “Here’s this option, you can get out of it”, or we can say “No, actually you can do this. Here’s a woman who has done this.” or you can use a more extreme example. “Here’s a woman who had a baby at 14, didn’t want to, and now loves that child more than anything and has a wonderful life.” I think we should be saying that to young women.

A: Yeah but you see what we do is… There is such a temptation to build a kind of forward going narrative around the story that isn’t there. So you have in your mind the idea of the young woman who can have the baby and have a full career. Some women can do that.
It’s funny, I might talk to someone else who works in public health and says “Oh, the 14 year-old who has the baby but can’t breast feed it”, and all these other problems that’s going on. And she’s dropped out of school, but then by having the abortion she’s gone on to have a child at 24 and she’s perfectly happy with it etc. What you can’t do is construct stories for people’s lives. All you can really do is talk to them about the circumstances that they’re in, and let them make the decision for themselves, which is a really hard thing for us.

H: So people who want to commit suicide. Our reaction to that invariably, in law, medicine, society, if you see someone standing on top of a roof, is to say…

A: Don’t do it.

H: Yeah, “It will be ok, don’t do it.” But you don’t know that. Maybe they will continue to be unhappy. But we don’t go “Well fair enough, off you go.” You fight for them and say “It can be ok, here’s what we’re going to do for you.”

A: We absolutely 100% do.

H: But that involves creating a narrative. It’s not a false narrative, it’s a hopeful narrative.

A: It’s a hopeful narrative. But it’s one I think that is of a different kind of moment, and a different kind of decision making to the decision making of a woman who is making a decision about her unwanted pregnancy. And I think that, you know, I struggle. I would be lousy as a councillor. I can’t do the non-judgemental stuff. I’m a very judgy person. I have a really strong sense of what people do and what people don’t do.

H: And I think that comes out of caring and compassion.

A: Yeah, probably does actually. Maybe it comes out of compassion, maybe it comes out of a number of various prejudices, I don’t know. But I have a very strong sense of what I think is right and wrong, and what people should do and what they shouldn’t do.

But I honestly think that when a woman is in this position, the right thing to do is to provide her with the absolute honest information about what her options are, and for her to be trusted to make the decision, to seek the advice and support that she’s got from the people around her.

And I also think that the way you describe it is that it kind of has an image caught in it as the most vulnerable person. Actually, the people who come to BPAS, of the 70,000 people we see every year, many are people like, well I expect you’d never want to be in this situation, but they’d be people like your girlfriend, or your friend’s girlfriend and so-on, with caring partners who have talked about this until the cows come home. They’re normal people who have thought these things through.

H: Of course, to be consistent with the protection of choice and protection of moral autonomy, there’s those examples of people who know all the information and make a considered moral decision. To protect choice and moral autonomy, you also have to account for and allow the examples of, for example, the 18 year-old who comes in 3 times per year and says “I want another abortion, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

A: Well what you have to do is also look at the world in its entirety. To go to your point, you’re saying there are certain people who will appreciate the perspective that’s lasered in on the embryo. But there are a lot of women who will basically say, not for any morally perverse or ignorant reason “That’s not what matters. What matters is that I’ve got a 2 year-old at home who is absorbing all my attention and I need to give him that”. Their existing life means more to them. I know it’s so far away from where you are.

H: It’s simply not the case that people can’t care for more than one child. It’s just not the case. And what if that existing child grows up, finds out, and thinks “I used to have a brother, but you had an abortion”. If you’re talking about caring for the existing child, there’s that. If you’re talking about caring for the best interests of the foetus or potential child, how could killing it possibly be in their best interests? It doesn’t work.

A: It doesn’t work in your mind.

H: Correct.

A: Because of the weight you place on that.

H: But you’re trying to place weight on that as well, by saying it’s better for it not to come into the world.

A: I’m saying I place weight on it, but I’m saying I place less weight on the fingernails and the beating heart than I do on the family decision making.

Here’s the point that needs to be addressed: I think that what you and I would both really agree on is that we live in a society that actually really undervalues human life. And I think we both of us in different ways are struggling to look at how we centre a valuing to human life back in the picture. One of the things that I find abhorrent is the disposability that you say, you know, it’s like your geriatric ward. The idea that there can be this attitude that they’re just waiting to die and they’re a waste of resources. I find that absolutely abhorrent.

But I find it equally abhorrent that what people want to do is to imagine that non-human life has those qualities.

H: To humanise animals.

A: Yeah, to humanise animals and so-on. I think that is utterly degrading. Therefore, this question of how you pull out what is distinct about us sort of comes full circle.

H: I tried to pin you down on that a couple of times. Can I ask you a favour? Your chapter “Is it human, do we care?”  – can I ask that you read that again and just think about those qualities that define us as human?

A: I will definitely do that. I think there is something really important to be looked at about end of life issues. Because I think it speaks very much to these issues. But yeah, I will look at it again.

H: There’s just a couple of things I really wanted to ask you. This is an issue in which the stakes are high. I think both of us agree that what is happening here matters. You’ve written a book called “A moral case for abortion”, so you’re clearly an intellectual truth-seeker, who is trying to work this out. And you care. Do you ever worry about the consequences if you’re wrong? What if, at the end of this process, you realise you’re wrong. Do you ever worry about that?

A: [long pause] The reason why I’m slightly literally speechless in trying to frame an answer is because it’s what I’m wrong about. I find it very difficult to imagine what could be wrong in trying to enable women to have control of their lives, and to exercise their human agency. The opposite to that would be that people become prisoners of their biology.

H: I mean we’re all prisoners of our biology. We don’t choose when to get cancer.

A: Yes, but your whole job going forward is trying to mitigate that and turn it around.

H: Yeah, but obviously I don’t regard pregnancy as a disease.

A: Yeah, no.

H: Ok.

A: I think we would be back to the dark ages, and I find it all a bit hard.

H: I see it the opposite way. Let me try to make it more specific. I think that you might well say we’re allowing women to exercise their agency and make these choices.

