"Last year in Britain, over 185,000 abortions were carried out. What does this say about our national culture?"
This is the opening of the description of an event widely circulated at Oxford University last week. It was a debate entitled "This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All", hosted by the pro-life group Oxford Students for Life. "[Is abortion] a sign of equality, or does it suggest we treat human life carelessly?" the promotional material for the event asks.
Instead of inviting women to speak, the group decided that two men — Timothy Stanley and Brendan O'Neil — and were better placed to discuss the issue. 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.
After a backlash and cancellation of the proposed event, OSFL released a statement defending their decision. Feminists are all too used to encountering its indignant assertion that "Free speech is a vital principle of a democratic society." But cancelling the debate is not a violation of free speech; myself and other undergraduates do not have the power to actually censor. Pro-life groups have plenty of platforms to air their views — and in light of the cancellation I’m confident that OSFL will not fail to do so.
The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O'Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.
Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets.
In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.