If I were to repeat some of the things I was called while sitting on the panel for the Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) a couple years ago, I don’t think the Catholic World Report could publish them. That’s why I was not surprised to hear that OSFL’s latest event was literally shouted down—that is, fifteen students from the Oxford Student Union Women’s Campaign (or “Womcam”) yelled for forty minutes to prevent pro-life speakers from making their presentations.
Rewind to my first year at Oxford, when I was invited to sit on a panel discussing the question “Can you be pro-life feminist?” Like my fellow panelists, I said that this was entirely possible, since abortion is not actually the answer for the problems women are facing. I occasionally find myself arguing with people on the right who do not seem to understand that there are real social justice problems that women face (and hence the continued need for the “feminist” part). However, students at Oxford were so upset that there might be people who believed in the “pro-life” part that they showed up in the same numbers as the attendees to protest. The protesters had written insults (and obscenities) on paper and folded them into little, white origami flowers, which they had strewn on the stairs leading to the event. During the presentation, their responses ranged from smug eye-rolling to open scoffing. Personally, I had a blast: that kind of thing reminds me that pro-lifers are fighting for something that matters. I’d much rather receive a hostile response than struggle to fill the room, as we did with some events at Harvard Right to Life.
This time around, the protest went much farther. On November 1st at St. John’s College, OSFL had planned a panel discussing an upcoming referendum on abortion in Ireland. Currently, abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland; voters will decide whether to change that by repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution in the spring of 2018. To discuss the referendum, OSFL had brought in Breda O’Brien of the Irish Times and Lorcan Price of the Pro-Life Campaign Ireland. The audience filed into the lecture room, all participants (regardless of their views) were welcomed, and the speakers were introduced. A minute into Breda’s presentation, fifteen protesters stood up and began shouting, and did not stop for the duration of the panel. Breda, in a November 4th piece in the Irish Times, wrote:
I had expected heckling, robust questioning, perhaps even a staged walk-out. But not this blatant inability to allow others to be different from them.
OSFL committee members and I pleaded with the protesters but were ignored. The protesters held cheat sheets from which they chanted slogans such as “Pro-life, that’s a lie! You don’t care if women die.” Chanting from the same slogan sheet, as it were.
Slogans are such an easy substitute for the difficult work of thinking.
Anna Bradford, President of OSFL, reports, “We had attempted to create an atmosphere in which all views were welcome and everyone would have a chance to speak, but were instead met with shouting, middle fingers and vitriol.” What unfolded next is a bit murky. College security tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the protesters. It appears the speakers went to another room, and the protesters continued to pursue them, banging on the windows and continuing to yell. The press release, and OSFL’s official response are both well worth a read.
What is clear is that their actions were a flagrant violation of the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. Perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this is that the protesters are proud of themselves. Their actions were carefully planned, coordinated, and advertised as Right to Protest Right to Choose. “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate,” asserts the WomCam page, “it is not a question of opinion. Access to healthcare is a basic human right. We will continue fighting until all people have access to free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland, and everywhere.”
For them, there are issues that are beyond discussion or debate, even in a university environment. It’s very telling. Only someone who is not convinced of his ability to win the debate by rational argument will resort to shouting down his opponent.
There is another important lesson here for pro-life advocates in the US: abortion is a take-all issue. Its advocates will stop at nothing to ensure a complete victory. Ireland and the UK have very different political climates surrounding the issue of abortion. According to the Guardian, 76% of people in the UK are pro-abortion. Ireland, according to polling from the Irish Times, has situation very similar to that in the US, where about 50% of the population, to varying degrees, are pro-life. These students in the UK seized on the five-year anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died because of complications surrounding a miscarriage, who has been turned into a martyr of the pro-choice left. The point is that in the UK the matter of abortion is considered settled. Pro-choice advocates at Oxford do not fear they will lose access to abortion. But that does not mean that pro-choice advocates leave pro-lifers in peace. Quite the opposite: they will show up with a roar of deafening shouts, over which no civil discourse can be heard.
It’s a good reminder for Catholics to insist on speaking the truth, especially when it is counter-cultural. At no point will there be peace, so get comfortable with being at war. But let’s do it as Christians do. When our opponents shout, we continue to speak calmly and rationally, allowing the truth of our position to win the day by outshining falsehood.
And finally, a word to my friends in Oxford still fighting the good fight: Know that you have friends around the world who stand with you. And count on our prayers.