How not to do pro-choice

What is it with Student Unions? Even when they do something right, they manage to get something badly wrong at the same time.

Following a referendum in which 3300 students cast their votes – out of total student body of a little over 23,000, the University College London Students Union had officially become pro-choice and will, amongst other things, affiliate to the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Good for them… but on a closer examination of the actual motion adopted by UCLU, there are a couple of points with which I cannot, in all conscience, agree with, specifically:

This Union resolves:

5. To ensure that any anti-choice run on campus are obliged to inform the Union in advance so that pro-choice campaigns have the opportunity to campaign at the same time with an equal budget and an equal amount of advertising space and vice versa.

6. To ensure that any future open events focussing on termination invite and anti-choice speaker and a pro-choice speaker as well an independent chair, to ensure that their is balance to the argument.

Sorry, no – these are just not acceptable as they impose a number of rather stupid, arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions on free expression on campus, not to mention that they amount to a rather unintelligent and counterproductive response to issues that can be more effectively, and easily, tackled by other, non-authoritarian means.

Looking at item 5, this strikes as a flagrant and wholly unjustifiable abuse of authority and an unwarranted interference in the right to free expression on campus.

If an anti-choice group wishes to run an anti-choice campaign on campus it should be free to do so – even if this goes against official Union policy – without being hidebound by campaign ‘rules’ which are only appropriate, and justifiable if the purpose of the campaign is that of setting or amending Union policy, in which case any rules governing the conduct of referenda, etc. will be applicable to the campaign, and to any opposing campaign, of course.

If such a campaign is not seeking to amend official policy then the student union should not seek to interfere by compelling it to run against a pro-choice counter campaign, although the union is, of course, entitled to organise, fund and run a counter campaign of its own if this is consistent with established union policy and/or has the approval of members.

That said, if an anti-choice campaign, or any other campaign on matters of sexual and reproductive health. is intended to be primarily information-based and not part of a effort to alter union policy by democratic means then it would not be unreasonable for the Student Union to require advance notice of any factual information that campaign intends to disseminate, so as to enable it to ensure that it will provide their members with accurate information which is based on current best evidence and guidance issued by the medical profession and other evidence-based sexual and reproductive health services. In such situations, the Student Union can be argued to have a duty of care towards its members which can be reasonably exercised to ensure that only high quality, accurate, public health information is provided on campus.

However, if  an anti-choice campaign is being run under the democratic rules of the Student Union with a view to securing a policy motion on a meeting vote/referendum then all bets are off and the campaign is free to make any claims it likes, with the law, even if these amount to nothing more than a bunch of semi-hysterical hogwash, just as any opposing campaign if also free to point out that the anti-choice lot are a bunch of bullshitters.

For what its worth, my advice would be to scrap item 5 completely and put in place a general policy which requires all sexual and reproductive health information disseminated on campus to meet the current guidelines and standards issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and other Royal Colleges of Medicine, and if you find their documentation a bit too technical and impenetrable, then give the  Brook or the Family Planning Association a ring and they’ll quickly set you right on best practice in information standards.

Moving on to item 6, the best thing than can be said for it is that whoever cooked up that item didn’t really think it through properly.

Yes, it would force the Catholic society to invite a pro-choice speaker to any open meeting they ran which featured a talk or discussion about abortion but, interpreted fairly, it could also force the Women’s Soc, or whatever its actually called, to invite an numbnuts anti-choice speaker to a talk given by the Brook on women’s sexual and reproductive health,  if  abortion is on the agenda, which I’m guessing is not the effect that UCLU intended.

Yes, I know that the ‘focussing on termination’ is intended to allow UCLU to salami-slice their way out of that bind but trust me, the first time they try that one they’ll be in for a public kicking that could easily have avoided had they chosen to tackle this without resorting to a game of semantic silly buggers.

Look, just because you’ve settled on becoming officially pro-choice it doesn’t mean that you’re justified in nannying your members.

If one of your member societies is desperate to waste an hour or two listening to some foaming-at-the-mouth moron claim that Marie Stopes International are just a bunch of baby-eating bastards then fuck it – let ’em listen.