I would absolutely argue that it’s not as passive as that. It’s not a passive exercise. What you do is create an option. Therefore, you have responsibility for that option. Through all the reasoning in your book and our conversations, you try to justify that, and I respect that. But my question to you again is what if that justification is wrong, and you are providing this option that is not just passive, it’s not morally acceptable, and it does kill humans with equal moral status? What would you do if that were the case?

A: The thing is, it’s like, I absolutely 100% accept that what we are doing is ending life. I absolutely accept that. It’s just that morally I privilege something more than that embryonic life.

H: But what if you’re wrong about that?

A: The point about it is that if I am wrong about that, then… I will have to live with the consequences of me having made the choice to work in this particular area. As I said, I’m a very judgy person. I could be judged on the courses of action that I take. And you’re right, it’s absolutely not morally neutral, because I spend a lot of time not only providing the service, but advocating why it is that women make these choices.

H: The reason I ask is that I’ve done that in my head. I’ve imagined what I would do if I was wrong.

A: Yeah, the consequences in terms of the moral weighting, of talking a few women out of being happily unpregnant, weighed against the death of 70,000, or what have you. You’re absolutely right, the safe bet is to… it’s whatsit’s wager isn’t it? Like it makes more sense to believe in God, because if you’re wrong, you know, you’re sort of throwing yourself in the right direction. But that isn’t how intellectual life works, is it?

H: Well the question is, does that represent something that’s true, or is that just an arbitrary choice?

A: Yeah. In terms of where I stand now, I have reasoned to the best of my ability, and I have really searched myself to examine what I think is the right thing and the wrong thing. And I honestly think that what we are doing is for good.

I genuinely believe that it is good for people to be able to make these decisions about how they and their families will live. And I genuinely think that if people think that they are not in a position to bring a child into the world, that it is right for them to be able to make that decision, and for them to also be able to live with that decision. Otherwise what you do is you take away people’s responsibility for their decisions.

H: I think what you do when you provide abortions is to take away the responsibility for that life. We say “You don’t have to take responsibility for this”.

A: As you said, that is not a light choice.

H: One final question if that’s ok.

A: Go on.

H: You mentioned in Oxford after the debate, which by the way was an excellent debate.

A: It was a lovely debate, I really enjoyed it.

H: Good. Two very good speakers, and it went to some interesting places. You said something I was interested in. You said that you found it interesting that so many of us students had come to university pro-choice, but found it intellectually unsatisfying and become pro-life. You said that you were challenged by that. What challenged you about that, and in what way?

A: What challenged me about it was that I can understand why people find it hugely dissatisfying and intellectually and morally inconsistent in the way that the pro-choice case is sometimes argued.

I think that what sometimes happened is you look at … well it was very interesting with your speaker. What she did is she went through a number of positions and pulled out the inconsistency of supporting early abortions and not late abortions. The inconsistency of supporting abortion for some reasons and not others. And I think that people see that as being representative of where we’re coming from.

This tells me how much work I have got to do, and what like minded people have got to do in presenting a case which is unpalatable. It’s a case of trying to get people to understand both where we’re coming from, because I think that.. You know, it’s a bit like that loose women thing, there’s almost a no-compute “Oh my god, how could you say that”. Well it’s, you know, I would find it utterly incomprehensible for someone to say they would support abortion up to 12 weeks but not any later.

H: I agree, that’s inconsistent. My answer to that is not to do it at all.

A: No, exactly. The point is that you either fall on one side or the other. One of the reasons I’m perturbed by it is that there’s been very little discussion of the kind we’ve had. I hope that as people get better at putting a more consistent case around what we’re arguing, that it might perhaps enable people to find a rich and moral position that is based on a sense of real autonomy and choice, because I think that’s where it falls at the moment.

H: I’ll let you get on.

A: It’s been really delightful talking to you.

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.”

Using statistics effectively in the abortion debate

This blog post is the third in a short three-part series on using statistics in the pro-life debate. This week, slightly later than planned, we are going to look at using abortion statistics effectively in a debate, friendly discussion, argument on the internet or some other kind of conversation.

In our last post, we finished talking about how not to use statistics in the abortion debate, specifically fallacies involving biased samples, false causality and push polls. This week we will turn our attention to the question of how to use statistics effectively and productively in the pro-life debate.

Before we begin to discuss the effective use of statistics, it is worth spending a moment considering some general pointers for having conversations about the abortion debate. Some readers of this blog may not see the point of these, so we need to remind ourselves of something that may initially sound counter-intuitive. As pro-lifers, we do not want to win debates. Instead, our aim is to create a culture where human life is valued equally from conception and without exception, regardless of gender, gender identity, age, sexuality, religion (or lack of one), ethnicity, physical or mental disability. This means that it is important not only to be accurate when having such conversations, but persuasive and compassionate. While we must therefore be able to use statistics effectively, it is also helpful to remind ourselves of how to carry out conversations in a way that will change hearts and minds. This means tailoring your approach to the situation, using appropriate language and arguments; being conscious of the fact that you should be having a dialogue, rather than holding forth on your own; being considerate of tone and body language, and above all, remembering to be compassionate, particularly when discussing hard cases. The Equal Rights Institute offers lots of helpful dialogue tips here and you can read some more useful advice from OSFL  here.fallacy

It is never persuasive to respond to a bad argument like this! Image via the Equal Rights Institute.

Now that we have reminded ourselves of a few key pointers to bear in mind whenever you are talking to people about abortion, we can return to the topic of statistics.

Take care with the sources used

Something that you should always think about when citing a statistic is the source, and how likely it is to persuade your audience. Generally, neutral or pro-choice sources are more likely to be trusted by a pro-choice person, and in addition, meta-studies are much stronger evidence than individual sources. Whenever possible, try to go back to the original sources, and if you are trying to rebut a dodgy statistic, check the methodology in the original source if available. Be aware that trust in various news sources is strongly influenced by political opinion, so you should try to cite a variety of news sources whenever possible.¹ Finally, please make sure that you don’t share fake news by mistake. A list of sources with large amounts of fake news can be found at here.


Consider what sources are most likely to convince your audience. Image from here.

