“Students are fed up with the status quo and the rhyming chants and are looking for real, concrete answers,” says Madeline Page. “They can’t find them amongst the pro-choice mantras but once they dive into the pro-life arguments, the truth is hard to ignore.”
Page is CEO of the Alliance for Pro Life Students (APS), founded in 2012 to help university students start pro-life societies. By educating and equipping students with pro-life arguments, APS aims to challenge the orthodoxy on campus. Since 2012, 16 new pro-life groups have been founded – an impressive expansion which has been noted by disapproving articles in the national media. “There has been a rise in the number of anti-abortion societies on campus,” the Guardian fretted earlier this year, while the Independent reported that “The number of anti-abortion student societies launching across the country has mushroomed.”
Page notes that pro-life students “frequently receive threats and abuse online because of their beliefs”. But opposition to APS and the student groups it supports does not just come from the student body. Students’ unions, as Page points out, have often been unhelpful too, with blocks “at every stage, usually in the form of endless red tape. Attempts to prevent affiliation, [then] once that does go through, lots of hoops to jump through to run an event, such as room-booking bureaucracy, external speaker forms, requirements for high-cost security, attempts to censor posters, logos, and even the content of the events, such as was recently attempted at Aberdeen University. If that doesn’t work, then individuals are targeted.”
Even more alarming is the recent case of Julia Rynkiewicz, who is studying midwifery at the University of Nottingham, and was president of Nottingham Students for Life. In October of last year she was suspended from her course after concerns were raised about her involvement with pro-life work. This decision was legally challenged and subsequently overturned in January 2020, but Rynkiewicz still lost a year of her studies.
Just as in society at large, those with pro-life views remain, for now at least, in the minority. Given the novelty of the pro-life message, therefore, what are the challenges to promoting that message among today’s students? “Censorship,” Page replies, “both literal and personal. By personal, I mean self-censorship – students simply choosing not to say or do something for fear of ridicule, poor examination results, social isolation or fewer job prospects.” Fundamentally, Page thinks that the prevailing intolerance towards the pro-life position is based on misinformation and ignorance, sometimes wilful, of the science around life in the womb.
Students often arrive on campus with “pro-choice mantras in their heads”, Page observes, as well as stereotypes about the pro-life movement. Debates tend to be “emotionally driven” rather than rational; Page was told by one student to “stop hiding behind science”.
The irony of this remark illuminates the second common misconception about pro-life students: namely, that they are driven in their pro-life stance by irrational religious beliefs. Depressingly, Page notes how easily the epithet “religious bigot” is deployed to dismiss any pro-life arguments.
And yet, pro-life university groups are growing year on year, helped by the scientific evidence – and also in quieter, less obvious ways.
“A huge part of the work that our students do, often not even intentionally, is to bust the stereotypes of what a pro-lifer ‘ought’ to be,” says Page. “This paves the way for more fruitful conversations in which we can actually get to the heart of the issue, namely: what are the unborn and do they deserve the right to life?”