Is it still possible to discuss moral issues like abortion in the modern British university, or are they simply “not up for debate”? How does one make sense of the various attempts at “no-platforming” pro-life speakers or groups in universities – including in the University of Oxford?
Earlier this month, I witnessed a particularly loud and combative form of such no-platforming at an event on “Abortion in Ireland” organised by Oxford Students for Life (OSFL). Just as the first speaker, Breda O’Brien, an Irish pro-life columnist, began her presentation, student protesters proceeded to disrupt the event by shouting pro-choice slogans for 40 minutes.
The protest had been organised by the Oxford Student Union’s Women’s Campaign (WomCam) – the irony of a campaign supposedly for the advancement of women’s interests silencing a woman’s voice seemed lost on the protesters. As I sat in the room watching unsuccessful attempts by some of the pro-life women at engaging with the protesters, I was reminded of what the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue, about how contemporary society seems more capable of “pure assertion” than proper moral discourse, hence “the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate”.
At such moments the outlook can seem pretty bleak; MacIntyre’s diagnosis is vindicated with ever greater certainty. The declaration that abortion or “bodily autonomy” is “not up for debate”, as WomCam said in a statement after the protest, is meant to do what it says: terminate all further moral discussion.
The problem here is that many no-platformers see the “right to abortion” as being so self-evident that to even countenance its restriction would be morally unthinkable – comparable to, say, suggesting that a particular racial group has no right to exist. That is why such pro-choicers say things like, “If a woman is against abortion, she should not have one herself, but she has no right to impose her beliefs on others”.
This kind of view about abortion tries to impose a single moral opinion on everyone – namely, that individual autonomy over one’s body and one’s life is absolute, even infallible. Yet it is hubris to consider this sort of philosophical stance immune to rational criticism. Our own experience confirms it: do we not sometimes feel duty-bound to tell a friend that we disagree with a choice they have made, even as we respect their freedom to do so?
Such an extreme position about abortion is, in reality, out of touch with the way most British people think about the issue. Few people really believe that autonomy is all that infallible. It may seem easy to claim that there is broad moral consensus in Britain about the permissibility of abortion, but one need not look far to find deep disagreement within the apparent “consensus”. Things are by no means self-evident.
A recent ComRes poll, for instance, revealed that there is scarcely any support in Britain for raising the abortion time limit to birth. Most women think 24 weeks is too high, and 91% of women think sex-selective abortions should be banned. Personally, I have found that many people are surprised and horrified that disability-selective abortion is legal in Britain up till birth. If anything, it seems there is an appetite for more debate, not less, about current abortion legislation. There is no single pro-choice viewpoint, but no-platformers conveniently overlook this.
Thankfully, in my own experience at different universities here in Britain, whether as a student or as a guest speaker on bioethics, many people are in fact quite capable of – even keen on – civilised discussion about abortion. A friend of mine once admitted to me she agreed with pro-lifers who argue that abortion is often sought as a response to problems that are actually social or financial in nature, and, really, these require a social or financial solution instead.
What that reminds us is that not all debate about abortion is about the ethics of abortion per se. Had the WomCam protesters actually listened to OSFL’s two guest speakers after the event finally resumed, they would have heard hardly anything about bodily autonomy or the unborn child’s moral status, but instead legal histories and medical evidence – for example, on Ireland’s maternal mortality rate, and the Savita Halappanavar case (which was really about failure to treat maternal sepsis, not abortion). No reasonable person would suggest that these are beyond discussion.
Undoubtedly, abortion is not an easy subject to talk about, but neither is it impossible to disagree politely about. No-platformers may continue their undemocratic antics, but they should not claim to speak on behalf of the majority of women who would like to see additional restrictions on abortion in Britain.
Michael Wee is the Education Officer of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic academic institute based in Oxford