‘Abortion Culture’ and ‘Authoritarian Students’ at Oxford University?

This is going to be a bit of a random post, but it’s something that has much confusion surrounding it, for both those agreeing and disagreeing with what happened.

OSFL (Oxford Students for Life) are an anti-abortion group who were due to hold a debate between two men on the subject of abortion and it’s relation to our national culture. I will stress that it was a clearly two-sided debate, with one person arguing for the motion that ‘Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all’, and one person against. This event was to be held at Christ Church college in Oxford.

However, a considerable number of people took offence at the fact that the issue was being debated by two men, neither of whom identified as female. The argument questioned why two men should be allowed to debate an issue which in theory would never directly concern them, in that they would never be in the position where they would be considering an abortion for themselves (as in, concerning their own bodies).

Whilst this does appear to be an issue, I would point out here that, although the use of ‘abortion culture’ within the title of the proposed debate is perhaps over-presumptuous, the idea of the debate was to explore whether the availability of abortion in Britain is affecting more than just the women who choose to have abortions (and of course their close family and friends). In theory, then, the two men debating might be affected by abortion, although of course they won’t ever have to directly experience it themselves, on a strictly physical level.

The main backlash against this argument was, however, the questioning of the assertion that men could not have opinions about abortion, just because they would never actually have to have one. Although this is the case with a man identifying as a man, it seems strange to say that they can’t have an opinion on it at all, especially as the outcome of the debate was not to set any policies or the like in place, or even anything vaguely like that. It was just a discussion.

Arguing back, many who opposed the debate stated that whilst it wasn’t the case that anything was being decided on, just the fact that the debate was taking place would send the wrong ideas across to women about the culture that they live in.

However, this is not what I disagree with as such. It is clearly important to have freedom of speech and debate, but it is possible that some women might be offended or badly influenced by such a debate (although they would obviously have the option of not attending). The issue I have with the whole situation is that people are stating that the event was ‘banned’ from taking place because of this concern.

For starters, the JCR debated what to do about the problem, which mainly centred around the fact that a small group of students had threatened to protest the event, by “non-destructive but oh so disruptive” means. Although the motion was originally proposed including points about the subject matter of the debate, this was amended out, as many correctly saw this as erroneous. The motion which passed, and prompted the cancelling of the event on Christ Church grounds, was based entirely on security issues, due to the threat of protest. Students live within the colleges at Oxford, and the presence of a potentially rowdy and sizeable crowd is quite obviously a concern for the students and staff going about their business both within the college and in the surrounding area. The cancellation of the event on security grounds is completely justified.

The cancellation does also not amount to the ‘assault’ on free speech, and the members of the college who voted for the event’s cancelation on security grounds were definitely not being authoritarian. The cancellation was just that; a cancellation. It was not a ban on the event taking place, it was merely a statement of non-access to the facilities on, once again, security grounds, for the safety of members of the college. The event could still have taken place somewhere else.

I am given to understand that the speakers and organisers of the event did indeed try to look for somewhere else, although they were unsuccessful in their search, and OSFL have said that they hope the event will take place sometime in the future.

I wholeheartedly disagree with the pro side of the debate, and I do not support OSFL, and I also don’t agree with many of the articles which are concentrating their criticism on the college for cancelling the debate. Yes, it was probably a decision partly based on the controversy thrown up by the debate, but it had the safety of students and staff at heart. In addition, the college was far from declaring that the debate shouldn’t go ahead, just that it couldn’t be held in their facilities.

I may have repeated myself slightly within this post, but I hope the message has come across. It is wrong to judge without all of the facts, and it is also not beneficial to dramatise and exaggerate events, as many have suggesting that Oxford students are ‘authoritarian’ and that this was an ‘attack’ on free speech. It is also important to remember that even discussion without practical outcome, as this debate was, can have an adverse effect which wasn’t intended (e.g. although it is a two-sided debate, someone might take away a specific message from it due to the superior debating skills of one side, that might persuade them away from what they truly believe). Yet at the same time this was only a debate, with both viewpoints represented, it was not trying to change any policies or rules, and attendees would probably have gained a lot from hearing the debate. People will always be divided over issues like this, and nothing I say will change that!

A useful link about the events of the past few days can be found on Buzzfeed here, which is where most of the information used in this article comes from.

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