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Female students ‘fear for their safety’ as anti-abortion society set up by three men

Over 15,000 people have signed a petition voicing concerns about the new society, which has been allowed to exist due to freedom of speech laws

Athena Stavrou
Monday 19 February 2024 20:45 GMT
Female students at the University of Manchester are “fearing for their safety” after an all-male committee set up an anti-abortion society
Female students at the University of Manchester are “fearing for their safety” after an all-male committee set up an anti-abortion society (Getty Images)

Female students at the University of Manchester say they are “fearing for their safety” after an all-male committee set up a pro-life society.

Over 15,000 people have signed a petition voicing concerns about the group, which has been allowed to form due to freedom of speech laws.

The society’s social media page says its primary aim is to “create a pro-life culture on campus” in its first post on January 11.

A later post inviting students to meet its committee shared profiles of three male students. The group insists that while they are opposed to abortion, they are also “concerned with other threats to life” including assisted suicide and deaths occurring through poverty.

The students’ union said it would be illegal to reject the society’s application.

However, female students are concerned that the group stigmatises women and has even made some feel unsafe.

Second-year linguistics student Heather Bowling told The Independent that the students’ union (SU) is “directly enabling misogynistic hate speech” and called their response “weak”.

It’s blatant misogyny, control and subjugation of women hid behind a smoke screen disguised as a political opinion or stance point.

Heather Bowling

“My heart dropped [when I saw the society] - it felt like I was at the beginning of a new Margaret Atwood novel,” she said.

“The society has made me feel weak and inferior to my male counterparts. I’ve had endless messages from girls who fear for their safety.

“The SU are directly enabling misogynistic hate speech. It is so upsetting and disappointing. It actively promotes a harmful rhetoric- this society’s goal is to create a pro-life culture - does the University of Manchester not realise what this entails?

“Universities are supposed to be centres of progression, yet they are allowing societies which debate women’s bodily autonomy and rights.”

The 20-year-old added that she felt as though the student’s union had “represented the three men over the 15,000 people who signed the petition”.

Second-year linguistics student Heather Bowling said the society has made her feel ‘inferior’ as a woman at the university (Supplied)

She said: “Don’t get me wrong I am all for having different political views, but I think women’s bodily autonomy is not up for debate.

“I have also had messages from multiple women who have been through abortions and felt personally victimised and threatened by the presence of a society on a university campus such as this.”

A former student at the university, who had an abortion last year while studying, said she would have been “driven mad” if the society had existed while she underwent the procedure.

“While I knew it was unfeasible [for me to have a baby] the constant stream of guilt from people who aren’t in similar circumstances made it so difficult. I kept thinking ‘I am a murderer or evil like people say’,” she told The Independent.

“I felt so dirty and horrible for ages after and having a bunch of boys externally reinforce that would have driven me mad.”

The student’s union addressed some concerns but ultimately said it would be illegal to reject the society’s application (PA Archive)

She added: “I completely understand the need for free speech but this is not something they need to speak up on. I don’t see why men form anti-abortion groups when there are so many men’s issues they could work on.”

Another female student, who wished to remain anonymous, said she believes the society could lead “to the eventual harassment of women” obtaining abortions at university.

“I understand that the SU has to treat all societies equally but in terms of the message it’s sending out to women, I think it’s continuing to perpetuate the stigmatisation of abortion and denying that it’s a part of healthcare and a legal right.

“Societies are supposed to be opportunities for students to explore their interests outside of and meet like-minded people. These men turned around and said ‘what is it I like to do in my spare time?’ and thought ‘my interest is sitting and discussing something that’s never going to happen to me, that does not pertain to my bodily autonomy and something that I will never have to make a decision about’.”

A statement from the University of Manchester’s student union said that if the actions of a society amount to hate speech or harassment, it would be challenged in line with the relevant procedures. The union declined to comment further.

Over 15,000 people signed the petition, so who do they represent again? Us, or the 3 men?

Heather Bowling

The statement said the union is bound by various laws including the 1994 Education Act, the 2010 Equality Act, and section 43 of the 1986 Education Act.

It said: “From a legal standpoint, it’s not possible to stop a society from affiliating for their legal views that are contrary to the views of other students. That means, despite concerns over student safety, the students’ union can’t block a society from forming because of their beliefs.

“The new freedom of speech legislation was passed in 2023 and will be fully implemented by September of this year. We know many aspects of this area of law are potentially contradictory with other legislation, such as equalities legislation, and at the very least it creates lots of tensions which are untested in law.

“The students’ union is not best placed to carry out legal challenge.”

The pro-life society said that its leadership and membership “now has a great diversity” but affirmed their belief that “the right to life is not a gender-specific issue”.

It said: “It is also important to point out that we are not an anti-abortion society but a pro-life society. This means that while we oppose abortion, we are also concerned with other threats to life including assisted suicide, the death penalty, deaths occurring through poverty and poor living standards, structural issues in critical infrastructure such as the NHS, and climate change.

They added that they are campaigning for support for students who are pregnant or parenting at university and said: “We hope that we can have reasonable and dignified conversations with everyone moving forward so we can create a better campus and society, one where everyone is valued and respected.”

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