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Christ Church cancels abortion debate

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The Christ Church censors have declined to grant permission to Oxford Students For Life to hold a debate on the topic of “This House believes that abortion culture harms us all” tomorrow evening.

An email sent around the Christ Church JCR mailing list by JCR President Louise Revell stated that the decision of the censors has been not to grant OSFL permission to host the event in Christ Church, for the reason that “there was insufficient time between today and tomorrow to address some concerns they had about the meeting”.

The debate, which had the event description “Last year in Britain, over 185,000 abortions were carried out. What does this say about our national culture? Is it a sign of equality, or does it suggest we treat human life carelessly? Joining OSFL to debate the issue are two prominent journalists”, had been subject to heavy criticism from student activists.

46 thoughts on “Christ Church cancels abortion debate

  1. It’s pretty disgusting that free and open debate can’t be protected in Oxford any more. What do the pro-choice groups think they are doing? Don’t they think they could win the debate?

  2. Can they say what those concerns were? In the absence of any justified concerns, they seem to have bowed to a campaign to silence freedom of speech.

  3. Surely, of all places, the one place where a free and honest exchange of ideas can take place is at a University? If people can’t have the opportunity to hear alternative views there, where can they? The people responsible for this shutting down of free speech are cowardly and should be ashamed.

  4. While this article didn’t say, the concerns of the censors were the same as those agreed by the JCR last night- that the physical and mental security of the first-years residing in that building could not be guaranteed.

    The physical and mental security of members of Christ Church come before free speech. Free speech has not been silenced, in any case. The event can happen elsewhere, but Christ Church is under no obligation to put its own members’ at risk.

  5. Jack, how would the “the physical and mental security” of first years in that building be put at risk? This sounds preposterous to me. They would not have to attend and presumably would not be able to overhear the debate. How would their physical security be threatened? Really, how? No doubt the students involved in the debate are civilized people not prone to rampages.

    These reasons sound more like excuses that not coincidentally impugns the character of the pro-life students.

  6. Mental security here refers to students’ emotional well-being, avoiding unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion. With a 300 person protest expected, the event could not have been self-contained and it would have been impossible for those in the closest staircases (at a minimum) to avoid being made acutely aware of the event.
    Physical safety presumably comes from the fact that college doesn’t usually tend to allow any significant gatherings of students in that quad, and certainly not in their hundreds. No one is suggesting those in the debate or the protestors aren’t civil individuals.
    Free speech can’t be upheld so long as a reasonable protest can’t be facilitated as then their right to protest would be infringed. Overall, these reasons render Christ Church’s lecture theatre an unsuitable venue.

  7. Its interesting that 300 (where is this number coming from?) students feel the need to protest a debate. Its not like both sides aren’t going to be represented. Isn’t that what the whole point of a debate is that both sides of the argument are presented and then people can make their own conclusions. So I’m just confused about what it is they (who are they?) feel the need to protest against? Furthermore, I’m sure, now that this story has hit national news outlets and has gone viral on social media, that those in the ‘closest staircases’ have presumably, already been made ‘acutely aware’ of the event? It all seems a bit fishy if you ask me….

  8. Here’s the OSFL statement:

    The debate will be going ahead, but not at Christ Church tomorrow because of security issues due to the planned protest. We are currently looking for an alternative venue. If we haven’t found one by four o’clock tomorrow, we will arrange a new date.

    We are heartened by the support throughout the University for our right to free expression. Sadly, there are some extreme voices who don’t believe that Oxford should welcome open debate. We will continue to campaign and to encourage an amicable conversation on life issues. We’d like to reiterate our offer to WomCam to co-host a debate next term.

    More here:

  9. Jack, so as not to infringe on the free speech rights of the protestors, Christ Church infringes on the free speech rights of the participants in the debate. If anything should have been cancelled, it should have been the protest. And as MAG above asks, what is the point of a protest of a debate where both sides are represented?

  10. Simply extraordinary – the crassest form of bullying and intimidation. Charlotte Sykes’s behaviour has done her campaign’s cause no good at all.