Only use relevant statistics

Suppose that you’ve gone through the hard work of checking that your sources are reliable. Even then, you still need to be careful with the statistics you cite. Not all of them are useful, even when they support a pro-life position. To give an example of a mistake the author once made when trying to rebut a pro-choice argument that appeals to bodily autonomy, it does not help to cite statistics showing a correlation between abortion and suicide rates.2 Simply citing the statistic by itself is unintentionally misleading, for reasons we discussed previously. Even if it wasn’t out of context, it would still be a very unproductive line of argument, since it does absolutely nothing to rebut the pro-choice idea that abortion is a right justified by bodily autonomy.

The author of this blog post made the mistake described above when attempting to stop OUSU council from renewing its extreme pro-choice policy, but the net effect of the meeting was that the only one of the 50+ delegates who voted against renewing the policy was herself a pro-life Christian.³

In conclusion, try to think about whether your statistics are going to convince your audience of your position. I would have been far more persuasive had I followed my own advice below…

Use statistics to rebut or advance specific points

The best use of statistics is to rebut specific pro-choice points, and to advance specific points of the pro-life cause.

To give a pertinent example, I should have pointed out that OUSU’s pro-choice policy as written could be reasonably interpreted as support for allowing abortion for any reason, a position held by less than 10% of 18-24 year olds and 5% of women in the UK. In contrast, 51% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of women support reducing the time limit for abortion below 24 weeks or banning it altogether except in medical emergencies.


Whether you are speaking in a formal debate, such as OSFL’s debate on Assissted Suicide, or having an informal conversations, use statistics to refute a specific point or advance a specific point of your own.

You could also point out that abortion is inherently queerphobic, since the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion after a diagnosis of sex-chromosome abnormality ranges between 68-81%, in comparison to historical percentages of 23.4%, 19.1% and 29.9% in Canada, Switzerland and the United States respectively. 4

When told that the government should stay out of women’s reproductive choices, it would be good to point out that “98% of abortions were funded by the NHS. Of these, over two thirds (68%) took place in the independent sector under NHS contract“.

Statistical arguments do, however, need to be applied with care. If you point out that abortions due to rape are very rare then this can be useful in some contexts, but if you are asked to defend the pro-life position in the case of rape, it isn’t always productive. Sometimes using statistics doesn’t help, and this is often one of those cases. Therefore, the key is only ever to use statistics for specific and constructive arguments, which is where they can be most effective.


Hopefully people found this series on using statistics honestly and effectively useful. Most of the tips will also work when talking about other life issues such as assisted dying or embryonic stem cell research. 5 Here are the key points to remember about using statistics effectively:

4) Think about what kind of a discussion you are having and whether statistics are helpful.

3) Always take care with sources used.

2) Only use relevant statistics.

1) When possible, quote statistics to prove specific points.

If there are any questions about anything we’ve discussed or about pro-life issues generally, please leave a comment below and we’ll try to respond quickly.

Dane Rogers is a third year DPhil student in the Department of Statistics based at Merton College, currently working on Chinese Restaurants and Lévy process.


¹American readers of this blog can see here to gain an idea of how trusted sources are by political ideology, and UK readers can see trust in various media outlets at here.
2For example, a study of 9129 Finnish women aged 15 to 49 shows that the suicide rate among those who had an abortion was 7 times higher than those who gave birth.
³The beliefs of the person who voted against the motion are known as she is a friend of the author, but this in no sense should be taken to imply that the pro-life cause is religious. Groups such as Secular Pro-life, Pro-Life Humanists, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians or Feminists for Life show that the pro-life cause doesn’t just consist of white, straight, cisgender, male, religious, conservative Republicans, and Secular Pro-life does a great job at dismantling this myth.
4Note that these abortion ratios are the maximal ones over the time periods mentioned in the corresponding studies, so the discrepancy is actually slightly higher than the headline statistics given here.
Or for that matter, other issues of human dignity such as the death penalty and unjust wars, racism, poverty and many other forms of discrimination.

Statistical Fallacies in the Abortion Debate: Part 2/2

This blog post is the second in a short three- part series on using statistics in the pro-life debate. This week we will continue looking at some common statistical fallacies people make around the abortion debate and how you can avoid making them in a debate, friendly discussion, argument on the internet or some other kind of conversation. Next week there will be a post giving you some tips about what to do instead.

Last week we discussed some of the problems with using small samples and extreme cases in the abortion debate. This week we are going to consider biased samples, false causality and push polls.

Using biased samples

This is a fairly simple fallacy to understand: if you cite a statistic about abortion, you need to be careful that the demographics sampled reflect the population as a whole. For example, when polling people on abortion, it is important to check that their political leanings/gender/ethnicity/religious beliefs (or lack of them)/age etc reflect the population as a whole.

One example of sampling bias is the polling for the 2015 UK general election. The polls under-sampled Conservative voters, which is the reason why they proved badly wrong. It is not unusual for polls to be around 4% out with a sample of around 400 people, but anything more than this is often due to sampling biases.

Almost any poll apart from a census will have some small measure of bias, but beware of polls or studies with high degrees of demographic or other sampling biases. The above statements on biased samples are probably very obvious, but it can be very easy to make these mistakes if you aren’t careful!

A practical way that this can happen is if you only read studies on a specific abortion topic which help support a pro-life view without checking the literature to see if the results hold in other similar studies. In such a case there is a danger that you might have a biased sample of studies, when what you really want to use is the collection of results from all the relevant studies (provided that there are no significant flaws).

False causality

False causality is one of the most common statistical fallacies that people make, and so it needs to be discussed in a lot of detail. The first thing you need to understand is correlations. Two quantities are positively correlated if when one quantity increases linearly so does the other, and they are negatively correlated if when one quantity increases linearly the other decreases linearly.1


These data sets all illustrate the concept of correlation. This concept is also strongly related to cubic polynomial regression. Image from here.

