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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oxford students shut down abortion debate

Oxford students shut down abortion debate. Free speech is under assault on campus

I would’ve thought that the one place in Britain where you could agree to disagree amicably would be Oxford University. But I was wrong. For instance, I’ve discovered that you’re only allowed to debate abortion there if a) you’re a woman and b) you’re all for it. Any other approach to the subject is liable to attract a mob…

A few months ago I accepted an invitation by the Oxford Students for Life to debate Brendan O’Neill on the subject “This House believes Britain's Abortion Culture Hurts Us All". The setting was Christ Church College and around 60 people signed up to attend on Facebook. To be clear: this wasn’t a pro-life demo and the subject wasn’t whether or not women should have the right to choose abortion. Even though I was speaking for the proposition, my speech would’ve begun with noting that the motion has nothing to do with abortion rights per se and was simply a consideration of how having effective abortion on demand affects wider society. Brendan, speaking for the opposition, would've doubtless done a fine job and probably run rings round me. It was a fair and free debate that I half expected to lose.

But someone was outraged that we dared to discuss this issue at all. A protest group of around 300 people called “What the f**k is 'Abortion Culture'?” appeared on Facebook that promised to “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their 'debate'.” We were guilty of promoting "really sh*tty anti-choice rhetoric and probs some cissexism." The foul language indicates how sophisticated the protesters were, while the accusation of cissexism had me reaching for my online urban dictionary. Was I being called a sissy by homophobic feminists? Mais non. Apparently a “cis” is someone who identifies with the same gender that they were born with. So that’s a thing now.

The university’s students’ union also issued a statement that took aim at Brendan and me for being so offensively attached to our God-given genitals: “The Women’s Campaign (WomCam) condemn SFL for holding this debate. It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.” Next, the Christ Church Junior Common Room (posh talk for “the committee that run the students' bar”) passed a motion asking their college to decline to room the debate. Eventually, the college caved-in on the grounds that, “there was insufficient time between today and tomorrow to address some concerns they had about the meeting”. The pro-life society tried to find an alternative venue but everyone else said “no”. I believe that two colleges agreed only to later rescind their invitations. I was sitting in Paddington Station (in a duffel coat and hat!) ready to jump on a train to Oxford at 4.40pm when I was told that the debate was finally, totally called off. I said the same thing my mother says every time the car stalls or the TV goes on the blink: “this is why people vote Ukip.”

The arguments against hosting the debate were spurious. That only men were speaking was no reason to stop it. A) Anyone objecting to the subject matter or the virile masculinity of the speakers was free not to attend. B) A private society should be allowed to invite whoever they want to discuss whatever they want (providing it’s legal and doesn’t incite violence etc). C) The idea that an ethical issue can only be debated by the people directly affected by it is self-evidently unintelligent. And D) we weren’t debating women’s right to choose anyway but instead the effect of abortion on wider society, which does include a few men. Sorry, by “men” I mean “cisgendered heteronormative masculine pronouns in possession of a Hampton wick”.

Some tried to suggest that the presence of this debate might pose some sort of welfare issue to the incredibly vulnerable students of Christ Church, but that, too, is smoke and mirrors. Does this mean no debate may be had about democracy in Hong Kong for fear of upsetting those Chinese sons and daughters of communist apparatchiks paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to study in the UK? And as for the case that holding this debate would threaten abortion rights more generally, I would remind you for the thousandth time that WE WEREN’T DEBATING THEM - and even if we were that really wouldn’t change the fact that abortion in Britain is widely available, easy to get and a politically protected subject. As the successful attempt to shut down this debate proved.

What it also proved is that elements of the Left are working hard to define new parameters for freedom of speech. You are free to speak so long as it doesn’t offend certain sensibilities, which of course amounts to no real freedom at all. I’m reminded of the old Puritan ethic that a human being had liberty only in so far as that liberty led them to salvation. Any practice of liberty that led away from God represented slavery to lies and was thus outlawed – for the good of the so-called sinner. Many on the Left imitate the very authoritarian mindset of the people on the religious Right that they claim to hate, likewise trying to safeguard their definition of freedom by eradicating contrary ideas. On the subject of abortion, the Left can enjoy that authoritarianism because contemporary society broadly agrees with them. But a day will come when they try to argue for something that proves unpopular and they, too, will be gagged. And I’ll be there to defend their right to say something that I disagree with.

Because the older you get the more you realise that just as important as your beliefs are your freedom to articulate them without fear. I guess maturity makes wet liberals of us all.

Speech that was to be delivered:

This is the speech on abortion that an Oxford University mob doesn’t want you to hear

"Dr Joseph Fletcher, one of the godfathers of modern bio-ethics and a celebrated proponent of both abortion and euthanasia rights once reminisced fondly about about the days when he and the family planning advocate Margaret Sanger joined the Euthanasia Society of America, in order to “link the two [abortion and euthanasia] causes so to speak the right to be selective about parenthood and the right to be selective about living”. Fletcher explained, “We’ve added death control to birth control as a part of the ethos of life style in our society.” His argument was that life really has no value unless it is of a certain quality – a point reinforced by Richard Dawkins when he advised of a child with Down’s, “Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world”.

By the way, Dr Fletcher would have agreed. He once said that there was “no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad; yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person.” A horrific attitude, you might think, but not so strange really when you consider the great violence that abortion does to our very concept of personhood...

I was not always pro-life. I became so when my historical research into the American conservative movement compelled me, reluctantly, to read pro-life literature.

I was shocked to discover how messy abortion is. How painful it can be. How there is evidence to show it having long-term psychological effects. For instance, research by Professor Priscilla Coleman published in the British journal of psychiatry argues that, “abortion is associated with moderate to highly increased risks of psychological problems subsequent to the procedure. Women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81 per cent increased risk of mental health problems, and nearly 10 per cent of the incidence of mental health problems were shown to be directly attributable to abortion.”

