Many of you may have read of last week’s cancellation of a
debate organised by the Oxford Students for Life. The proposition to be debated
was: “This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’ and the explanatory background text for the debate was the following: “Last
year in Britain, over 185,000 abortions were carried out. What does this say
about our national culture? Is it a sign of equality, or does it suggest we
treat human life carelessly?” The proposed speakers were Tim Stanley for
the motion and Brendan O’Neill against, both of whom are journalists for
national publications with large followings.
|Tim Stanley and Brendan O'Neill who were to have debated the motion|
Sadly, the debate was cancelled due to protests from a
feminist group in Oxford, and its 300-strong backers, who threatened to “take along some non-destructive but oh so
disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we
think of their 'debate'.” In the face of this threat of physical
intimidation the Christ Church College Censors capitulated, failing to uphold
their legal duty under s.43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 to “ensure that
freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees
of the establishment and for visiting speakers”, and they decided to cancel the
However, there are some other aspects of the campaign and the
decision to ban the debate which I wish to comment on this piece, in particular
the individualist and atomised mindset that the arguments of the self-appointed
censors seem to manifest.
Should gender exclude
you from discussing the “abortion culture”?
One of the main arguments that the campaign against the
debate used was that it was wrong that two men had been invited to debate this
motion. Now, in the context of the remainder of their arguments, this
particular point was either superfluous (if charitably viewed) or a cover
against the incontrovertible accusation of undermining free speech, because they
went on to argue that abortion should not be up for debate full stop, implicit
in which is that they would have opposed the debate irrespective of the sex of
The main reason given for the argument that men should not
be debating this proposition was that men will never be in a decision to decide
whether or not to have a baby aborted or not. Immediately in this, one sees the
reactionary and unthinking nature of the campaign against the debate. The
proposition to be debated was about how a culture of abortion hurts us all. Therefore it would seem uncontroversial that two men be invited to debate this issue (if gender is to be an
issue for deliberation at all in deciding on speakers. It does seem strange that most of the protesters state that gender is a fluid concept and then protest against someone on grounds of it). For
whilst it is patently obvious that abortion most directly affects women – they
are the only ones who might ever go under the procedure to have a baby they are
carrying terminated; they are the ones who will feel most directly the societal
pressure to abort a baby with disabilities; and they are the ones most likely
to be aborted, given the number of abortions of female babies on the grounds of
their gender – it would seem to be the case that if one is seeking to argue
that abortion affects more people than just women, i.e. men as well, then
having a male voice is not such an outrage. In fact, it strikes me that a man
would be well-placed to make the claim that the abortion culture hurts us all by
virtue of nothing more than being a man who claims that he feels affected by
the culture of abortion and thinks that others are too. Similarly, Brendan O’Neill
arguing against the motion would have been ideally placed to state that, not being
a woman, and by virtue of the fact that he will never have to consider as an
individual whether to have abortion, he does not feel affected by the fact that
some women may choose to do so, and that he does not think that their choice is
his business or the business of any other men. He could argue that, in fact, there is no such thing as an abortion culture, just individuals exercising their rights.
However, the mere mention of the word abortion, irrespective of context, seemed to cause a red mist to
descend and led one of the most vocal opponents, Niamh McIntyre, in her article
in the Independent boasting of her pride in shutting down the debate, to write
“They thought it was
appropriate to let men discuss if and when women should be able to make
fundamental decisions about their own bodies. Neither will ever have to
consider having an abortion. As you can imagine, those of us with uteruses were
incredibly angry that they were able to speak for and over us.” - http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/i-helped-shut-down-an-abortion-debate-between-two-men-because-my-uterus-isnt-up-for-their-discussion-9867200.html
|What this debate was absolutely not supposed to be about|
Now this is to miss the point of the debate completely. Even
a most cursory consideration of the proposition would make it clear that this
debate was not about whether abortion should or not should be allowed. It was
about the number of abortions now occurring and whether this said anything
about our society and whether it is damaging us. Thus her campaign was to
deny those normally left voiceless in debates about the rights and wrongs of abortion – i.e. men, precisely
because they tend to be shouted down in pro-abortion debates – a voice in a debate
about the broader effects of abortion on society, which includes men.