An obvious example of correlation in the abortion debate is poverty and abortion rates. It is well known (see here for just one of many examples) that there is a reasonably strong positive correlation between abortion rates and poverty. However, a very common mistake is to claim that because two quantities are correlated that one of them causes the other! This is not always true, since in many cases both quantities may instead be determined by an underlying quantity known as a confounder variable, or perhaps multiple confounders. It may not even be the case that any sort of causal link exists at all!2

A good example of this is the maternal death rate from abortion and the legality of abortion (both in the US). It is very commonly claimed that making abortion illegal will make it very unsafe. While it is true that reported maternal abortion deaths in the US did decrease post Roe V Wade (1973), it is not the case that this was caused by legal abortion. Why? Because if you look at the data since 1940, you can see that abortion related deaths had been declining since then, most likely due to increased access to antibiotics.

When claiming that abortion causes x or is caused by y, you therefore need to make sure that you consider the possibility of false causality first.

Using polls with loaded data

The final fallacy to discuss is the use of polls with data deliberately designed to mislead. Hopefully nobody reading this wants to do this on purpose, although if you do, have you ever considered running for political office?

Joking aside, what we need to discuss is known as push polling. A push poll is one conducted with the purpose of asking loaded questions, typically with the intention of convincing people to vote or think in a certain way. The definitions can vary slightly depending on who you ask, since some users of the term insist that push polls refer only to attempts to trick people into thinking that they are being polled without actually collecting and publishing the results. One example from the US political context was a push poll used by George Bush against John McCain in which voters were asked the following:

“John McCain calls the campaign finance system corrupt, but as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he raises money and travels on the private jets of corporations with legislative proposals before his committee. In view of this, are you much more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote against him or much more likely to vote against him?”

A similar issue to push polling is somewhat subtler, but can still have some major implications: changing the phrasing of options available in a poll slightly can alter the results significantly. For example, consider the following three versions of an online poll on voting reform in Canada.3

a.Do you agree that Canada should update its voting method for federal elections to proportional representation?

b.Should Canada eliminate first-past-the-post elections and replace them with proportional representation

c. Should Canada change the method it elects members of parliament from first-past-the-post to proportional representation?

The percentage of votes for yes in each of these polls were 58.3%, 47.1% and 45.8%, even though the question was the same each time! So when citing polls or other data in the abortion debate, check the wording of the question and try to make sure that it’s neutral.


Hopefully the above will have helped you to understand some common statistical errors to avoid. Here is a quick recapitulation of the most important points to take away, from the least serious to the most serious fallacies. Remember, these are not just things to avoid yourself in the pro-life debate, but fallacies you may be able to find in pro-choicers’ use of statistics.

5) Extreme cases can be very misleading if used carelessly.

4) Small samples must be treated with caution and the greater the p-value, the more sceptical you should be.

3) Biased, unrepresentative samples should be treated with caution.

2) Don’t confuse correlation with causation.

1) Polling results can be easily influenced by the wording of a question.

Next week we will look at how to use statistics in the abortion debate effectively.

If there are any questions about anything we’ve discussed or about pro-life issues generally, please leave a comment below and we’ll try to respond quickly.

Dane Rogers is a third year DPhil student in the Department of Statistics based at Merton College, currently working on Chinese Restaurants and Lévy process.


1 It is necessary to specify that the relationship is linear, because there may be other ways in which various quantities can be related. For example, there might be a cubic polynomial, exponential or logarithmic relationship about many others.

2For examples of bizarre correlations, see here.

3Note that online polls are usually very unreliable and influenced by sampling bias. As these polls are being tested against each other, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this argument since we test the relative differences in polling.

Statistical Fallacies in the Abortion Debate: part 1/2

This blog post is the first in a short three-part series on using statistics in the pro-life debate. This week we will look at some common statistical fallacies people make when discussing abortion and how you can avoid making them in a debate, friendly discussion, argument on the internet or some other kind of conversation. Next week we will continue to discuss fallacies, followed by a blog post explaining what to do instead.

Today we are going to be discussing an element of the pro-life debate that often gets overlooked by pro-lifers: fallacies involving statistics. Many of you may look at the image below and think that statistics are terrifying and too difficult for ordinary pro-lifers to use, but hopefully this post will convince you that it is easy to argue persuasively and accurately without needing to know anything particularly advanced.

Although cubic polynomial regression really is as bad as it sounds if statistics isn’t something you deal with a lotImage via Wikipedia.

Here are several fallacies that you can easily avoid making in a debate without needing to study statistics (although there is no harm in doing this). We will start with the least egregious errors and finish with the worst.

Using extreme cases to make a point

One fallacy of which both pro-life and pro-choice people are often guilty is trying to argue a position on abortion based purely on extreme cases without explaining why the argument also works in general. To give a specific example, it is very common to see pro-lifers try to argue implicitly that we should ban all abortions due to some extreme cases such as abortions due to minor birth defects such a cleft lip and palate. The problem is that while such cases are highly troubling, they really are a tiny proportion of all abortions overall, accounting for about 157 out of 922460 abortions from 2006-2010, or roughly 0.017%1. A much more common variation of this fallacy is to cite cases of very late-term abortions regularly, however most (89% or more) abortions occur during the first trimester, with  52.5% happening before 6 weeks from conception or sooner.


Which occurs once the pre-born baby has reached around this level of development. Remember an image speaks a thousand words.  Image via PMC Canada.

A further example of this fallacy which many of you will have encountered before is for people to try and argue that abortion should be legal in general and to then jump back on the case of rape when asked to justify the general statement. How to respond to this in a graceful way needs a whole blog post of its own and you should never ever be anything other than compassionate when discussing this topic, but it is worth noting that this can be a fallacious pro-choice argument if it isn’t suitably qualified, given that abortions due to rape account for around 0.3% of all abortions in the US.2

That said, these arguments do not always amount to fallacies if you are careful when using them. In the third post of this series we will explain how to use these sorts of extreme cases correctly and honestly without misleading people.

Using small samples

Another common mistake to watch out for is the use of overly small samples underlying abortion statistics. This might not seem like an immediate issue, but it can lead to some problems where seemingly strong results turn out not to be as significant as they first appear. To explain why this is a problem, we need to discuss a pair of concepts called the null hypothesis and the p-value briefly.

A null hypothesis is an initial belief that you wish to test in view of some evidence. If your data is strong enough, you will reject it in terms of an alternative hypothesis instead. This idea underlies the modern scientific method. The null hypothesis is not something that you can prove per se, so much as something for which you can gather evidence and have confidence in the truth of.

