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Pro-life groups have no place at Cambridge Freshers' Festival


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Last week, at CUSU Freshers’ Festival, controversy broke out between pro-life student group Cambridge Students For Life (CSFL) and CUSU Women’s Campaign, the ‘student voice for gender equality in the University.’

Without having been present at the event to see for myself, the problem seems to have been that the Women’s Campaign members posted up a warning outside the event that a “student anti-choice group” had set up a stall, and then claimed to have heard reports of ‘aggressive’ and ‘homophobic’ behaviour from the CSFL members, who apparently also displayed pictures of foetuses.

Countering these claims in a piece written for The Tab, CSFL Co-president Xavier Bisits said that there is ‘the very reasonable expectation that we be sensitive in the presentation of our views, particularly not presenting any literature that harms post-abortive women.’ He assures that his group ‘deliberately chose material for our stall that was respectful and tried to ensure that all our volunteers were sensitive and friendly to all the freshers who spoke to us’, and that the Women’s Campaign’s claims of homophobia were just plain untrue.

But, regardless of personal stance on the issue of abortion, and irrespective of who said or did what during the Freshers’ Festival, the crux of the clash seems to have been this – should CSFL, a group whose sole purpose is to promote a pro-life message (granted, they also campaign on issues such as euthanasia and cloning, but the desire to help students ‘facing crisis pregnancies’ is evidently its primary cause), have been given a stall at the event at all?

True, by the same token, you could say, ‘Well, if CSFL weren’t to be allowed a stall, why should the Women’s Campaign be given one?’ But the crucial difference between these two groups is that, while CSFL stand purely for the promotion of pro-life messages, the Women’s Campaign is concerned with a far greater number of pressing issues that, despite the growth of feminism and recognition of an increasing number of women’s rights, continue to affect women in modern society. They actively raise awareness of enduring gender inequality across a range of areas, from employment justice and academia to domestic abuse and sexual consent. Engaging young women, and men, with the feminist movement and working towards positive changes for women is to be encouraged; promoting a single-minded message, that ultimately deprives women of their own autonomy, is not.

In the UK, we are incredibly lucky to find ourselves afforded the liberty of free speech, and having the freedom to voice our own opinions does not mean that we should impinge on others’ right to take a different viewpoint, whether we like their opinion or not. But if what you are saying, or campaigning for, has the potential to have a negative impact on others, does it have any place at an event such as a fresher’s fair, where the aim is to introduce new students to new hobbies and encourage them to be open-minded?

Cambridge student Hesham Masshour argued that CUSU should not have given Cambridge Students For Life a stall at this year’s Freshers’ Fair in this article for The Varsity:

‘Some students here may be BNP and EDL supporters, but neither group has a society registered with CUSU, and neither group is likely to make an appearance at the societies’ fair in the near future. I for one would refuse to attend any fair where BNP are given a platform to broadcast a message of hate and discrimination. CSFL, like the BNP, discriminates, strips people of their rights and works to shame those who disagree with them. How can this be good? And why has no one said anything about it?

"CUSU should not have registered CSFL as a university society. CSFL’s perfect world is a place where abortions, if at all permissible, are much harder to attain. It is a world where women feel shame and stigma. It’s a world that discriminates. If I were female and pregnant I would loathe having CSFL’s anti-choice activists judge me for my very personal decisions – decisions regarding my bodily autonomy, my future life and my welfare.’

While likening CSFL to the BNP is a hard-line point to make, it stands to reason that any group aiming to promote a message that is harmful to others, discriminates against a specific group, or seeks to deny the rights of a particular persons, should be denied the opportunity to further its presence, particularly amongst impressionable students. Of course, the CSFL should be allowed to offer support and information for students who seek it, but it should not try and present itself as a university ‘society’ while trying to rally recruits to a single-minded and, some (myself included) might say, harmful cause.

Again, it comes back to the argument of free speech and, while debate is surely to be encouraged, the dissemination of dangerous and discriminatory ideas should be prohibited on moral grounds, if not just good old common sense.

Being of the pro-choice persuasion myself, I could rave on at length about the patriarchy and women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, rather than being told what to do with them by someone who, ultimately, will remain completely unaffected personally by the decision – but I won’t. Instead, I will summarise as follows: regardless of personal opinion, debate is of course to be encouraged, to enlighten and allow people to make up their own minds, but what the ongoing pro-life versus pro-choice dispute really boils down to is a case of pro-choice versus anti-choice; because pro-life are (in general) anti-abortion, there is no ‘choice’ on that side of the fence. Pro-choice is about having the right to make the choice that is right for YOU about pregnancy, whether that choice results in a termination or continuing with the pregnancy.

Maybe the Women’s Campaign were aggressive towards CSFL, and perhaps CSFL members did make homophobic comments towards the Women’s Campaign team – I don’t know, and, unless you were involved, chances are you don’t know the full truth of the event either. But the argument stands, if people are allowed to continue to push an argument that, in the end, robs women of autonomy over their own bodies and reinforces archaic patriarchal attitudes, we will be taking a huge step back as a society. Is this a view that should be encouraged within universities, places intended to educate and shape the minds and opinions of future generations? In my opinion (which, thanks to women’s rights movements, I am entitled to) that is not a voice which, as a society that purports to celebrate individual freedom, we should actively provide a platform for.

Image: CUSU Women's Campaign Facebook page

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