Effects that immediately spring to mind are the distress caused to fathers
where the mother of their baby chose to have it aborted against their will,
fathers who felt guilt at having pressurised mothers into having an abortion,
and how men’s attitude to women might be altered when there are seemingly no
long-term risks to casual sex, and the corresponding pressure on women.
Or to argue on another tack and to use the language of some of the pro-choice
lobby, the possession of most women of “a clump of cells” that I do not have
should not preclude me from speaking in a debate. What about a
woman who has had a hysterectomy? Is she not entitled to an opinion? This might sound facetious, but what exactly is the claim about having a uterus supposed to mean; does it give you some insight into the nature of the foetus and whether it should be accorded the most basic human rights - the crucial question - and if so how? If not, why is it relevant?
There were also other sexist arguments against the men
speaking, such as: “We don't want two cis
men pontificating and theorising the very real issue of abortion, a discussion
that should be dominated by uterus-bearers. Clearly they are able to have this
debate elsewhere, but we won't have it hosted here.”
‘Cis’ was a new
term to me and on looking it up I found out that: “‘Cisgender’ refers to people who feel there is a match between their
assigned sex and the gender they feel themselves to be. You are cisgender if
your birth certificate says you're male and you identify yourself as a man or
if your birth certificate says you're female and you identify as a woman.”
I have to admit that the nuances of how the speakers being ‘cis’ was relevant
to the suitability of these men to speak (or whether in fact anybody asked them
if they were comfortable in their own skin) was beyond me, but it does strike
me that you should not be able to
discriminate against people on the basis of it. If they were transgender how would this affect their ability to have a legitimate opinion on the matter? I am unsure.
Incidentally the previous two speakers for Oxford Students for Life had been women, and at the last abortion debate each speaker had had an abortion.
The next point I want to consider is what else, apart from
illogicality, the argument against the debate on grounds of their gender might
Do you have to have a
self-interest to have a legitimate opinion?
First it seems indicative of a highly individualist mindset.
Implicit in the argument of Niamh, and others, seems to be the following
proposition, “I am not qualified to discuss an issue unless I have a self-interest in the said issue”.
Again others have dealt with some of the disturbing implications of this
argument towards a politics of identity rather than ideas.
Might empathy and
altruism overcome the hurdle of self-interest?
However, I think there is another aspect less well-discussed.
Do we genuinely live in a society where we are so distrustful of other people
that unless they share my particular concerns then they could not possibly
represent my concerns? Am I excluded from arguing for better provision for the
homeless because I live in a home and have never been homeless? Am I discounted from
arguing for or against the legalisation of drugs, just because I have no intention
of taking drugs either way? Was David Steel wrong to introduce the Abortion Act
1967 because he was a man?
It is sad if somebody considers that only those who directly
experience the issues that they face could have a reasonable concern for them.
It’s also patently false. The repeated and immensely generous charitable
responses of the citizens of this country to all sorts of pleas regarding things that do not have a direct impact on us demonstrate an innate goodness in those who give motivated
by their concern for the good of others, whose plight more often than not they
are unlikely ever to share. The argument that because I am a man I cannot argue
in respect of any issue that affects women (this is not to concede the point
that abortion only affects women) therefore appears to be a non-sequitur, and
all that it seems to suggest is a false idea that all men are misogynists.
Our self-interests are
regularly debated by people who do not share them
Contrary arguments where people of one sex let those of the
other represent them are not hard to come up with. After all, we live in a
parliamentary democracy, where an individual is returned by the electorate of a
constituency to represent their interests in parliament. We do not require one
male MP and one female MP for each constituency; our society is not that
fragmented. I do not believe that my MP will not argue for adequate resources
for prostate cancer, just because she will never have it.
The argument for only women being able to debate “women-only
issues” implies a society where we are all entirely self-interested and where
we are unable to empathise with the concerns of anybody of the opposite sex.
This is simply not the case in this country, as I am pleased to observe every
day, and I do feel a genuine sadness for those who go through life thinking the
opposite. To disagree does not always mean not to care.