The significance level of a result or p-value is the probability that a seemingly significant result was due to chance, given a particular initial null hypothesis that there is no underlying effect. Typically, a result is not considered significant unless p< 5%, with results such as p< 1% or p<0.5% being considered much stronger.

One common mistake is to assume that if a result has p>5% then it is nonsense and if p<5% then it’s really good evidence. This is another mistake that you can easily make if you are careless- rather think of p as a measure of how sceptical you should be of a result. The smaller p is the better the result. For a fuller discussion of abuses of p-values, see here.

How does this connect to sample sizes? The larger your sample, the less extreme your data needs to be relative to your null hypothesis in order to get a result that might be considered significant. Furthermore, if you run a lot of studies, there is a good chance that at least one of them will show a significant result. Citing a single study by itself is something of which one has to be wary, particularly when the sample size is small. Always give priority to literature reviews and meta-studies.

One example which may invite controversy from the pro-life side is the abortion-breast cancer link (which is discussed at length in here). If the studies with large samples suggest there is not a link whereas those with small samples do, that is going to make many people highly sceptical of the existence of such a link, including pro-lifers! Therefore, it is best not to use this argument unless you have convincing data from large studies.

Next week we will continue discussing statistical fallacies in the abortion debate, talking about biased samples, false causality and push polls.

 If there are any questions about anything we have discussed or about pro-life issues generally, please leave a comment below and we will try to respond quickly.

Dane Rogers is a third year DPhil student in the Department of Statistics based at Merton College, currently working on Chinese Restaurants and Lévy process.


1 It is worth noting that official statistics suggest that the number of abortions due to cleft lip and palate from 2006-2010 was actually 14, but that only reinforces the point made if true.

Note that that there are issues with the quality and accuracy of the data, so there is quite a bit of uncertainty around the true value here.

The new Down’s Syndrome screening test and the culture of life

Is it possible that what looks like medical progress to a lot of people might actually result in a societal step backwards? Can a new technology that could be a force for good also harm cultural attitudes towards life? These are some questions worth asking in relation to non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), which the government recently announced will be rolled out by the NHS in 2018. For those who seek to promote a culture of life, NIPT is a good example of why we need to look further than the big, obvious issues like abortion and euthanasia.

NIPT: Medical progress?

At first glance, NIPT might seem like a wholly good thing. After all, this new screening test has a 98% accuracy rate in detecting Down’s Syndrome in foetuses, among other genetic anomalies. Furthermore, as it takes the form of a blood test, NIPT carries no risk of harm to the unborn child whatsoever. In contrast, one of the current tests offered by the NHS, amniocentesis, involves extracting amniotic fluid using a needle, and results in one out of every 100 foetuses tested being miscarried. It seems obvious: if a woman wants to know whether her baby has Down’s or not, the NHS should be able to offer her the safer test.

Purely in terms of miscarriage risk, NIPT is indeed medical progress compared with amniocentesis. Furthermore, many will probably say that its purpose is simply to give women information in order to make their own informed choices about their pregnancy; NIPT is not, after all, abortion itself. To label it as somehow eugenic would be a stretch, in this view. Some women may, in fact, want to use it to prepare for raising a child with Down’s.


Image via We’re All Equal

Non-innocuous prenatal testing

So, is there a real case against NIPT?

I do think that in an ideal world, NIPT could be a force for good. But I also believe that to evaluate NIPT properly, one cannot merely look at the narrow medical facts about the procedure itself, but must also consider the surrounding cultural context in which it would be implemented. In doing so, we will realise that NIPT would indeed harm cultural attitudes to life.

The reality of medical culture in the UK today is that prenatal testing has become an established routine procedure in prenatal healthcare, to the point where many pregnant women now feel that such tests are simply expected of them. Hence, many women do not fully reflect on what they would do with the information resulting from tests before agreeing to them. This leaves them susceptible to pressure to terminate their pregnancies – and women here are indeed often pressured by healthcare professionals, as well as family members and friends, when tests result in positive diagnoses of Down’s Syndrome or other foetal disabilities. Combined with the fact that pregnant women are often not given balanced information about living with disability, being told only the negative aspects, the ‘choice’ dealt to such women cannot be said to be fully free or well-informed.

The idea that testing is just about giving more information is simplistic in the light of this reality. The statistics are a stark manifestation of this culture: 90% of foetuses diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in the UK are aborted, a figure which is surely also partly caused by negative attitudes towards disability (though of course individual choices to terminate are often complicated and nuanced).

Inserted into this reality, NIPT will be yet another moment in the screening pathway where women are likely to face still more pressure to terminate in the face of a positive result. The fact that NIPT carries no risk to the foetus might seem like a good thing, but it also means that women will be seen as having no good reason to refuse such a test. This will increase the number of women undergoing prenatal testing and hence increase the number of women subject to pressure to abort when test results for disability are positive. NIPT is expected to result in an increase in the number of Down’s Syndrome diagnoses, and based on the current 90% rate the number of Down’s Syndrome terminations each year is thus projected to rise by 92.

It is worth noting at this point that while NIPT is indeed safer than amniocentesis, and will result in 43 fewer miscarriages due to amniocentesis each year, NIPT is not replacing amniocentesis. Rather, being a screening test offered at an earlier stage in pregnancy, NIPT serves to narrow the target group of pregnant women who will then be offered the invasive amniocentesis as a further prenatal test. Amniocentesis has a slightly higher degree of accuracy than NIPT, which may result in some false positive results.

The ‘big picture’ figures – the 43 fewer miscarriages – thus have the potential to obscure something troubling about this situation: NIPT does not necessarily make it safer for women carrying disabled foetuses to find out that information. It only reduces the number of women exposed to miscarriage risk from invasive testing. So, while women not carrying Down’s foetuses will be safer, many women with Down’s foetuses will still have a risk of miscarriage from amniocentesis, and face more pressure to terminate because of this additional test. Is it that we are unhappy with women in general being exposed to an increased risk of miscarriage, but happy with this if they have a 98% chance of carrying an unborn child with Down’s?

