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Oxford feminists, cisgender males and abortion debates

| Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On Nov. 18, British journalists Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley were set to debate the motion “This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture hurts us all” at Christ Church College at the University of Oxford. The debate was scheduled by Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), a secular student organization. But when a coalition of Christ Church undergrads and Oxford feminists voiced disapproval over two “cisgender males” debating abortion, the whole event was cancelled.

Following the cancellation, Stanley, who was to argue for the motion (the “pro-life” position), wrote a follow-up article in The Telegraph, which began thus: “I would’ve thought that the one place in Britain where you could agree to disagree amicably would be Oxford University. But I was wrong. For instance, I’ve discovered that you’re only allowed to debate abortion there if a) you are a woman and b) you’re all for it. Any other approach to the subject is liable to attract a mob . . .”

In light of this event, which has been covered in news publications as diverse as The Washington Post and The Philippine Times and cited as an instance of censorship, I will endeavor to dissect some of the language used in this controversy as well as in the pro-life / pro-choice debate in general. Terminology, I think we will find, lies at the heart of the issue.

First, more facts: Nov. 18’s debate was the third event planned by OSFL during the term, the two prior events featuring the speakers Michaela Aston and Tanni Grey-Thompson. After OSFL announced the debate on their Facebook page, the Women’s Campaign (WomCam), an Oxford student movement “to promote gender equality and raise awareness of feminist issues” (as per their Tumblr), spoke out against the event, claiming it “absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.” A comment on their Facebook page invited all opposed to “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate.’” With the support of the Christ Church Junior Common Room representing the college’s undergrads, Christ Church College decided not to hold the debate, citing “insufficient time between today and tomorrow to address some concerns they had about the meeting.” When OSFL could not find another venue, the event was cancelled indefinitely. Cue free speech controversy.

Let’s step back for a moment and examine the language used.

First, the topic debated was not the legal status of abortion, but whether “abortion culture” is harmful. WomCam, then, had little reason to be upset about people with uteruses being told what to do with their bodies. However, O’Neill (the pro-choice debater) was going to call attention to this very term in the speech he would have given (since made available online), saying that “culture” is added to words to “make something sound scarier than it actually is.” On the other hand, Stanley would have argued in his speech that, “Abortion is at the very centre of the therapeutic state: the state that dulls pain with simplistic solutions rather than addresses their complex causes.” Certain wordings might invoke fear, but abortion isn’t exactly something to calmly shrug off.

Second, the framing of the abortion debate in general seems entirely rooted in controlling words, a battle to see who will be the definer. Just look at the factions: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Who wants to stand against life and choice? Thus, WomCam defined the opposition as “anti-choicers” while the phrase “abortion is murder” is not unheard of in the opposing camp. Moreover, the entire debate centers on defining what a “human person” is, when “the right to life” begins and what “bodily autonomy” means. The whole reason why WomCam protested the Oxford debate was because they felt women would not be involved in this defining process. But would women really be excluded if two qualified journalists who happened to be male debated the costs and benefits of abortion in Britain?

I don’t think so. What I think the debate needs is an extension of context. On OSFL’s Facebook page, one student commented, “When I discuss abortion, it’s inseparable from the idea that I wouldn’t immediately know what to do if I were to find myself accidentally pregnant. That said, of course men can add value to discussions about abortion. In fact, I’d like to see more men considering the topic of abortion with a view to a pregnancy they might have accidentally caused – rather than as an abstract issue.”

I agree; men should think about themselves as potentially involved in unintended pregnancies. And I would take it one step further. Why are so many pregnancies “accidentally” happening? Is it “abortion culture” or “sexual culture” that we should address as the underlying cause?

In the 2008 Battle of Ideas festival in London, pro-choice advocate Anne Furedi (who actually supported OSFL’s right to hold the debate in Oxford last Tuesday) explained her opposition to the view “that sex has to take place in a responsible, planned, relationship kind of a way,” stating that “we can live in a society with sex without fear of consequences, and abortion is very much a backstop to that.”

What? Did a major figure of the pro-choice movement seriously promote a view of sex that is neither “responsible” nor “planned”?

If your definition of sex necessitates abortion, then I think your definition needs some serious reworking. Forget free speech and abortion debates. What we need to talk about is basic responsibility — both for Oxford feminists to actually respond within debates rather than preventing them, and for the whole of society to make responsible choices regarding sexuality and the words we use to define it and its natural consequences.

Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of Mary Wollstonecraft (English) and Joseph Ratzinger (German). For the next academic year, he is residing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Oxford, UK. He welcomes your words. He can be contacted at cducey@nd.edu.

About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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  • Catherine

    First of all, unintended pregnancies happen. It happens in cases of rape, birth control tampering, simple neglect, and even when every precaution is taken.

    Now that that’s cleared up:
    People who do not have uteruses cannot experience the same personal hypotheticals around pregnancy. Those with the capacity to become pregnant have lived a life full of “what if”s and have absorbed every piece of information, positive and negative, relating to pregnancy. It is hard to emphasize how intensely one can imagine a pregnancy if you’ve known it’s a possibility all your life. Everyone “knows” pregnancy is a big deal, but only for those who know pregnancy is a real possibility is the knowledge deep, personal, and scary. You know how much it will change your life, health, and day-to-day existence.