  11. Outrageous and cowardly on the part of those who believe in the right to abortion. I believe in free abortion on demand and would be more than willing to make that case in a debate against pro-lifers. Those who seek to stifle debate in this way do noone any favours. Unfortunately the scenario is all too familiar. There has been a long history of anti-racist campaigners taking this approach (no platform) – it is indicative of an unwillingness to try to win the arguments against racism (again I would be more than willing to argue against a racist any day) and a distrust in people to be able to hear the arguments and make up their own mind. Those who object to the debate clearly think that the pro-life brigade have better arguments than they do – I don’t!

  12. I think a lot of (male and female) students objected to the panel being made up of only two people and women not being represented on the panel which revolves around, ultimately, what they should and should not do with their own bodies. The description of the event being ‘free from hysteria’ (i.e. (it seems) without women) was also something of a sore point. Even postulating the existence of ‘abortion culture’ (suggesting a comparison to ‘rape culture’?) is surely offensive in and of itself. Of course free and fair debate is extremely important – nobody is denying their right to speak – they’re just denying them the specific public platform of this lecture room in christ church which is the responsibility of the officers there. I might hold that you have the right to argue that we should enslave black people, it doesn’t mean that I’m obliged to protest to you arguing it in my house. Surely the same logic applies here? The students of christ church can both support freedom of speech in its ideal while putting the safety of its members first. There is a difference between voluntarily offering a public or private platform to views and agreeing that those who hold them should have a right to hold and express them.

  13. If practical reasons was their real reason, they should have offered an alternative date.
    It is also shameful given the Christian foundation of The House.

    The Rev. James Paice
    (Ch Ch 1990-1994)

  14. I couldn’t have put it better myself than ‘Come on now’ did.
    Given Christ Church’s Christian foundation, it’s great to see both the JCR and the censors stood up for its female members as a priority, instead of prioritising a lop-sided debate taking place, is it not?

  15. You make various mistakes, Jack:

    1. You assume all females are pro abortion. In my experience, most abortion protestors ARE female.

    2. What about the Christian responsbility to stand up for the most vulnerable? What can be more vulnerable a person than a baby in its own mother’s womb?

    3. A debate by its very nature is 2 sided, not lop sided. One side may have weak arguments but that is not the fault of the debate.

  16. James, I shall answer points 1 and 2 together: Christ Church has a duty of care for its students above all else. If even a single member of The House would suffer undue distress from seeing that debate take place where they live, if they’ve had an abortion themselves for example, the college owes it to them to protect them from that.
    Seeing two men debate what women should do with their bodies would in itself be distressing to at least some members.
    3. Two men make it lop-sided. The wording of the motion means both speakers could easily argue against abortion so it isn’t a proper debate, and has a particular outcome in mind.

  17. I’m sorry Jack that won’t wash. That would stifle anything deemed to be ‘offensive’. eg. if a undergraduate had been abused by a priest, that would stop all priests entering the cathedral. The event was due to take place in private function room, not in the quad. Perhaps women should be speaking in the debate but that is beside the point. And perhaps the motion should better worded. but again if we believe in the right of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, then an alternative date and venue could have been offered (eg the Cathedral, or Hall).

  18. Jack:

    “the physical … security of the first-years residing in that building could not be guaranteed.”

    Gee, I wonder whose fault *that* could be…?

    Come on Now:

    “I think a lot of (male and female) students objected to the panel being made up of only two people and women not being represented on the panel which revolves around, ultimately, what they should and should not do with their own bodies.”

    Then don’t go to the debate, and/or organise your own, more balanced, alternative. Student societies aren’t obliged to get their events programmes pre-approved by people who have absolutely nothing to do with the society.

    “The description of the event being ‘free from hysteria’ (i.e. (it seems) without women) was also something of a sore point.”

    So people are claiming that their mental health will be irreparably harmed by the mere knowledge that two men are debating abortion, and threatening mob action to try and shut it down? Hmm, I think there’s a word for that kind of behaviour… Begins with an H, if I recall correctly…

    “Even postulating the existence of ‘abortion culture’ (suggesting a comparison to ‘rape culture’?) is surely offensive in and of itself.”