NIPT and eugenics

All this is enough to make us think seriously about the implication of NIPT on the culture of life. Evaluating medical technology is not always straightforward because the ‘brute facts’ of the technology are implemented in the midst of human culture. The technology of NIPT, in and of itself, is not eugenic. But given the current state of medical culture here, it will undoubtedly have a eugenic effect. Although the choice to terminate or not is handed over to the pregnant woman herself, so it might not on the surface seem like blatant eugenics, three factors in the screening regime conspire together to result in the high rate of termination of disabled foetuses: 1) The routine nature of screening, which leads to a lack of sufficient reflection on why women would opt for screening; 2) Pressure from healthcare professionals as well as society to terminate; 3) Unbalanced information presented about disabilities, which reinforces negative attitudes towards disability.

So long as the ethos of our culture is not fully supportive and affirmative of the value of disabled lives, morally neutral tests like NIPT will facilitate eugenics through apparently free choices made out of varying motives. Our culture is simply not ready for NIPT, and the way in which the invasive amniocentesis test is routinely offered to women with a higher likelihood of carrying an unborn child with Down’s must be reconsidered.

Those still sceptical of the eugenic argument should know that it is already possible for NIPT to sequence the complete DNA of unborn babies, though this is presently difficult and expensive. NIPT is currently used to test for genetic anomalies; who knows if it will one day be used to identify social features for termination?


Image via We’re All Equal

To learn about abortion and disability, visit the We’re All Equal Campaign. You can find out more information about NIPT and Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill and discover how to support the campaign. Find them on Facebook here and Twitter here.

Michael Wee is the Education Officer of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, an Oxford-based academic institute. He previously studied English and Philosophy at Durham University and more recently completed a Master’s in 20th Century English literature at Wolfson College, Oxford.  

Five things we learned from Fiona Bruce on sex-selective abortion

To conclude our Pro-life Feminism fortnight, last Friday, we had the pleasure of hosting Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton in Cheshire, to hear about the huge impact sex-selective abortion still has in the UK as well as how ability-selective abortion laws promote extreme inequality. She told us about her attempt to clarify the 1967 Abortion Act, in order to raise awareness and prevent sex-selective abortion from continuing in the UK.

This is an issue which OSFL has discussed previously, and which has been making the headlines again in the last few weeks, and is always pertinent to the pro-life debate. For those of you who missed Fiona Bruce, here are five key points to take away from her talk regarding sex-selective and ability-selective abortion and the law:


It is very difficult for MPs to bring forward a matter they feel needs changing in the law.

Fiona explained that the main way MPs are able to bring an important issue concerning the law to the attention of parliament is to apply for a 10 minute rule bill, a type of private members bill. This is a chance to bring forward a bill to change or clarify the law by giving a ten-minute talk in the House of Commons on a Friday; around 20 bills for every 400 applications will be selected at random. The bill gives MPs a chance to raise awareness in the House and ask others for support, but does not itself actually lead to a change in the law. Fiona herself put forward a private members bill highlighting the ambiguity in the law regarding sex-selective abortion, and her arguments were so convincing that the bill won 181 votes to 1. Following from this, Fiona proposed an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which read: ‘Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child’. However, this was rejected in parliament. More information can be found here.


The 1967 Abortion Act is unclear on the matter of sex-selective abortion

The act does not mention the matter; this has led to some abortion providers such as BPAS stating that it is not illegal practice because the law is ‘silent’ on the matter. This is simply not true. The 1967 Abortion Act simply allows exceptions to legalise abortion under certain conditions. Sex-selective abortion is not one of these exceptions and therefore it is illegal.  Currently, the British Medical Association condones sex-selective abortion in cases where the sex of the foetus may have an impact on the state of the mother’s mental health; this feeds into the explicit element of the law concerning abortion on grounds of danger to the health of the mother. However, Fiona noted that the sex of the child in itself is not where the threat of danger to a mother’s health comes in – it is rather the abuse that she may suffer as a result of the sex of her child which is where the danger lies, and this is what we ought to be trying to change. Fiona stressed these women need help and support as a long-term solution to this problem.


Sex-selective abortion really does happen in the UK

Fiona told us two anecdotes regarding cases of sex-selective abortion in the UK; one involved a mother whose two eldest children were girls – as the eldest of six girls herself, remembering the upset and anger her parents went through every time they came home with another girl, she faced similar emotions and stress during her own pregnancy. She decided to abort her third child after she found out it was a girl to avoid bringing further dishonour to her family. The second involved a woman whose husband began to physically abuse her and eventually request a divorce after discovering that their unborn child was a girl. The issue with sex-selective abortion being under-recognised in the UK arises from women facing abuse and having to give alternative reasons for the abortion of their unborn child. It is important to stress that sex-selective abortion is not just practised within certain communities, either. ‘Family balancing’ has entered our terminology, for example. We have to tackle sex-selective abortion not simply on a legal level, but by recognising the root causes which lie in the devaluing of female foetuses, domestic abuse and misogyny: problems which are still present, if brushed under the carpet, in the UK.


There is currently a movement to change the law regarding abortion and disability

Although Fiona’s amendment to the Serious Crime Bill was rejected in the end this time round, there is now a new motion to change the law surrounding abortion and disability. Lord Shinkwin has introduced the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. At the moment, abortion is allowed up to birth for ‘serious disability’, however conditions such as club foot and cleft lip and palate, which are treatable conditions are included. The arguments involve the thoughts that the law promotes inequality and discrimination against disabled people, and is out of date since it does not recognise the essential contribution that people with a disability bring to the community. As society promotes equality for all, the abortion laws seem to contradict this. Support is coalescing around this movement at the moment, offering hope for the future. You can support and follow the Bill here.


Under UK law, medical practitioners have the right to not participate in abortion

The Abortion Act of 1967 states that no person must be made to participate in carrying out an abortion if they have a conscientious objection to the procedure, yet there is pressure on doctors and nurses today to overlook this, regardless of their beliefs. Fiona argues that we should discourage discrimination against those who wish to opt out from such procedures, and that more should be done to raise awareness that this is a right that people have.

