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How can Universities endorse both gender equality and Pro-Life societies?

CW: Sexual Assault, Abortion, Violence

I was shocked to read that only six Russell Group Universities do not have a pro-life society. It struck me as a hypocritical move that leading universities across the UK claim to be committed to ensuring gender equality in higher education, and yet are endorsing societies which actively challenge the legal rights of their female students. The entire history of female educational rights in higher education in the UK spans over an unfortunately recent time period. The Edinburgh Seven were the first group of female undergraduate students matriculated at any British university – in 1869, and the University of Oxford did not scrap a quota limiting the number of female students until 1957. Given that the University of Edinburgh was pioneering in the rights of women, I found it particularly disappointing to discover our very own pro-life society. 

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I reached out to our VP activity to confirm the affiliation of the Life Society Edinburgh and received the following statement: ‘Yes, they are an affiliated group. They receive the exact same support as all of our other affiliated advocacy groups, like the Feminist Society, Girl Up, and Sexpression… they do receive a place at the Activities Fair, free room bookings in our venues (subject to availability) and the opportunity to promote their group via our website and bulletin boards.’ Whilst disappointed that university resources were allocated at all, I was reassured to hear that whilst using university buildings, all societies are subject to the EUSA ‘Safe Spaces Policy’ which notes ‘we are aware that certain social structures may serve to disadvantage particular groups (including but not limited to people of colour, women, the LGBT+ community, and disabled people) and therefore this policy aims to redress that imbalance by actively challenging oppressive and discriminatory behaviour. In light of this assurance that oppressive behaviour is not allowed, I had a look at the Life Society Edinburgh’s Facebook page.

The Life Society Edinburgh, @edlifesoc on Facebook, have a profile picture referring to them as Edinburgh Pro-Life Society, along with a picture of a fetus. Their aim is ‘to promote and support life from natural conception until death’. They have actively campaigned against the City of Edinburgh Council’s petition to create buffer zones around healthcare settings providing abortion, stating that ‘even silent prayer near an abortion clinic will be illegal… so would offering help to vulnerable women considering abortion and even holding signs like “We can help you”’. Whilst this society wishes to target a group that they here identify as ‘vulnerable’, I think it is important to listen to the women that this is happening to. Lily, who felt assured in her decision to seek an abortion in Scotland, described these protests to the Daily Record as ‘inherently violent to impose on people […] in a healthcare setting’ saying that she ‘felt fearful’ of the demonstrators. I reached out to the Life Society Edinburgh, and asked if I could hear about the aims, ethos, and values of the society, as well as a bit about the events they hold, but unfortunately my message was read and ignored.

This problem clearly cuts across the higher education setting, with the University of Exeter’s Students for Life Society using their Instagram @exeterstudentsforlife to profile their committee members, with VP Robert Tawse stating that he is pro life because ‘I do not believe that any woman really wants to have an abortion’. Whilst this statement is too problematic to fully unpack, it perfectly exemplifies how intrinsically linked the promotion of pro-life values in higher education are to the infantilisation of women. Despite both societies perpetuating the rhetoric that women are too vulnerable and fearful to make a cohesive decision, women are completely capable of exercising their bodily autonomy however they see fit. If they need support, they can access this through an impartial service, as will be included below.

I would like to make myself entirely clear: whilst I am pro-choice, I am not challenging anyone’s right to assert their pro-life views in any setting they deem appropriate. What I am challenging is the hypocrisy of UK universities to endorse and give a stage to these opinions when they make claims such as ‘the University is committed to recognising advancement of gender equality: representation, progression and success for all’. How is this commitment reflected when making new female students walk past a pro-life freshers stall, as they had to this year? By allowing the Life Society to have a stall at Freshers Fair, all women who attend are forced to interact with legal challenges of their human rights regardless of whether they wish to or not. Why should victims of sexual assault, rape, and those facing difficult circumstances have their decisions challenged whilst trying to find a new sports club to join? If you are pro-life then don’t get an abortion. It really is as simple as that. In UK law, pregnancy is a protected characteristic, and so, quite correctly, nobody has the right to force you to have an abortion; equally, nobody should be forced not to get an abortion if this is the option they deem best for themselves.

Let’s make this abundantly clear: abortion is a fundamental human right. Access to safe abortion and contraceptives are vital in ensuring women are able to access higher education, and it is irresponsible of university settings to allow affiliated groups to rail against these rights. Amnesty International describes ‘access to safe abortion services’ as ‘a human right’. The British Medical Association has a longstanding policy of supporting the Abortion Act of 1967, explaining that it is “a practical and humane piece of legislation.” Furthermore, the comparison of abortion rates in countries that prohibit abortion, or allow it only to save a woman’s life, and countries that broadly allow for abortion showed that the difference is not statistically significant. Abortion rates are not lower, they are simply carried out in an unsafe manner, an issue to which the World Health Organisation attributes between 4.7% and 13.2% of all maternal deaths, with some such procedures involving the insertion of twigs into the uterus, as well as the consumption of harmful substances and the use of external force.

There are currently 62 million girls unable to exercise their right to education, with some of the ways to combat this proven to be ‘helping girls to overcome health barriers and making schools more girl-friendly’. If even the top institutions of the world are not reinforcing these rights, why is it then a surprise that women then feel higher education to be a hostile environment? It is also worth noting that it is not only women that benefit from the advocation of female educational rights, as it is estimated that if this is prioritised, there could be up to an 85.4 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide emissions between 2020-2050. This is because educating women means less children are born, and thus contributes to remedying the climate crisis in a significant way.

If the Life Society Edinburgh wish to prevent abortion, I would encourage them to focus their attention on educating young women, and on providing a suitable sexual education across the UK. 

I implore the University of Edinburgh to rethink their affiliation with any pro-life society, and any other society challenging the rights of any minority.

Image courtesy of ALRA via the Wellcome Trust (Creative Commons)

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