    Maybe the people postulating it were misled by the fact that you apparently aren’t allowed to question attitudes towards abortion. Or not if you’re a man, at any rate.

  19. The actions of the College would appear to be unlawful and contrary to s43 Education (No 2) Act 1986. The University (which includes the College) has a legal responsibility to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers” By caving in to intimidation the College has failed in its legal as well as its moral duties

  20. Absolutely absurd. The complaint against the debate was that it was between 2 men, rather than 2 women, and that being men they didn’t deserve to have their opinions on abortion heard. This is simply part of a broader pattern at Oxford of anyone not a part of the “protected classes”, read white and male, being silenced by allegations of bigotry and racism. This despicable academic practice has been allowed to take hold at what is supposed to be one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, because we as a society have become so afraid of offending other people, and instituted career ending consequences for hurting someone’s feelings. that we’ve become unable to stand up to anyone who can claim to have been “victimized” or “oppressed” at some indeterminable point.

    It’s just so pathetic that this has taken hold at Oxford.

  21. Firstly, Neil, you’re forgetting the college’s duty of care to its sutdents.
    Secondly, the colleges are autonomous within the university. It is a university-wide society asking to use a college venue. The college is under no obligation to allow any events there whatsoever, otherwise permission would not have to be sought from the college in the first place! The event has not been banned at all, it simply was not given permission to take place in Christ Church’s Blue Boar Lecture Theatre.
    Moreover, the reasons given for not granting permission were (intentially) not at all ideology-related. It was entirely about security concerns, both physical and mental.

    Also, free speech was actually upheld insofar as Christ Church would not have tolerated a 300 person strong protest on its grounds (which seems fair enough!). Not to allow a sizeable, reasonable protest to a controversial event would have looked even worse from a free speech perspective.

  22. The greatest offence today is that one is offended. It stifles all dissension. The response ‘I find that really offensive’ now automatically is given protection/ the upper hand. I just wonder whether OSFL should play that card themselves….

  23. “I just wonder whether OSFL should play that card themselves….”

    That wouldn’t work James. There’s a hierarchy of whose complaints will be taken seriously by whom, and it’s a thousands times easier for a school to avoid lawsuits from pro-life organizations than pro-choice ones simply because of their demographic makeup.

  24. Sorry Jack but you have not established in any way that the Duty of Care to Students required the cancellation of the debate.

    Secondly Christ Church as a College is an integral part of the University so both Christ Church and Oxford University have legal obligations to protect freedom of speech. If the College permits its facilities to be used for debates then it cannot pick and choose which debates it permits.

    May I make it very clear that the issue here is freedom of speech not the issue of Abortion. If Christ Church had cancelled a meeting to be addressed by Anne Furedi, the CEO of BPAS, then that would have been equally wrong. As for the protest by 300 the College has to permit a protest it does not have to admit 300 protesters if that would prevent the debate being held. Society cannot allow mass protestors to cause the cancellation of events through intimidation that was how the Nazi’s and Communists operated in the 1930’s and we know where that all led

  25. Jack, you say that the college is in no way obliged to allow any events to take place there. But you also say that the protest, which would cause the mental and physical harm, could not be stopped by the college as it would have infringed the protestors’ free speech. But if the college is not obliged to allow any given event take place, it is not obliged to allow the protest to take place. And the college clearly didn’t mind the debate itself taking place, as it allowed it being organised prior to the threat of protest. Moreover, if one must ban any controversial lecture or debate on any topic that a member of the college could conceivably be upset by, virtually no debate on any topic that is controversial (and debates mostly only occur on controversial topics) can be allowed to take place there.

  26. Simply put, one of the most spineless and nauseating decisions in Oxford’s recent history. An ugly stain on a great institution.

