Recent controversy around the existence of Exeter Students for Life (ESFL), a pro-life society, has taken Exeter University by storm, with many students calling for the Student Guild to disaffiliate from the society. My Facebook and Instagram feeds have been flooded with debates, infographics, and rants surrounding abortion and reproductive rights. I have found myself falling down rabbit holes by scrolling through the anonymous Exeter University Facebook confession page ‘ExeFess’, which has become an unofficial platform for pro-choice and pro-life students to debate the issue.
Along with unproductive vents, near-abusive comments, and a very small sprinkling of intellectual discussion about the issue, social media has also been a place to share information about petitions, open letters, and protests about the ESFL controversy. Journalistic curiosity led me to attend the pro-choice protest that was held on Saturday the 9th of October at the bottom of Forum Hill (pictured). There was a healthy turnout of students holding pro-choice banners, signs ranging from ‘abortion is a human right’, ‘no uterus, no opinion’, and ‘not your body, not your choice’. It was countered by a group of pro-life protestors, holding a sign that read ‘life from conception, no exception’.
After taking photographs and observing the alarmingly peaceful and quiet protest, I was told by a Student Guild representative to stand on one side or the other to prevent blocking the pathway. I was torn: where should I stand? It seemed to me that the protest was being held for two reasons. Firstly, it was a general expression of support for women’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, echoing similar protests that have happened in recent weeks following Texas’s new legislation banning abortions before 6 weeks. The second reason was more specific: to pressure the Exeter Student Guild to disaffiliate from the ESFL society.
Charlie*, a pro-life supporter, told me that the debate fundamentally comes down to how you define a human. Pro-choice advocates define a young foetus (e.g. before 24 weeks) as a “clump of cells,” yet this definition, Charlie argued, was “very arbitrary,” suggesting it is better to think of life beginning from conception. While I do not believe that life begins at conception, it seems accurate that the issue of how to define a human life is at the centre of the abortion debate, and is what makes the topic particularly difficult and sensitive.
I spoke to pro-choice supporter Frankie*, who held a sign claiming ‘Abortion is a human right’. They told me that “everyone should have freedom of speech, but when it encroaches on human rights and human dignity, it becomes an issue.” Frankie expressed that the Guild is avoiding a “free speech debate,” and instead are “putting people on campus at jeopardy and infringing on human rights.” Frankie claimed that the Guild feared the national controversy that would follow if they were to disaffiliate from the society, referring to a Daily Mail article about Exeter University, and instead would prefer to protect their reputation than to listen to their students’ concerns. Frankie continued that the Guild do not actually care about this issue; if they did, they would have more resources about abortion and reproductive rights available for students.
Yet, bringing in the argument of human rights does not make the issue any clearer. It could be claimed that an unborn foetus has the ‘right to life’, which is stated in article 2 in the Human Rights Act of 1998, derived from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Moreover, it would seem that the Guild are protecting human rights by protecting freedom of speech, where freedom of speech is defined in article 10 of the Human rights act. However, ‘the right to abortion’ or even ‘healthcare’ is not one recognised by the Human Rights Act of 1998.
When speaking to Alex*, a pro-life supporter, they said it was understandable that the pro-choice students were doing what they believe to be right. But, for Alex, abortion was not what the issue was about; it was the pro-life individuals “being against the accepted thoughts” that was causing the controversy. Alex said that it was “foolish” to shut down a society “just because it disagrees with the majority opinion.” Charlie further said that pro-choice was trying to “justify their hatred of a viewpoint” and that this “intolerance comes from a place of misunderstanding.”
Prior to the protest on Saturday, the Guild sent out an email explaining that “disaffiliation of a society based on their views is unlawful,” as it is the Guild’s “legal duty to ensure freedom of speech on our campuses.” In their statement on the Guild website, it read: “We want to foster an environment where our members can participate fully, feel able to question and challenge, express new ideas, discuss controversial or unpopular opinions within the law – all without fear of intolerance or discrimination.”
The majority attitude toward ESFL has seemed to be far from tolerant. The comments on Instagram and Facebook surrounding this issue have been veering on abusive, and the president of ESFL told the Telegraph that they had received death threats. He also said that “Exeter University must be a marketplace for free thinking, which is what universities are designed to be.” Recent activity has certainly not facilitated an environment that allows for freedom of speech on campus.
An open letter was sent to the Student Guild following their email. It was claimed that “trying to control body autonomy of people with uteruses…is a form of gender discrimination,” and “the society itself is not inclusive and does not help to empower students with uteruses.” The letter also argued that the ESFL committee “is predominantly male” and therefore “commenting on reproductive rights of individuals with uteruses undermines and endangers the positive change that is trying to be implemented.”
However, this argument makes the assumption that all women are in agreement when it comes to abortion by virtue of the gender, failing to appreciate that many women are also pro-life. In the US, 47% of people considered themselves to be pro-life, and 43% of them were women. While the percentage of people who are pro-life is likely much lower in the UK, this statistic shows that the debate around abortion cannot be diluted to an argument of gender discrimination.
At the protest, the Student Guild representative prompted me again to stand with either pro-choice or pro-life. I looked from one side to the other. The pro-choice protest was bigger in size and more enthusiastic, but were immaturely singing Lily Allen’s ‘Fuck you‘ towards the pro-life protest opposite, who were peacefully taking it. While I am pro-choice, I felt the desire to stand with pro-life – not because they had persuaded me, but from watching the event first hand, pro-choice were in the wrong. ESFL were simply doing what was lawfully and morally permitted: to express their viewpoint. And the majority of the student body had participated in the call to silence the society simply because they did not agree with the opposite opinion.
A quote from John Stuart Mill came to mind: ‘All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility’. Indeed, I believe a woman should have the choice to have an abortion up to 24 weeks. But am I willing to silence the opposition because they believe life begins at conception? No. How am I to know – with absolute certainty – that I am right and they are not? And, more to the point: can I trust a university campus that silences the minority opinion simply because it is believed to be wrong?
*Name has been changed.