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4th February 2022

Womb with a view?: The abortion debate on university campuses

What are university pro-life societies? Are they just about abortion? The Mancunion speaks to two such societies and UoM’s Feminist Collective to find out
Womb with a view?: The abortion debate on university campuses
Photo: The Mancunion

Shortly after the discovery of Exeter University’s Pro-Life Society, thousands of students found it shocking to learn that in fact, 17 of the 24 UK Russell Group universities have similar Pro-Life societies. It turns out these societies have always existed on the fringes of university campuses, even in the most supposedly liberal of cities, such as Oxford. These societies have received enormous amounts of backlash and attention on social media, but what exactly are they for? Do they just meet to talk about abortion? And can they be feminist and pro-life? We spoke to pro-life Societies from Cambridge and Bristol universities to find out, and approached the University of Manchester’s Feminist Collective (the nearest thing we have to an oppositional organisation) to weigh in.

Cambridge Students For Life (CSFL) 

One of the things we were really eager to talk about was Cambridge’s society’s thoughts on the terms terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’. Joanna (Society President), rejected this immediately: “Part of what we do is making sure there are more choices for women”. She explained, “A woman wants an abortion like an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its leg”. 

Both she and Hannah, the Vice President, suggested that there is a plethora of information around abortion, but less information around other options such as pregnancy support, adoption, and other alternatives once the baby has been born. 

The society was passionate about breaking the stigma around the struggles of having a child and achieving career success. In a university context, they questioned why it’s currently so difficult to be a pregnant student, and presented their society as a support system for people who find themselves in difficult situations like this. 

Hannah directed us to websites such as Pregnant at Uni which offers grants and financial support to those who find themselves in this difficult position. The website provides aid on deadline extensions, welfare support and a parental learning allowance. So the support is obviously there, but why don’t more people know about it? A question we, regardless of our stance on the issue, found ourselves asking as well. 

What became apparent during our conversation was that those who are ‘pro-life’ view the blastocyst or embryo as a life. The choice, therefore, centres around killing. Yet if you view the embryonic stage as pre-life, then abortion becomes not a violent but rather a scientific act, removing a fertilised egg from a womb. 

Cambridge does not consider its society to be political. Their main focus is promoting a ‘consistent life ethic’ from ‘womb to tomb’.  Given the religious nature of the Cambridge academic calendar, it will come as no surprise that CSFL considers itself a Christian-based society. Thus, their pro-life stance comes from the belief that every human is made in the image of God. 

17 of the 24 UK Russell Group Universities have similar Pro-Life societies

Whilst abortion and its surrounding stigma was the main topic and reason for our interview, both Joanna and Hannah were happy to talk to us a bit about other aspects of their society’s ‘consistent life ethics’. They suggested that there is much more polarisation around the value of life before birth than there is once the baby is born; it’s obviously much more difficult to argue that a baby’s life is less important than the mother’s. For an embryo though, there is still much contestation. 

Whilst both Joanna and Hannah acknowledge that “there are a lot of things that have to happen before you can put a legal end to abortion and there not be serious repercussions” (like back-alley abortions), on their website they do express the ‘hope that one day in Cambridge, abortion and euthanasia will be considered unthinkable’. Their approach is softer than others, but the underlying goal is still there, buried behind stigma.

The issue becomes even more pressing when considering the privilege of many students, especially at Cambridge. At a university with such prestige, it’s great to see people focusing on sexual and societal inequality. Certainly, an advantage of being pro-life from a privileged background is that you’re able to do more. However, it could be argued that this bespeaks Christian missionary rhetoric and assumes that women need ‘saving’ from abortion. From a position of such privilege, is it enough for CSFL to not have a political agenda? 

Naturally, we also wanted to touch on how they’d reacted to the backlash they’d received recently. “[We don’t] think it’s ever easy to be pro-life,” they explained, particularly with the rise of female bodily autonomy.

However, we couldn’t disagree when Joanna stated that “society really isn’t geared to support women”, the reason why CSFL opposes female systemic injustices that make abortion seem like the ‘right’ choice for many women. In this sense, CSFL’s intent “to see abortion end but in a sustainable way” comes across almost as a secondary aim. Primarily, Cambridge Pro-Life encourages people to think about life-ending procedures, including euthanasia, “[giving] them the space to process things.” The society provides this through talks, such as ‘The Effect of Abortion in the Developing World: an African Perspective’.