  27. I do not know if Jack is right about the mental security of ChCh’s students being at risk as a reason for the cancellation, but if he is those are poor grounds. Firstly, though the wellbeing of the students is highly important to the college, it ought not to be the case that any risk, no matter how small, always trumps the freedom of others (if it did, then many policies ought to be changed, such as the freedom to consume alcohol, since that increases the likelihood of someone drunkenly starting a fight with an innocent person, for example). Secondly, it is difficult to see why the mere existence of a debate on ChCh grounds should be so paritcularly harmful to students there. The same students might read an op-ed in a newspaper arguing that abortion is wrong; they face that sort of ‘risk’ every day. Thirdly, it leads to implausible conclusions. I attended a debate not too long ago entitled “This House believes it is wrong to send your child to private school”, or something like that. Doubtless many in the audience, not to mention the college, went to private school and indeed their parents had sent them to private school. For the same reasons as the abortion debate, could that not be harmful to the mental wellbeing of the students, being told that they had done something wrong, and been part of a social injustice for as much as 13 years? But it is highly implausible that such a debate should be banned. But the principle is the same as the abortion case.

    It is worth adding that the objection that two men shouldn’t debate a topic which is about what women do with their body is wrong on two levels. Firstly, the debate is about whether ‘abortion culture’ is harmful; not about whether abortion is wrong. Secondly, even if the debate was about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, one of the key issues at hand is whether only the woman’s body is at stake, or whether there is another person’s body too. So the debate is being objected to on the basis of one particular resolution to it.

  28. I am an Oxford alumnus and am very disappointed in the behaviour of these people attempting to shut down free speech. I hope they are reading this, humbly realise their errors and publicly apologise for their action.

  29. I think the protestors- or censors, more accurately- dominate social media on this point and impose and ideology which the rest of us are expected to accept. What the comments section here shows me, however, is that most people disagree with the way in which this debate was deliberately shut down in such a calculated and unethical way.
    Something definitely needs to be done by all the reasonable people in this university to reclaim social media.

  30. i dunno. if there was a klan rally at oxford the nay-sayers who wrote this article would be all too happy for the authorities to close it down. they wouldnt cry “free speech”. The established idea of free speech is it should be free within their parameters (i.e. the opinions of the privilaged), and then legal action when it crosses some line (i.e. religious clerics preaching jihad). i think saying these students hate free speech is like saying that picketing miners hate coal.

  31. Fascist totalitarians who protested this debate do damage to ALL supporters of choice! They are an embarrassment to the principle of freedom. For myself, I am a firm supporter of the right to choose to get an abortion (at least, in the first and second trimesters). And I am convinced that the pro-choice position is the CORRECT MORAL POSITION! And then, we get lunatic feminists whose arguments are contrary to every principle of open debate, freedom of expression, and an open society. Their fascistic methods of stifling free speech is more damaging to the pro-choice movement than anything the Christianist anti-choice movement could possibly do!

  32. We see this in Canada from time to time as well. When a position already possesses the political high ground, it becomes a relatively simple matter to wave one’s hand in the general direction of somebody’s (anybody’s) ‘mental security’ in order to disrupt discourse. Of course, no particular individuals are brought forward with a valid case – it is sufficient to simply raise the specter of some conceivable damage to some hypothetical person’s psychological state.

    It’s always suspicious when a group, who already has more-or-less what it wants, finds another reason to not talk about it (and on ethical grounds, no less!). I remember using that tactic as a child, as a youth, but not as an adult.

  33. If there had been a bomb threat, the college would have been justified in cancelling a fixture in the near future, offering instead to host the debate on a future date, if asked to, but this time with plenty of time for the police to ensure security of debaters and those in danger of becoming collateral damage, if a bomb went off. Yes, it is appalling that a debate has been cancelled because of threats to disrupt the debate. But if one can see that the college might have had no choice but to cancel it if the form of the threatened disruption had been a bomb, one can surely concede the same if merely less drastic means of disruption than planting a bomb at the venue was all that had been threatened, provided the threatened disruption itself posed a significant threat to health and safety.

