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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 [email protected].

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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