Furthering the discussion around how society has failed women inevitably brought up the topic of rape. Due to their Christian basis, this evoked complications around the conception of a child out of such a horrific act and all being made in the image of God. Hannah clarified that no matter what has led to the creation of that life, it still has value, respecting that that decision carries much more emotional weight.

Leading on from this, we questioned whether CSFL’s stance was in the interests of women’s emancipation.  The society’s representatives asserted that whilst they do consider themselves strongly pro-women, they recognised the controversy around openly depicting themselves as feminists. 

Whatever their beliefs around life ethics, Joanna and Hannah both agreed that they would be able to put them aside in order to be a good friend and not “be annoying” if someone came to them for support regarding pregnancy concerns. Perhaps the charitable rather than political inclinations of their society serves as a justification for their somewhat inconclusive views on the issue. However, we’d question whether it’s enough to just talk about an issue that has such a lasting effect on someone’s life in such a highly politicised society as we find ourselves in in the 21st century.

Bristol Pro-Life Feminist Society (BPLFS)

Having grown up in Bristol, I (Erin) was always reminded of how liberal the city was. We voted in an 18-year-old Green councillor and the UK’s first black mayor, toppled Colston, and became Europe’s Green Capital and the UK’s most sustainable city. So, when I heard that the University of Bristol, located in the city’s heart, had a pro-life society, it seemed a stark anomaly.

Founded just months before the Covid pandemic began, Bristol’s Pro-Life Feminist Society’s main goal is to ban abortion, something that I believe doesn’t align with their ‘pro-women’ message. The group’s president, Fennie, justified this ‘pro-women’ aim, stating that “abortion is a human rights violation [that] we want to abolish that as soon as possible.” In the eyes of the society, who also advocate against the death sentence and euthanasia, the ‘unborn’ life should have rights from conception. 

In their eyes, there’s no justification for killing “an innocent life.” Therefore, during pregnancy, BPLFS argue that the rights of the infant outweigh that of the woman’s, and abortion is not a woman’s right, so their argument that they support a woman’s bodily autonomy only seems to apply until another (potential) life becomes involved. Cécile, the Vice-President, suggested as an example that the national lockdown imposed as a result of Covid-19 demonstrated a similar restriction of bodily autonomy in order to save the lives of society’s most vulnerable. Of course, those lives are outside of the womb already…

“It’s never easy to be pro-life”

To accompany this ideology, the BPLFS supports various social justice causes and charities. These include advocating for an improved foster care system, paid parental leave and food or financial support. These are the services they refer students to if they’re in need, expressing that people are ‘misinformed’ in regards to abortion, and that this lack of information can ultimately make the experience of abortion more traumatic. President Fennie was strong in her belief that pregnancy should not be a setback, stating “we want to take away all the reasons you might have for a woman seeking abortion in that sense.”

BPLFS regularly holds events and debates throughout the year to explore injustice issues and find common ground. Occasional debates are held with other societies such as Philosophy, attracting regular audiences of 15-30. Bristol Pro-Life also “go out and find people” to continue these conversations, adding “we love people to oppose us [and] to find common ground”. This belligerence alongside backlash to Exeter’s Pro-Life society led to student action against the group in 2021. Directed by Bristol BPLFS and the Women’s Network, an open letter was sent to the University of Bristol’s Student Union with over 500 signatures demanding BPLFS be shut down for violating the SU’s policies, but ultimately no violations were found.

It’s clear to see from both Pro-Life groups that their existence is contentious. Both hold conservative and arguably patriarchal views, particularly when it comes to sex and feminism. Yet both groups take different approaches when advocating against abortion. Cambridge isn’t advocating for the law to be changed but instead are a welcoming grassroots group. The society genuinely listens to those who need support, and don’t attempt to sway or shame people’s opinion – particularly those who are vulnerable.