    What is sinister, is the absurd argument of some, that the debate itself would have posed a threat to health and safety, even if nobody had threatened to disrupt it. That is manifestly a pathetic position for anybody to take, let alone a student in one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

    On the pro-life argument, there is no religious argument against abortion. The principle that tells anybody with half a brain that abortion is wrong (other than in extremis) is the *equality* principle. The foetus is not *inferior* to the abortionist whom kills him or her, or the mother who makes that *choice*. He or she is the *equal* of those who want to be allowed to kill him or her, with impunity.

    Religion doesn’t tell people that abortion is wrong. Equality and biology tell him that. Religion merely motivates certain people to do what is right, and to eschew what is wrong. Is the foetus human too? Yes, of course. Even Anne Ferudi concedes as much. He or she is “not a gerbil”. So he or she should not become the victim of homicide, in the name of “choice”. The whole idea that abortion is a right “choice”, and therefore a permissible choice, is plainly absurd, whether one says one believes in God or not.

  34. Was permission granted and then withdrawn? Or did they make a last-minute application for permission to hold the event?

  35. “The event has not been banned at all, it simply was not given permission to take place” [Jack]

    I would like to nominate Jack for a Yes Minister Sophistry Bursary to support his studies. There will be “room at the top” for a man of his calibre when he graduates – provided the saying hasn’t officially become “womb at the top” by then, which seems increasingly likely.

    (I’m town, not gown, by the way.)

  36. In reply to Jon Richens: Referring also to my earlier comments, unfortunately you are probably right that a lot of people in favour of this debate taking place would backtrack on free speech given alternative subject matter (e.g. racism). However, that is NOT the basis of an argument against free speech, it merely underlnes the fact that few people stick to their principles when it comes to free speech. Personally I always argue for freedom of expression and free speech regardless of who is speaking – they should be indivisible rights and sadly such freedoms have become increasingly difficult to exercise. I have always thought banning any form of speech or debate a dangerous road to go down and current trends bear that out – it won’t be long before almost any subject will be taboo simply because some group (or even individual) objects to others talking about it. Come on everybody, get a grip and take a stand in favour of free speech for all and open debate about everything! We really aren’t so pathetic that we need protecting from the idea of others.

  37. @ Caspar

    My intending neither to agree nor to disagree with you by drawing your attention to this get-out clause available to Jon Richens, I believe that the European Court of Human Rights has tended to distinguish between beliefs it might want to have protected by the Convention, and others beliefs it does not want the Convention to protect, by restricting protection to beliefs that are both cogent and worthy of respect in a democratic society. Jon might say (or I for that matter) that pro-life is cogent and worthy of respect, whilst racism isn’t.

  38. In reply to John, It is not so much a matter of what ideas are worthy of respect but of whether you are willing to take up the arguments of others, i.e. debate real issues. I don’t have a lot of time for the European Court of Human Rights personally and would certainly not wish to be guided by their position on this matter since they clearly do not believe in free speech.
    I am a committed anti-racist and have argued and campaigned against racist ideas for decades but, unlike many others, would NEVER go for the “no platform” approach. I am convinced that those anti-racist campaigners who closed down debate over the last two decades are responsible for the success of extreme right groups in the UK today – many people have never been exposed to the arguments, which means not hearing the case against racism or the case for it. This is why open debate is so important – people can make informed judgments on who is right or wrong if they hear the arguments. Thus I will always argue that a debate should take place regardless of the topic and regardless of who is speaking – that’s what free speech is, isn’t it?

  39. Caspar, I lean towards your more radical point of view myself. I was merely giving, in the ECtHR case law position, an example of single standard that appealed to one possible difference between pro-life and racism, which Jon Richens and others could adopt themselves, to refute your allegation that a single standard they adopted, with opposite outcomes for racism and pro-life, was, in fact, a double standard.

  40. Fair play to ‘Jack’ for being prepared to expose the absurdity and paucity of his (?) arguments on this thread. ‘Free speech was actually upheld’ – Orwell could not have put it better.

  41. De Juis Students for Life. The side that censors images,speech and debate is the side that loses. Always.

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