News Editor Anastasis Mauriac explains the controversy ignited by a ‘pro-life’ society at the University of Birmingham
Content warning: mentions abortion
A debate has unfolded regarding the existence of a ‘pro life’ society, Birmingham Students for Life, at the University of Birmingham. The community of students is divided between the arguments of bodily autonomy on one side and freedom of speech on the other.
Some students argue that a society advocating against body autonomy should not remain at the Guild. History student, Lucy Heyes, commented on Fab n Fresh, the Guild of Student’s Facebook page: ‘I do not understand how the Guild has allowed a pro life society. People are saying it’s freedom of speech but it’s literally a society advocating for taking away women’s rights with UoB’s name on it ?? [sic] I am so angry’.
Naomi Murphy, a student studying Social Work argues: ‘this society has absolutely no place to reinforce its outdated and misogynistic beliefs at university in the form of a society. [It’s] deeply problematic and extremely unhelpful.’
Another student, Thomas Sinden, studying Philosophy replied: ‘This is not something that people who have a uterus can speculate on from a distance like we can, but a reality that they experience and live through.’ They went on to say ‘platforming these views and making the actual space that people who may need or have already had abortions live and study unsafe pushes them out of that space, denies them support and compassion.’
Some students have suggested reporting the society or their Instagram account. Others argue that banning a society will not stop people from having these views. Raphael Barnett-Ward, former UoB student comments: ‘That’ll just disenfranchise the members and make them feel they aren’t allowed freedom of speech. In hand this will make their narrative an angry one, and will make them more extreme with their views. The correct response (which I’ve seen has happened) is creating a pro-choice society.’
Indeed, Birmingham Students For Choice was created in response to the Pro Life society.
Alex Fletcher, Politics and History student argues that having this kind of society is productive : ‘They can be openly challenged and debated and there is no risk of a cult formation that feels like they’ve been put down and therefore created itself into a martyr style society. Freedom of speech is also freedom to be challenged for viewpoints held. This now has to be accepted by this society. It’s a positive thing and allows for the minority who hold this view to be fully exposed into the public eye’
However, the debate is not always respectful – the society has been subject to a lot of online criticism. Birmingham Students For Life, the ‘pro-life’ society, told Redbrick: ‘Online, we get abuse, threats and baseless accusations.’
They emphasise the importance of free speech and accept receiving criticism.
However, ‘the nature of what’s happened recently has taken a more sinister turn than criticism, with students publicly trying to work out the identities and addresses of our members. This is not the first time we’ve faced this. We’ve had members in the past who were afraid to come to campus. Our old treasurer had pro choice students wait outside the building for her when she gave a radio interview, and she had to wait for the right moment and run.’
Despite all this, they happily admit having had productive debates on campus with students; ‘We’ve put stalls in the middle of campus that say ‘I’m pro life, change my mind’. Students were curious, respectfully challenging and up for the debate. […] Online doesn’t reflect the actual reactions the student body has to us.’
But, they also regret that universities are not spaces open to debate; ‘If any student wants to explore counter-cultural views, university should be a safe place for that.
‘University should really be the perfect time to do so, but most of us are aware that life after university, and school years before, allowed us far more intellectual freedom without harassment.’
‘All students and student groups are therefore reminded that when discussing any contentious issue, including on the internet, it is important to maintain a respectful debate and not engage in behaviour that would amount to harassment’.
Brum Students For Life said they will hold a Q&A and address ‘frequently asked questions’ on their social media (@BrumStudent4Life) over the coming weeks. They ask participants to remain ‘polite’ in order to have a ‘productive discussion.’
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