Why did I not know this? Because while abortion deals trauma to our society, we deal with it by ignoring it. It’s no different to the fact that we ignore shockingly high rates of suicide in prison. Appalling standards of care in elderly homes. The abuse and rape of children in children’s services. And this is what is so doubly perverse about the abortion culture: we effectively open the floodgates on something – and then refuse to talk about its reality. Abortion is at the very centre of the therapeutic state: the state that dulls pain with simplistic solutions rather than addresses their complex causes."

There are interesting parallels between "abortion culture" and "rape culture".

Should men be allowed to discuss abortion? | Practical Ethics

"Oxford feminists have actually now set up a protest group to disrupt the debate, and are actively campaigning for the event to be banned. Indeed, whether the event will go ahead is now uncertain due to security concerns raised by the feminists declared intention to disrupt and end the debate.

Note that the OSFL group has already hosted two all-women panel debates on abortion this year, so the criticism isn’t that they only have men speak in their debates generally, but that this particular time men are speaking.

Now, I disagree with Oxford Feminists on almost everything (in particular, the dominant view held by the society that actually I cannot be a feminist because I am a man), but this struck me as almost ludicrously bad. To repeat, the argument is that men should not be able to discuss abortion because they are men. Further, it isn’t just that men shouldn’t be allowed, but that the men who do actively hate women and want to oppress them.

Have we really reached a place where only women are allowed to discuss abortion? Is this the real world, or has Oxford turned into some dystopian Orwellian thought-police scenario run by feminists? Are there any good reasons to think that only women should be allowed to discuss abortion?...

Even taking the (flawed) idea that only women are affected by abortion, the claim that therefore only women can discuss it evidently fails as a principle. We don’t think that only homosexuals can discuss gay rights, or that only black people can discuss affirmative action, or that only disabled people can discuss equal rights in the workplace. If we want to say that people can only discuss things that are personally relevant to them, we pretty soon end up on a situation where no-one could ever discuss anything (“Sorry, you can’t talk about disability support because you don’t have a disability”; “Oh, you do? Well it’s not a mental health disability, so you still can’t”; “Oh, you do? Well, it’s actually not bipolar disorder, so you still can’t discuss it as you would just oppress me”; Oh, you do? Well, you still can’t because actually I’m also homosexual and have bipolar, and so you can’t understand the interplay” – and so on, ad infintum).

And what are the implications of this for practical ethics? Should all the men in the department stop conducting work on topics like abortion? Should anyone without addiction problems stop conducting work on addiction and moral responsibility? Should anyone who doesn’t live in the developing world stop doing work on charity and aid? Should anyone who isn’t a non-human animal stop doing work on animal rights?

It worries me that the Oxford Feminists are probably now the most illiberal – not to mention anti-men- group on campus."

I helped shut down an abortion debate between two men because my uterus isn't up for their discussion

"It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O'Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.

Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets.

In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body."


"I have to say that I feel a far greater threat from anyone who takes an objectively authoritative claim on my voice 'as a woman' than I do from an organised debate which welcomes an audience of women and men with varying positions on the motion."

"Organising a 'non-destructive but oh-so-disruptive' protest that led to the event's cancellation seems to me encroaching on censorship territory. More worrying is the thought that even if events are cancelled due to the disruptive potential protest of a vocal group, this doesn't matter as long as there are other platforms? How should that matter? Would we say that the Oxford Union should be happy to cancel Malala Yousafzai's event, because a vocal group oppose her speaking, security thus cannot be guaranteed, and she has other places to go to?

The principle should be that we are open to free debate, that difficult things are often the most important ones to debate, that those debates may lead us to challenge some of our most dearly held beliefs, and above all one ought to be judged on the content of one's speech, not the membership of one's group."

"Censors always think they are on the side of right. That's what motivates them to censor. If you didn't want to hear the speakers you didn't have to attend the debate, apparently though you took it upon yourself to also make that decision for everyone else, who you clearly think can't be trusted to hear opinions from people you disagree with, or who are simply the wrong gender.

Why you think you should have the power to decide for everyone I don't know, you probably have a transparent rationalisation for that as well, probably one in which you still convince yourself you support free speech while using all the means available to you to stifle it.

Also if you genuinely feel threatened by hearing opinions that are different than yours, you should seek help for that."

"And only cancer sufferers should be able to discuss or debate cancer research or treatment..."

"I am totally outraged by the cancellation of this debate. My grandmother died from a backstreet abortion so my mother grew up without a mother. I am glad that abortion was legalised shortly afterward so such tragedies are less likely to happen to other women. I know only too well the terrible and dangerous consequences of pro-life arguments. Which is exactly why I wanted the debate to go ahead so that I would have the opportunity to confront Timothy Stanley - and support Brendan O'Neill in opposing him. Unfortunately, because of the idiotic and cowardly actions of a few so-called 'feminists' at Oxford, I have been deprived of MY opportunity to speak, as a pro-choice woman, and to challenge and oppose the motion in the debate. I wanted to attend and make my voice heard. You have removed my right to speak and I detest your censorious action and weak justifications for it. Grow up and make your case, do not hide behind bans and boycotts. Women are better than that."

"Probably worth adding to the article, just for honesty's sake, that the reason the debate was cancelled was due to your threat of physical disruption and the College's consequent concern for the security of its members. Physical intimidation, I thought you were supposed to be against that?"

"Can I just apologise for the nonsense some people talk about abortion and free speech. Please feel free to ignore self-centred freaks who see every issue of principle as the patriarchy looking for an excuse to oppress them individually.

This is like some antimatter equivalent of the Daily Maul, it is literally mad."
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