Sex-selective abortion is an issue which is unlikely to disappear as long as our culture fails to truly value women, and it is indicative of the way in which abortion is intrinsically linked to the oppression of the vulnerable: its victims are all too often women, or the disabled.


Pro-life Feminism Fortnight was a great success: we have raised awareness of the intersection between the pro-life movement and feminism, hopefully demonstrating not only that it is possible, but that it is imperative to be both pro-life and feminist, and have raised money to support two at-risk babies for a month through ‘Women’s Right’s without Frontiers’, who oppose forced abortion, gendercide, poverty and other abuses of women in China. Next week we turn our attention to Assisted Suicide and will be hearing Peter D. Williams, Chief Executive of Right to Life, on the question of ‘What happens next after the defeat of the Marris Bill?’ Do join us on Tuesday 22nd November at 7pm in Harris Manchester for what promises to be a fascinating look at the future ahead.

Danielle Green is in her Second Year at St John’s studying French and Philosophy.

New Wave Feminists: 5 things we learned

As part of OSFL’s Pro-life Feminism Fortnight, we had the pleasure of hosting Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Kristen Hatten, the New Wave Feminists, via Skype last night. They describe themselves as ‘Badass. Pro-life. Feminists’ and that is exactly what we got. Destiny and Kristen demonstrated cogently and rationally, but with humour, the way in which our culture systematically commodifies women and sex, and the part abortion plays in a patriarchal system which makes women into objects and enables men to profit. Citing Alice Paul, the American suffragist and early feminist who said ‘Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women’, Destiny eloquently made the case for being both pro-life and feminist. Their talk was filled with brilliant arguments and lots of helpful tips about how to put those arguments forward, but here are just five things to take away from the talk.



  1. ‘Ye Olde Patriarchy’ has been defeated; it is against ‘The New Patriarchy’ that we must now fight.

Bringing down the patriarchy and its exploitation of women is crucial, but most feminists are fighting the wrong battle. ‘Ye Olde Patriarchy’, the system under which man marries woman, woman produces children, children provide free labour, and marriage and children are both profitable and sustainable, is dead. Feminism has already won that battle, but the war continues with the battle against what the New Wave Feminists term ‘The New Patriarchy’. If anything, this patriarchy is more insidious and many women have been raised to be unconsciously complicit. Another term for this patriarchy, according to Destiny, is ‘Douchebag Utopia’: this is the culture of Cosmopolitan, which tells women how to look and gives them page after page of sex tips; the culture in which ‘fauxminists’ see porn and sex work as empowering women; the ‘Kulture’ in which Kim Kardashian feels the need to post naked selfies whilst pregnant to show she has value and is still relevant. Under the tyranny of ‘The New Patriarchy’, sex is a commodity, making women a commodity. Marriage and children are now expensive, so we have turned to hook-up culture, birth control and abortion, which enables men to commodify sex without the financial liability of children. And it is women’s bodies that pay the price. This is the patriarchy feminists should be fighting. And this is the patriarchy that we as pro-lifers must be fighting.


Image courtesy of the New Wave Feminists

  1. The three groups who benefit most from abortion are not women, but men.

Destiny outlined the three groups who benefit most from abortion, and all of them are patriarchal.

  1. Men who exploit women, using them for sex, and then use their credit cards to deal with the unintended, but natural consequence, by sending women to abortion clinics and hence abdicating responsibility.
  2. Governments, which are still predominantly male, who find it easier to subsidise abortion than to pay for eighteen years of child support.
  3. Child predators who groom young girls and procure abortions for them to hide the evidence of their crime. To see how abortion is tragically used to exploit young girls, and the way in which abortion clinics are complicit, have a look at some of the case stories here.
  1. ‘Don’t be nuts’

In their zeal to do good, many pro-lifers seem a little nuts and crazy! And given the media’s hostility towards the pro-life cause, they inevitably pick up on the craziest pro-lifers, rather than putting the spotlight on those who are rational and logical. Kristen said that if we take one thing away from the talk, then it should be this: ‘Don’t be nuts. Be sane’.  Use cogent, intelligent and effective arguments rather than graphic images and condemnation.  And if you can be funny, then be funny. To get a taste of how the New Wave Feminists use humour to aid the pro-life cause, have a look at some of their videos! (Please note that, naturally, some of these videos discuss women’s bodies explicitly, but more importantly, accurately.)


It was wonderful to see so many people last night. Thankfully, we all look quite normal!

  1. Sometimes it’s enough just to be yourself

Going on marches and getting heavily involved in activism is great, but sometimes simply going about your business being quietly pro-life is a better witness as it proves that pro-lifers are regular, ordinary people too, and not the crazies the media would like to present us as (see Point 3…). People will probably eventually realise that you are pro-life and that way you will be able to have important, private conversations while simultaneously demonstrating that you are a normal human being.

  1. The ‘forced pregnancy’ argument can be defeated with both reason and statistics.

One argument with which pro-life feminists are constantly confronted that of how one can call oneself a feminist whilst ‘forcing’ women to carry a pregnancy to term. Destiny punctured this argument persuasively and using logic that many would struggle to combat. First of all, we are all (hopefully!) intelligent human beings! We know where babies come from: babies are a natural consequence of fertility and sex. Surely that shouldn’t be such a surprise to everybody! To talk about ‘forced pregnancy’ in the context of pregnancy as a result of consensual sex is therefore a misnomer. If somebody has chosen to have sex, then they can hardly claim that pregnancy has been forced upon them. They had a choice, and that choice was made when they chose to engage in sex. On the other hand, there are tragic cases of rape, through which women had no choice about becoming pregnant. However, such cases only account for 0.06% to 1% of all abortions in the US, so this argument can only be used in the tiniest proportion of cases and hence one cannot argue that pro-life feminism forces women to be pregnant when in 99% of cases, this flies in the face of logic . This does not, however, diminish the appalling crime of rape nor the suffering that it puts women through and all cases must be treated with the utmost compassion. Yet the radical  bodily autonomy argument, which suggests that all human beings, including foetuses,  possess bodily autonomy right from the moment of conception, still applies even in cases of rape. For a nuanced discussion of the question of rape and abortion, have a look at Kristen’s video here.