Bristol is far more outspoken and politicised in their approach, hence why they’ve received far more backlash. It seems the society is far less concerned with listening. When we raised the point that it’d be naïve to discuss abortion as if it doesn’t affect young girls, particularly those in deprivation, the response was blunt, and along the lines of ‘we all know how sex works’. Contraception is not an issue supposedly, even for young girls. Bristol”s pro-life society approaches abortion as if it is just a middle-class inconvenience at best, whilst Cambridge is far more socially aware, despite the socio-economic privileges that one might associate with the university. If abortion is to be discussed or even debated, little discussion can be had if groups don’t think beyond the scope of their own privilege – something pro-life societies often neglect. 

The University of Manchester’s Feminist Collective’s thoughts on the Bristol Pro-life Feminist Society

It felt only right, journalistically, to interrogate our own university students about the debate and gain a balanced view on the topic. However, the closest thing the University of Manchester (UoM) has to anything even remotely in the realm of the abortion debate is our intersectional Feminist Collective. So, we sat down with Amber, the Feminist Collective’s deputy chair, to discuss the issue. The Feminist Collective describes itself as an ‘anti patriarchal’ organisation supporting ‘people of marginalised genders’ and standing ‘against all forms of bigotry”. It wasn’t exactly a light topic for a Monday afternoon interview.

We were eager to see if the Feminist Collective involved as much charity work and social justice focus as that of the two pro-life societies we spoke to. Amber explained that they do raise money for charities, but that their main focus is about “raising feminist consciousness”, which she defined as “discussing an issue and realising that it isn’t necessarily black and white”. This was something we felt was lacking in our discussions with Cambridge and Bristol.

In true leftist, Manc manner, Amber explained that she’d considered running an abortion session, but hesitated on what the debate would be, believing the outcome would be, “you all have the right to pick, it’s your body”.

That being said, we returned to the fundamental question we’d been struggling to comprehend: whose life comes first? Surely in prioritising the life of an embryo over that of an actual human being, you’re ultimately depriving bodily autonomy for that being, who has to live with the consequences regardless. 

This led to an interesting conversation about the term ‘feminist’. We explained that whilst Bristol had named themselves a ‘Pro-Life Feminist Society’, Cambridge had expressed more trepidation around the use of the term. Amber hastily eschewed the notion that there was an all-or-nothing feminist criteria, disagreeing with “gatekeeping the word feminism”. Although, when it came to virtue signalling, Amber opposed the use of the label “without doing the work” to stand against the patriarchy. At least on that note, it would be impossible to accuse ‘pro-lifers’ of accepting the label without recognising their own advocacy and experiences similar to that of other feminists. 

In a manner not wholly antithetical to the views of Cambridge Pro-Life, Amber speculated on the possibility of “a utopian world where every child gets adopted, and the way that you go through pregnancy is really nice”. Moments later she brought us back to reality, asserting “But it’s not what we have right now.”

We moved on to talk about the use of the actual terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ themselves, in relation to euthanasia and other life-ethics issues. Amber took a much more empathetic approach to ‘the idea of trying to protect life’ in terms of euthanasia. By redefining ‘pro-life’ to “pro-human life and human rights”, the discussion moved to the “more immediate concerns than people who have the potential to life” – something pro-life groups quietly advocate for.  

Importantly,  no one wanted to sugar-coat abortions as a pleasant experience. However, perhaps controversially, Amber expressed that she felt she should be able to have an abortion if she “just didn’t feel like a baby right then”, confessing she doesn’t see abortion as the “necessary evil” that many people on both sides of the debate see it as. 

This led us to talk about individuals’ potential abuse of abortion services, using it as an alternative to contraception. Rather than condemning these women, Amber attributed this to a “failure of the wider sex education and access to contraception system that we exist in”.

CSFL would agree that the system is failing women. The fact that this view is shared by both parties clearly indicates the need for feminism today, whether conservative or more liberal. Women are still repeatedly harmed by systemic oppression and deprivation, and whether you stand with them or not, everyone we spoke to is trying to fight that in their own way. 

Since our interview, Amber has discussed ‘Abortion, Contraception, and the Right to Choose’ in her podcast Don’t Tell Me To Smile. Check out the episode here:

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