- Two years after overturning campus ban, “Glasgow Students for Life” host debate between former BPAS CEO and prominent pro-life doctor
- UK university debates increasingly under pressure to “cancel” conversations featuring “unpopular” views
GLASGOW/LONDON (29 January 2021) – Is freedom of expression alive on university campuses? The Glasgow Students for Life Society (GSFL) hosted a debate this week, questioning whether abortion can be claimed as a human right.
Ann Furedi, former CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and author of “The Moral Case for Abortion”, engaged with Dr. Calum Miller, a pro-life medical doctor, ethicist and researcher at the University of Oxford. Both sides, and moderator Jan MacVarish from the Free Speech Union, remarked on the high value of protecting the right of students to have free and frank discussions about this important topic for society.
“Nothing should ever be ‘beyond question or debate’. We need to hear the arguments we think are wrong, consider them and challenge them. This is how we learn,” said Ann Furedi, former CEO of BPAS.
“Freedom of thought is the foundation of any university, and I was delighted that the students at Glasgow University were able to benefit from this. When institutions prohibit students from having meaningful conversations, including about profound questions of human rights, everyone loses out on a significant learning experience. I hope that when in-person events return to campus, Student Unions will realise the importance of allowing such discussions to take place,” added Dr. Calum Miller, a pro-life medical doctor, ethicist and researcher at the University of Oxford.
University debates increasingly silenced under “cancel culture”
The ability to host high-profile speakers for campus discussions is of special significance to members of the society, who in 2019, had to initiate legal action against their Student Representative Council.
The pro-life group, whose views on abortion differed to that of members of the Council, were discriminatorily refused affiliation. With the support of human rights organisation ADF International, the group argued that this decision violated the Equality Act of 2010, and successfully overturned the decision which would have refused them use of student funds, as well as access to university buildings.
Furthermore, the ability of the event to take place was significant, considering that in-person debates on campus have become increasingly at risk of cancellation, long before covid-19 related restrictions came into place. Here are five examples:
In one high-profile case, journalists Brendon O’Neill and Tim Stanley were “deplatformed” ahead of debating the motion “This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All” at Christ College, Oxford. The College cancelled the event after a facebook-based student group threatened 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’.”
In October, Ann Furedi noted regretfully on Twitter that she would be debating at Queen’s University Belfast, “replacing a pro-choice speaker who dropped out in acknowledge of some view that anti-choice speakers should not be given a platform. As an abortion provider, can I say this is not good. We need to challenge, debate & convince – not ignore those against us. [sic].”
Students in a pro-life group at the neighbouring University of Strathclyde have noted bullying tactics used by student body representatives to stifle the discussion on abortion. Former President Catherine Dheigan noted being made to feel so “intimidated” by staff members at the freshers fair that the society representatives had to pack up and leave.
Further north, the pro-life society at Aberdeen University faced an investigation by their Student Union after complaints that their event, “‘Does Abortion violate Human Rights?: Presentation and Q&A“, was “triggering”.
In one extreme case, a midwifery student at Nottingham University faced suspension and a fitness-to-practice hearing because of her pro-life views.
“As students at University it is essential that we are able to create a forum for free and open debate on all issues. Without the freedom to assert or reject differing philosophies and beliefs openly (even if those issues are considered to be ‘difficult’ or ‘controversial’), we run the risk of creating a society where the few may dictate to the many without challenge or question,” said Joseph Burns, President of Glasgow Students for Life.
ADF International (UK), a human rights organisation, are writing to Boris Johnson to ask for measures to be taken to better protect free speech on campus.
“Too often we have witnessed a students’ union ‘pick sides’ on a social or moral issue and attempt to censor one side of the debate. Universities should be committed to embracing a diversity of views across the student body and improved guidance and training is desperately needed. As a society we should not accept students facing either social exclusion or even elevated disciplinary action because other students or staff disagree with their views. Such a culture runs against the very purpose of campus life and the wider mission of a university,” said Ryan Christopher, Director of ADF International (UK).