The kind of people who want to go to those kinds of meetings aren’t going to change their minds just because you’ve forced the society to put a pro-choice speaker on the platform any more than Nick Griffin gives a shit about your ‘no platform’ policy other than when he hasn’t got anything better to whinge about. Its not worth the hassle. All you need do is ensure that meetings have to be advertised such that members know in advance exactly what they’ll be getting if they choose to turn up and then let them vote with their feet.

As long as you’ve got something in place to cover the dissemination of inaccurate and misleading public health information, e.g. claims that abortion causes breast cancer, psychotic episodes, scrofula, Dutch Elm disease and volcanic eruptions in Lincolnshire (and that’s not a euphemism) then your bases are covered and if the anti-choicers’ speaker can’t stick to the facts then you’re fully entitled to sling their sorry ass off campus.

Oh, and about this whole balance thing  who says that the issues being discussed at an open event focussing on termination are necessarily balanced in the first place.

Fair enough, if you want to hold an open debate on the moral and ethical issues that abortion raises then its only fairly to hold a balanced debate. Although  I don’t regard the moral position of anti-choicers as have much in the way of legs – as an atheist, arguments that rely on ‘because my invisible friends says so’ don’t carry much weight – people are nevertheless entitled to take that view and argue it as best they can.

However, if you’re doing something more in the way of exploring the medical and scientific evidence relating to abortion then you might as well not worry about balance – for as much as the antis are constantly whining about bias, if you look at the actual evidence you’ll quickly find that the main thing that’s actually biased against them is reality itself. You really are under no obligation to give anyone a platform in the name of ‘balance’ if all they can do it talk complete and utter shite, unless you get a kick out of ripping these idiots a new and very public arsehole.

Come on, engage your brain and think it through properly. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and on this occasions you have options you can bring into play that don’t leave looking like a cheap facsimile of the Saudi morality police – congratulations on becoming a pro-choice university and well done, but don’t for minute think that you couldn’t have gone about this in way that didn’t leave you quite so wide open to attack.

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  • Jonathan James

    ” In such situations, the Student Union can be argued to have a duty of
    care towards its members which can be reasonably exercised to ensure
    that only high quality, accurate, public health information is provided
    on campus.”

    Now that I can’t agree with.  The University itself might be said to have a duty of care of some sort to students, but I fail to see why the Student Union would.  Anyway, there does seem to be a distinct smack of nannying going on here.  When I was a student, one of the features of student life was the vigour of the debate between students of differing philosophical views, uninhibited by any restrictions, and this was a hugely beneficial part of forming one’s own views on a wide range of issues including politics, religion, ethics and the like.  I really didn’t need to be protected from competing arguments and I would have been very offended if someone had tried to do so.

  • So, in the end the author’s opposition is not really against UCLU violating the principle of freedom of speech, a value which I thought is supposed to be a major value in Western universities. The problem, is the visible and invisible “vice versa” that is implicated in articles 5 and 6.

    The author clearly makes clear a prejudice towards pro-life views. Are “evidence-based” insitutions really as unbiased as they are allegedly held to be? And really, Brook and Family Planning Association have the best information standards? Given their all-too-obvious pro-choice bias? At least the author didn’t ask the SU to call Planned Parenthood or Marie Stopes for unbiased advice. That would be laughable.

    Is it really an SU’s role to do “fact-checking”? Perhaps it should, but would an institution that has chosen to ally with the pro-choice movement really be able to fact-check on the issue? Especially from vested interests like Marie Stopes and Family Planning Association? What makes you so confident that the information these organizations provide are 100% accurate? Even if a pro-life speaker claims that abortions cause eruptions in Lincolnshire – which, honestly, I have never heard one say before – as long as they have some evidence to back it up, they should be allowed to speak. “fact-checking” has that ominous ring of censorship, which is what the author seems to want to promote for Women’s Soc wrt pro-life speakers. So, there are no women who are pro-life? Hmm … I wonder.

    Also, not all pro-lifers (not “anti-choicers”) are religious; so that the rather tired swipe at “invisible friends” isn’t very accurate, omitting the obvious anti-religious prejudice in the statement.