Fighting for the right to life at Oxford

Co-President of Oxford Students For Life Ben Conroy discusses the pro-life movement at Oxford and the misconceptions it faces

A man holds a sign during an anti-abortion rally at the Texas Capitol, Monday, July 8, 2013, in Austin, Texas. The fight over access to abortion in Texas resumed Monday with thousands expected to attend a marathon Senate hearing and a nighttime anti-abortion rally at the Capitol.

On a wintry evening last January, I was in a college room with thirty other people to hear an MP speak and answer questions: not an unusual situation for an Oxford undergraduate. Halfway through the talk, the porters of the college came in with an unusual request: that we close the curtains of the room. There had, they explained apologetically, been complaints from students about what could be seen from outside.

What were we doing in that room that was so shadowy that a mere glimpse of it through a window was unacceptable? We were attending an Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) event, listening to Fiona Bruce speak about against abortion on the grounds of gender and disability. This was what had to be hidden.

Ms Bruce had no PowerPoint presentation, so no one would have been able to tell from the window what she was talking about. All they would have seen was our society’s stand, which says “Promoting a culture of life at the university” in a vaguely Tolkien-esque font. The problem wasn’t any particular thing being said—the problem was the fact that we exist.

But exist we do. We’re a small society: Georgia Clarke and I are co-presidents, and there are currently three other committee members, two women and one man. We run about four events a term—among our speakers this year were the New Wave Feminists, Kelsey Hazzard (of the US-based Secular Pro-Life) and historian Daniel K. Williams (author of a book on the progressive roots of the pro-life movement). We’ve had a debate on assisted suicide between philosophers David Oderberg and Jeff McMahan, and ran a ‘Stump the Pro-Lifer’ event where we invited people to ask us any question they wanted.

If this sounds a bit different to what you were expecting (“feminists? secular?”), I don’t blame you. There’s a carefully-cultivated stereotype of pro-lifers as hidebound reactionaries who pin up posters of Mike Pence on their walls and drift off to sleep fantasising about Gilead, the fundamentalist, misogynistic dystopia from The Handmaid’s Tale.

In reality, OSFL attracts people of all ideological stripes. I’m a socialist and used to be a member of the Irish Green Party. Ruth Akinradewo, who writes for our blog and has spoken against pro-choice motions at OUSU meetings, was involved with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. We’ve got Tories and Labour supporters coming to our events, Remainers and Brexiteers, and possibly even the odd libertarian.

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What unites pro-lifers is the straightforward idea that every human being is of equal worth, and that this fundamental equality is grounded in their humanness, in their simple membership of the species. We think that attempting to base equality on anything else is inevitably exclusionary—it can’t be race, sex, or sexual orientation that gives us our dignity, but nor can it be cognitive ability (cognitively disabled people are equal), or the capacity for consciousness (coma patients are equal), or physical size. From a scientific, factual and intuitive perspective, it is clear that the fetus is an individual human life, deserving of this basic dignity. Moral progress over the last few centuries has always involved extending the sphere of fundamental dignity outwards, to include more humans. We want to continue this project until it includes all humans.

As with all human rights revolutions, this will require a transformation of society—not towards Gilead but away from it. According to a 2005 study from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute on abortion in the US, the top reasons given for having an abortion were that a child would interfere with education, work or ability to care for dependents (74 per cent), being unable to afford a baby now (73 per cent), and relationship problems or not wanting to be a single mother (48 per cent).

The reality of abortion is rarely an empowering choice: it’s more likely to be a boyfriend walking away, a labour market that discriminates against pregnant women and mothers with children, and a culture that tells women facing a crisis pregnancy that they have to choose between their child and their future.

In an equal society, women wouldn’t face these trade-offs. It should be the job of pro-lifers to work to make that society a reality, and in the meantime to try to provide as much concrete support as possible for young parents, and for women facing crisis pregnancies. In OSFL we try to help in a small way by passing motions in JCRs and MCRs to make sure that colleges have adequate facilities in place to support student parents.

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