Image via the New Wave Feminists

We learned such a lot from the New Waves Feminists and hopefully this will make us reconsider the way in which we discuss both abortion and feminism whilst also demonstrating the imperative of being pro-life and feminist. If you missed the talk and would like to find out more about the New Wave Feminists’ position, this video offers a great introduction to their ideas on pro-life feminism. You can find their website here, like them on Facebook here, follow them on twitter here, or check out their wonderful blog here.


We hope that you will join us for some more of Pro-life Feminism fortnight. Next Tuesday we will be having our Pro-Life Feminism Fundraiser, venue to be confirmed, and on Friday 4th November Fiona Bruce will be talking at 6pm on sex-selective abortion. To get the latest details, and to see lots of inspiring quotes about Pro-Life Feminism, have a look at OSFL’s Facebook Page.

How to be pro-life at university

Whether you’re the President of the Pro-Life Society or yet to come out of the ‘pro-life closet’ as it were, university gives us all a fantastic opportunity to really make a difference in the pro-life movement. While we may not be able to give anything from our rapidly depleting overdrafts we certainly can give our talents and time (especially if, like me, you rarely have more than 8 contact hours a week). So what can you do with that time?

Get involved with your SU!

You may not think student politics is your thing, and often you’ll spend hours debating over whether a printing charge of 5p a sheet is ‘normalised classism’ at the hands of higher education establishments, I know. But, when a pro-choice motion appears, blatant censorship or something else that you feel strongly about, you’ll be glad that you not only know how your union’s ‘political’ system works but (hopefully!) you will have made some friends along the way in respected positions who will be more than happy to stand by your side. At the end of the day it is just as much your student union as it is a pro-choicer’s. Students’ Unions are there to represent students. All of them. So make sure that your voice is heard! How can you do this? See what the student voice team at your university has on offer – there will probably be committees, councils and execs that you can sit on, or, if you’re feeling confident, run in your union’s elections!

Start a conversation!

Be open to having that pro-life debate – when life issues comes up in conversation it is often so much easier to stay quiet or act as if you don’t have an opinion on the matter. However, without getting too philosophical about it, one could argue that not speaking up is just as bad as actively speaking against – acting by omission, as it were. So how do you have this pro-life discussion and conduct yourself in a pro-life way? OSFL said it best when they described themselves as uncompromisingly civil and uncompromisingly pro-life because it’s not what you say but how you say it that will be remembered. Being happy and caring when you speak to people goes a long way in busting the negative stereotypes people seem to have of pro-lifers and it becomes a conversation that people want to have. An entire blog could be written on how to have a pro-life conversation, and in fact it has, by OSFL alumni Greg Jackson so take a look here!

Being able to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, be that the unborn, elderly or vulnerable, is an absolute joy. So, brush up on your apologetics and next time you’re down the pub and things get a little heated, question them – informal conversations amongst friends on pro-life issues are a fantastic way to be pro-life on campus.

Be proactive!

As pro-lifers we always seem to be on the defensive, constantly reacting. Let’s be proactive! What support is there for student parents at your university? If a friend of yours were to become unexpectedly pregnant would she find the support that she needs at your university and the possibility to make a true choice or would she simply be ushered down to the nearest clinic? Are there baby changing facilities? A crèche that is affordable to students and not just staff members? Halls of residence for families (including non-mature students)? Is any of this information easily accessible from both the university’s and the SU’s website? If a student chose to take an interruption of study how would this impact upon their studies? Is there someone that women can speak to if they have been hurt by abortion? What about the men at your university? Is there confidential support available to them too? How about those with disabilities? Are they given just as much opportunity as you or I to get a degree at your university? Research and discover for yourself what you can do to ensure that your university is more pro-life. One way to do this is working together with your pro-life society, if you have one, or with APS, to submit a motion to your SU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) such as a Student Parent Support Motion that outlines your expectations and, if passed by the student body, becomes a policy at your SU, or pass a Free Speech Motion to help ensure you aren’t censored simply due to disagreements.


The Alliance of Pro-Life Students

Volunteer and Fundraise!

Put your pro-life values into action by volunteering! See if your local care home needs an extra pair of hands now and again, spend time with people with disabilities or see if a mother in your neighbourhood could use a babysitter while she studies!

As well as volunteers, pro-life organisations are also always looking for fundraisers! Why not have fun while fundraising for a pro-life charity? Have a bake-off with friends and charge a couple pounds for entry, do a fun-run, organise a talent competition, sell hand-made cards or donate your clothes to a pro-life charity shop.

Pro-life societies!

Last but by no means least … join the pro-life society, or better yet, get yourself on the committee! No pro-life society? Start one – APS can help! Not quite up to starting a society but want a pro-life presence? Get in contact with APS and we will help you organise a pro-life talk – see if you can team up with some of your university’s faith societies, debating society or even the Women’s Association – you don’t have to be a society to organise an event!


Oxford Students for Life at the Freshers’ Fair

Finally …

Remember that you aren’t alone! Go to a pro-life conference or event, meet other young pro-lifers, particularly student pro-lifers who are fighting the same battle alongside you, just at different institutions. The Alliance of Pro-Life Students, as well as other organisations are constantly organising nationwide events for you to connect with other young pro-lifers (such as our Celebration & Fundraiser on Thursday) so go along!

So, why does all this matter? Why is it so important to be pro-life at your university? I could write an entire series just on that but I’ll keep it short!

In 2015, “the abortion rate was highest for women aged 21 (at 28.7 per 1,000). The highest rate in 2014 was for women aged 22 (at 28.5 per 1,000 – see the graph below).”[1] The truth of the matter is that the age bracket with the highest number of abortions is for women aged 18-24 … in others words by university students! We need pro-life voices on campuses across Great Britain more than ever. So how can you be pro-life at university? By simply speaking up, whether it is by holding a large scale debate or by the small conversations you have with your friends; you never know what seeds you will be sowing, and while you may not see the fruits of that labour, one day, an unborn child just might.



This is the first post in a series on being pro-life at university.

Mads Page is the Student Support Officer at the Alliance of Pro-Life Students

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/529344/Abortion_Statistics_2015_v3.pdf