55 Years on: How The Student fought for and won contraception access for University of Edinburgh students

Anna Coote, former Editor-in-Chief of The Student, featured in a recent BBC documentary series to discuss her role in the struggle for the provision of contraceptive pills at the University of Edinburgh.

Episode 1 of ‘The Women Who Changed Modern Scotland’, released February 21 2023, explores a range of women who significantly impacted the future of Scotland by breaking boundaries and fighting for women’s liberation. 

In the first episode of the documentary, Kirsty Wark interviews Anna Coote, who was the Editor-in-Chief for The Student during her time at the University in the 60s.

Coote used her platform at The Student to criticise the Rector, Malcom Muggeridge, for his opposition to the provision of contraceptive pills at the university.

Elected by the Students’ Council, the role of the Rector was to represent the students. 

In 1966, Anna Coote and Muggeridge clashed for the first time over the issue of psychedelic drugs, after The Student published an article regarding the potential benefits of LSD.

As a result, Anna Coote was briefly suspended from her editorial position. 

In 1967, the Student’s Representative Council put forward a motion to make contraceptive pills available for prescription via the Student Health Service upon request.

The pill was previously provided, but at a doctor’s discretion, and adequate information on contraception options was not provided by the University.

Muggeridge stood against the motion, arguing that it promoted promiscuity and debauchery.

Thus, a critical article was written in The Student, reporting that Muggeridge “said that the pill was as disastrous to society as the bomb.”

The article continued, “We ask you, our Rector, do you agree with the Students’ Council’s motion? Or WILL YOU RESIGN?”

A week after the publication of this article, Muggeridge resigned, citing the demand for “pot and pills” in his sermon at St Giles Cathedral.

He continued that “their request concerning the birth pill is, as it happens, highly distasteful to us.”

Owing to Coote’s persistence and campaigning, Muggeridge resigned and the university conceded, beginning routine prescriptions of contraceptive pills.

In 2008, Coote wrote for the New Statesman, “I was editor of The Student newspaper at the time of our showdown with the rector. Student was the chief instrument of revolt.”

55 years on from Muggeridge’s resignation, The Student continues to hold the university accountable over issues of women’s rights. 

Currently, the issue of transphobia is a major topic on campus, with Vice Chancellor Sir Peter Mathieson defending the screening of the film ‘Adult Human Female’ which has been criticised as transmitting transphobic views.

Following a protest in February 2022 over the university’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, there has been continuous scrutiny of women’s safety on campus. 

A second protest was called a year on, as students attest that not enough progress has been made, and that the university’s response has been “dismal”.

Started last year, a petition to change the university’s sexual assault redressal system, circulating since the initial protest, has now gained over 60,000 signatures.

In continuation of the gains in access to contraception in 1968, condoms have been made freely available at the university. 

The Edinburgh University Students’ Association building in Potterrow is now a distribution point, facilitated by the NHS Lothian C:card scheme for free access to contraception products.

Image via BBC press handout