Tensions on campuses are rising as more pro-life societies and organisations attempt to recruit new members and host events on the contentious issue, The Independent has found.
Some protests have taken place against the existence of anti-abortion student societies – and some pro-life students have received threats of “milkshaking” from their peers.
Just last month, Strathclyde Students’ Union ordered the newly-formed Strathclyde Students for Life to remove “graphic images” from their freshers’ fair stall after another student complained.
There are now 14 official anti-abortion student societies across the UK, compared to eight this time last year, according to the Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS) – and more are expected to open.
The rise comes after a number of student unions – including Birmingham, Aberdeen and Strathclyde – have lifted bans against anti-abortion groups amid legal challenges over free speech.
Both the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, and the Equality Commission for Human Rights (ECRC), called on universities to uphold freedom of speech earlier this year.
Helena Purle, a third-year medicine student at the University of Birmingham and the secretary of the new Birmingham Students for Life, said: “I think pro-life students have always been at university but now we’re allowed to form a society and organise events because of the recent focus on freedom of speech.”
But hostility towards the anti-abortion agenda remains. Alex Mason, founder of the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society, which was also only set up this year, said they have received threats saying milkshake were being thrown over them.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Mason said: “There was a small protest demonstration against our presence at Freshers’ Fayre and we got some dirty looks from certain people who passed by, but overall we had a productive time of engagement and interaction with our fellow students.”
Madeline Page, CEO of the Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS), said multiple societies have “faced harassment” this term. “Due to the intolerant nature of students’ unions and other students on campus, we expect to see opposition and unlawful behaviour at universities in this country,” she added.
Despite this opposition, Ms Page believes the number of anti-abortion student societies will grow again this year “in line with the continued growth of the pro-life movement in the UK”.
However, the National Union of Students (NUS) says there has an upswing in activism by students to support pro-choice causes and more student unions are strongly reaffirming their pro-choice positions.
Rachel Watters, women's officer at the NUS, told The Independent: “Some externals which are anti-choice have had a greater presence on campus and some are attempting to form societies but the vast majority of students and student unions oppose that view.
“What is contentious and offensive about pro-life societies is the messaging that they put out which is shaming. Those are the ideas we need to challenge. I think the best way to counter pro-life activism on campus is to support pro-choice organisations and feminist societies on campus.”
She added that if new students arrive at university and see “graphic images designed to shame” them at freshers’ fairs then that will be “very distressing” and make them feel like their campus is not safe.
“There is potential for pro-life societies on campus to cause great distress to students and that’s something we have to be very careful about. We need to ensure it doesn’t cause division on campus.
Ms Watters said it should be down to individual student unions to decide how they handle pro-life societies – such as bans and freshers’ fair messaging - but she stressed students’ welfare was vital.
An EHRC spokesperson said: “Universities must be a bastion of free speech providing open, inclusive forums for learning and debate.
“We know that abortion rights are a highly contested issue, and universities also have to consider equality obligations, but preventing pro-life societies from affiliating with student unions may go against a university’s obligation to protect freedom of speech on campus.”
An OfS spokesperson added: “We will never seek to limit freedom of speech within the law, and we will only use our powers to promote rather than restrict it.
“Universities are places where people can encounter challenging and – at times – uncomfortable ideas, and see those ideas questioned, sometimes for the first time. This is something we should encourage.”
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