    You’ve answered these questions in your head:
    Could you perform your job as well as you used to? Would you be allowed to take frequent bathroom breaks or risk being fired? Could you safely continue taking necessary medication for your physical and mental health? Afford the prenatal care? Maternity clothes? What if you became depressed? Could you afford months of aches, hemorrhoids, higher blood pressure, and discomfort? Would you want to?

    Very often the decision to have an abortion is not about whether or not one wants to be a parent. Yes, everyone knows adoption is an option. It is about whether you can or want to be pregnant.

    So please understand that when the main voices around this issue are people whose bodies will never be faced with pregnancy, and have never actually imagined THEIR bodies pregnant, it’s very frustrating. You can only place yourself in their shoes so far.

    • Charlie Ducey

      Thank you for your comment. If I may clarify what I have written, I realize that unplanned/unintended pregnancies do happen, which is precisely why people want access to abortion. But when we’re looking at close to 75-80 percent of respondents reporting that “not wanting to have a child” was a reason for procuring an abortion, I am left wondering why so many people are engaging in an activity that leads to pregnancy. This is why I bring up the ideas of “sexual culture” and responsibility.
      It makes sense to bring up the point that pregnancy is taxing on woman’s day-to-day life. I don’t think, though, that we as a society should view pregnancy as a death-sentence for one’s career aspirations or as a fate akin to a virulent STD. Shouldn’t we accommodate for pregnant women in the workplace rather than forcing them to choose between losing their career and aborting their pregnancy, which really isn’t much of a choice at all?
      Regarding the specifics of this debate, recall that the debate was not about the legal status of abortion but about the effects of abortion at a social scale, that is, its effects on everyone in a society. That would seem to be a forum open to all. What’s more, plenty of women partake in this discussion, including Ann Furedi. However, as I have pointed out, I think that Ms. Furedi’s views on abortion and on sexuality in general shirk responsibility and demand access to abortion for the sake of adult (and late-teenage) sexual gratification, which doesn’t seem to be the best through-road to a production discussion of morality.

      • Hector

        Unless you consider early fetus to not be a life, and thus early abortions represent no social cost. I happen to agree with Ms. Ferudi.

      • ND Senior

        Regarding accommodations for pregnant women: yes, we certainly should make accommodations for pregnant women. But the U.S. isn’t doing that. Our maternity leave laws are some of the worst in the world, with no paid leave and only 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated. Paternity leave is almost nonexistent. State governments are shutting down family planning services so that women have a much more difficult time preventing pregnancy in the first place, and it hurts poor women more who can’t miss work, afford traveling long distances to clinics, or afford birth control (or NFP services, for the anti-birth control crowd).

        You can’t tell women to take responsibility for their reproductive system when they can’t access to the tools to do this. If you want to see abortion rate decrease, you should be be doing something about the social determinants of abortion instead of just telling people to abide by your sexual morals. Legislation to ban abortion doesn’t reduce abortion since people turn to illegal abortions instead (which worldwide studies have confirmed): in places in the U.S. where legal abortion clinics are being shut down, illegal abortion rates are already rising.

      • Marko

        Looking at a term paper given by BuyAnEssayCheap, a professor at Oxford University to his students, he asked them to prepare a “Water pollution term paper China and Japan case”. This was an interesting paper to write for most of our writers since we had an opportunity to bail out a few students on this.

  • ND Senior

    I wasn’t responding to your article. I was responding to your comment, specifically these two remarks:

    “Shouldn’t we accommodate for pregnant women in the workplace rather than forcing them to choose between losing their career and aborting their pregnancy, which really isn’t much of a choice at all?”

    “I think that Ms. Furedi’s views on abortion and on sexuality in general shirk responsibility and demand access to abortion for the sake of adult (and late-teenage) sexual gratification, which doesn’t seem to be the best through-road to a production discussion of morality.”

    Those ARE your views. My analysis of your views is substantiated.

    Again, you are still talking in terms of sexual morals and attitudes instead of talking about the things that actually cause unwanted pregnancies and push women to choose abortion.

    • Charlie Ducey

      The point remains that I did not tell women (as if women were the problem) to take charge of their reproductive systems nor am I forcing “my morals” (which are what, exactly?). I encouraged responsibility. Please stop trying to incite arguments where there are no arguments to be incited. Let’s talk about the substance of the article, which is not misogyny.

      And, I hope you realize that changing the way one sees thing is actually a substantial action to take. Systemic problems aren’t solved by throwing money at the issue or passing any number of laws alone. STDs will not go away if we just hand out condoms. Big problems that have resulted from a paradigm shift require a paradigm shift to be corrected. So, yes, I will continue to write articles about ideas, worldviews, and attitudes, because changing the way people think is the only way to ever actually solve problems that are rooted in HOW people think.

  • Punta Venyage

    Thanks for the article. The main question is “What is the unborn?”
    If the unborn is a human being then aborting it = killing a human being = immoral.
    If the unborn is NOT a human being, then you can talk about what you want to do with it and a woman has a priority in choice.

    “What is the unborn?” is the PRIMARY question. Everything else is secondary.