If it is not men’s selfishness that is the sub-text of the argument
that men cannot debate “women’s issues”, then the other alternative seems to be that it
is considered that men are incapable of empathy. It implies that men are so
completely trapped in solipsistic existences that unless ‘it’ affects me, I cannot conceive of what it might be like to be
affected by it. There seems to be an argument that our experience of reality is so profoundly shaped by our gender that it shuts us off from those of the opposite gender, although this does not appear reconcilable with the position of many of the campaigners that gender is a fluid concept.
Yet again, I profoundly disagree with the principle behind this. I believe that I
am not so cut off by virtue of my gender that I cannot conceive of the anguish
of someone carrying a child but feeling unable for whatever reason to be able
to raise that child. I appreciate there would be a gap in understanding between
me and someone who has had an abortion, or indeed between me and someone who has
never, but might in the future, become pregnant. But I do not believe there is such
a gulf in empathy that the woman in question could legitimately
hold a public opinion while I am condemned to silence.
Even if I cannot
relate to a woman’s experience of abortion, should I be precluded from thinking
it to be an issue?
What this type of argument does seem to demonstrate though
is a total failure on behalf of the campaigners to understand the basic
argument of the pro-life lobby. They may disagree that a human life is present
from the moment of conception, but if they attempted to understand the pro-life
argument they would see why those who are pro-life do not think this issue is
off-limits for half the population. They might vehemently disagree with our
analysis of when life begins, but hopefully there would be an appreciation that
if you held to our analysis and thus that what was being aborted was a human
being with potential (not a potential human being) you could understand why
people who held this view could not just stand by and say nothing whilst close
to 200,000 innocent lives were taken each year. Similarly I can understand that
somebody who thinks a foetus is just a clump of cells is not wilfully perpetrating
a moral evil, and therefore I’m not going to be hostile towards them or treat
them with a lack of respect. However, I will attempt to persuade them of the correctness of my view. In the
same way however painful to me it might be to know that I had in the past
committed, in ignorance, some great wrong, I would want to know about it,
rather than live in ignorance and potentially do it again. I would rather be in
pain and in possession of the truth than delightfully deceived. I would expect
to be thought less of if I remained silent in the face of what I thought was an
atrocity. The key point in all the above is that nothing about being a man or a woman makes me more or less qualified to answer the scientific and philosophical question of whether the living being in the womb is a human life that should be accorded fundamental human rights.
Is objectivity rather
than subjectivity such a bad thing in an argument?
Returning to self-interest, not only do I think that it
should not be a criterion for expressing a view, but I find it surprising that
in the university environment where “critical distance” is amongst the
most-lauded of values, that those who are “self-interested” should argue for
the exclusion of those at a “critical distance” from any debate. Why is the
opinion of Brendan O’Neill, who could never be in the position of wanting to
have abortion, less worthy of attention when he argues that women should have
open and easy access to abortion and that this access has no effect on men? I
would suggest that it makes his argument, in some ways, stronger. He is arguing
out of genuine concern for others, with no particular concern of his own, other
than the common good. The rationale of the campaigners against the debate sadly
seems to preclude any genuine notion of altruism from men.
What does banning men
from having a voice say about fatherhood and men in general?
There’s also another disturbing implication of the desire to
ban men from having an opinion on the issue of abortion and the wider-culture.
It’s reductionist towards men, suggesting that a man might not have any interest in
his child before it was born, any excitement, any expectations. It reduces men to mobile sperm banks. The last
thing today’s society needs is further abandonment of fatherhood, and yet when
abortion is a women-only issue and men are banned from having an opinion,
then men are probably going to start treating women with less respect. The sort
of man who gets a girl pregnant and then refuses to stand by her and support
her in raising a child so that she thinks that an abortion is
her only option, probably isn’t the sort of man who respects women very much.
This isn’t a necessary outcome, it’s wrong, but it seems all too likely. Men’s
sense of responsibility towards women and the children they conceive is likely
to diminish, if they’re not allowed a say, and abortion is always an option.
