Oxford Students for Life held a controversial panel event at Exeter College on Wednesday, attracting protesters from across Oxford University. Around 20 students turned out on the evening of the event to express their opposition to the event taking place in the College. Exeter College refused to cancel the event, however, citing concerns over freedom of speech.

The pro-life event, entitled ‘Pro-life feminism: A panel discussion’ is part of OSFL’s ‘3rd Week focus on pro-life feminism’ and featured a panel of five female speakers discussing why they are both feminist and pro-life. The all-female panel featured a paediatrician, a qualified solicitor, a Rhodes Schola r, a trainee teacher, and a charity fundraiser explaining how they came to support a pro-life stance, and how they find a pro-life ethos to be compatible with their feminism.

The panel was organised after a peer supporter at Exeter booked the College room. Despite calls from some, including students who had themselves had abortions, to have the event cancelled, College offi cials decided to proceed.

A peaceful protest against the event was organised by Alice Nutting and Ella Richards, both English students at the College. The protest’s Facebook event stated that whilst OSFL were entitled to hold the discussion, Exeter College had a duty of care toward students and staff , which includes not making them feel uncomfortable in their home.

Protestors proceeded to gather outside the Saskatchewan Room where the discussion was being held and made paper fl owers with pro-choice statements and expressions of discontent written on them.

Before the event, Alice Nutting told Cherwell, “I’ve organised this protest as I want college to be a safe place for all those who’ve had an abortion – we’re here, we’ve made fl owers and we’re out in solidarity for all those who’ve had to have an abortion. We’ll be asking questions and making our views known.”

Many of the protestors attended the discussion, using the Q&A session to question the pro-life views of the panel. All bar one of the questions asked came from pro-choice protesters.

Ella Richards commented, “We decided to organise the protest because we were really uncomfortable about the prospect of an antiabortion group holding a meeting at a place which is ultimately a home for a lot of people. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion before they are 45; statistically there will be students, staff , and fellows who have been personally aff ected by abortion in some way.”

The event was also attended by many pro-life advocates, including a Sacristan at Pusey House, Guy Jackson, who told Cherwell, “A lot of people seem to assume that being pro-woman means being pro-choice as well. It was refreshing to hear from women who disagree.”

On its website, OSFL claims that it is a nonsectarian group dedicated to “promoting a culture of life at the University and in the wider community, advocating the protection of human life and dignity from conception to natural death”.

The society holds regular pro-life events which have attracted signifi cant attention in the past. Last term, OSFL had planned a debate between historian and writer Timothy Stanley and journalist Brendan O’Neill at Christ Church entitled ‘This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’. After a large protest was organised by OxRevFems, the debate was deemed a “security issue” and ultimately abandoned. O’Neill described the protestors as “the new enemies of free speech”.

After this week’s event, a member of OSFL told Cherwell, “Last night was less about winning arguments than about having a sensitive and responsible discussion of the complex issue of abortion, and we were grateful to the pro-choice audience members who came along and contributed. In their diff erent ways, our five speakers all offered hope that we can build a society which values both women and the unborn.”

Emily Watson, a panel member, told Cherwell, “It’s wonderful to see dialogue being enabled around the important issue of abortion. It’s a serious issue that deserves attention, and a university like Oxford is a great place to discuss why more young people are declaring themselves pro-life.”

However, Richards responded, “We would still have preferred that the discussion was not held in a college and we are pleased that the College is now working out a system so that events like this don’t occur in future.”

A film night was organised by the JCR for students who wanted to avoid the tense atmosphere around the debate. The JCR Executive and Exeter College declined to comment on their decision to allow the booking of the room and the discussion to proceed.

Two anonymous testimonies from Exeter students who have had abortions were submitted to Cherwell. They can be read below:

Person A

I had an abortion whilst in my first year at Exeter. I couldn’t see how this event was in the academic or welfare interests of students; I couldn’t understand why the event had been advertised at other colleges but not at Exeter. I expressed these concerns to College.

The event went ahead. After peacefully protesting outside, I went in to hear their views. The talk began with them stating that the event was not a debate; we were simply to hear the opinions of the pro-life speakers, and there could be questions at the end.

Some what the speakers said was surprising. One speaker spoke of how abortion clinics in the USA “target” people, specifically “Black and Hispanic communities”. When, at the end, I asked how a clinic can “target” someone – does it hunt them down, get them pregnant, and force them to have an abortion? – members of the panel expressed the view that abortion in the USA was introduced as a form of “eugenics” aimed at controlling the Black and Hispanic population, and that the preponderance of abortion clinics in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods today is evidence of that campaign of “black genocide”.

I defend the rights of women to be able to choose abortion. I defend the rights of Pro-Lifers to disagree with me. Sadly, though, the event did very little for free speech, and even less for the Pro-Life cause.

Person B

As someone who had an abortion less than a month ago, I was deeply distressed to find that my own College, who had been made aware of my abortion at the time, decided to allow the event to occur – especially when I, along with others, expressed serious welfare concerns to the College.

We held a peaceful, well-attended protest outside, writing positive, pro-choice feminist messages on origami flowers that talk attendees had to walk past. We then decided to go in and hear the panel’s views on ‘pro-life feminism’.

Expecting discussion based on the concept that life begins at birth, instead the panel said some productive things about improving help for young single mothers, but balanced out any positivity with anecdotal evidence and claims such as: feminists should consider that abortion deprives men of fatherhood; some abortion clinics offer women no other advice and pressure women into abortion; and, moreover, that the panel wished to give women “more options”, but still wanted to abolish abortion.

I found out later that the student from Exeter that booked the room did so believing that it was for a talk on increasing support for single young mothers, which was clearly not what it ended up being. I would have preferred that the talk was not held where I live, sleep and work, and I’m glad that in response a system is now being put in place by College to not allow this to occur again. In the meantime, attending the debate and hearing just how spurious, unfounded and frankly libellous much of what the pro-life speakers said made me have hope that their cause will go no further.