This is not a good thing and so we should discuss if it’s a possibility and if
so what we should aim to do about it.
|The Oxford Students for Life Committee with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson: men and women working together for the common good|
There is such a thing
And the use of ‘we’ in the sentence above is very
deliberate. We do not live in a vacuum. Our decisions do affect one another and
so whilst, as a man who has not been aborted, abortion can never affect me
directly in the way that it can a woman who has an abortion or the child she
aborts, the decision of hundreds of thousands of people to have abortions is
going to have an effect on society. At the most basic level, there’s the
provision of all these abortions, there’s the fact that they’re funded by
our taxes, and the fact that people are employed in the facilitating, carrying
out and promotion of abortion. Immediately you see an effect beyond those
having abortions and being aborted, but it doesn’t stop there. If hundreds of
thousands of woman are having abortions then how will this affect our attitude
towards pregnancy in general? Do we consider the status of the foetus to depend
upon the intentions of the mother towards it? Do we consider miscarriage less
of a tragedy? If large numbers of abortions are being performed on foetuses
with disabilities because of their disabilities, how does this impact on our
attitude towards the disabled people who are alive and active in our society?
How do we reconcile our lobbying for better provision for disabled people, with
the fact that they have a lesser status in the womb, being at risk of abortion up
until birth in many cases? This surely has an impact on our culture? And you
don’t have to take my word for it. The Disability Rights Commission has the
following to say about our abortion law:
[It] is offensive to
many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is
substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point
during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply
to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing
disability and non-disability equally.
It’s worrying that as a culture we shouldn’t be permitted to have a
broader discussion about abortion, to go beyond the rights and wrongs of it,
and say even if there is a right to abortion, is there not potentially a
stage at which, if it’s being treated as emergency contraception, it might be
damaging to us as a society? If disabled people feel less valued because they’re
the ones society is sending a message to saying “it would have been better had
you not been born”, then it strikes me we need to have a conversation about it.
Somebody might disagree with me that if a segment of society feels unvalued
because of the frequency with which they are aborted, then that is a concern
not just for them, but for all of us, but I would hope that they would concede
that it is at least a conversation that there is some merit in having?
No faith in reason in
Finally, it seems to me that those seeking to ban the debate
have abandoned all trust in reason and this is particularly sad in the
university environment. They argue that abortion is an issue that should not be
up for debate because it is so clear that it should be a fundamental women’s
right. However, this is clearly not the case. Abortion is not enshrined in any
charter of human rights that I am aware of, and in most states where it is permitted,
it is only in certain situations in order to prevent what are considered to be
greater evils. So, if you’re going to argue that it’s a fundamental right, you’re
going to have to argue this case in order to change the law, and that’s going
to require ... a debate!
|Christchurch College Oxford, institution of learning, home of Oxford's Anglican Cathedral|
Educator of Thirteen Prime Ministers
Educator of John Locke, John Searle, Daniel Dennett
Educator of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
Place where College Censors decided a debate on the culture of abortion was unsafe
However, those who want to ban these sorts of debates claim
to have reason on their side, whilst at the same time being so reluctant to
allow others to exercise their own reason. It is a totalitarian mindset: “I am
so convinced of the correctness of my opinion that I will not attend a debate
to have my opinions challenged because I am so certain of them and their
rationality . . . and furthermore I do not wish other people to attend a debate
because they are less intelligent than me and might be persuaded of the
arguments of the other side.” However, that’s not the end of the lack of trust
in reason because I’d say to the protesters that by banning the debate what you
lose out on is opportunity to persuade me that I am wrong and that you were
right. Not only will I not get to hear Brendan O’Neill speak, but I won’t get
to hear you either, I won’t have the chance to meet you in person and engage in
civil discourse, I won’t get to hear your intelligent probing of the arguments
of Tim Stanley's views and mine. I won’t get to understand you a little better, which again is a
shame, because I would like to, but you won’t let this debate occur. You’ll
probably go on thinking I’m a misogynist for having a view on abortion. I’ll go
on thinking that perhaps you haven’t entirely thought this through. Rather than
discourse, you would have disruption. You've decided that you don't want to hear a debate and you don't want others to hear it either. You've decided that pro-choice protesters who wanted to debate with us should not have that opportunity to change my mind. You’ve decided that the right not to
be offended trumps the exchange of ideas and for somebody at university that’s
pretty closed-minded and a bit of a shame. Perhaps the only thing sadder is that there were Oxford Dons at Christchurch who agreed.
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Labels: abortion, debates, preaching