WomCam protesters try to shut down anti-abortion talk

Protesters were thrown out of a discussion panel hosted by an anti-abortion student society that included prominent Irish pro-lifers on Wednesday night.

WomCam, Oxford SU’s women’s campaign, organised the demonstration. According to reports, around fifteen protesters entered the event and then started heckling the speakers when the talk began.

Eye-witness reports, and statements from both WomCam and OSFL, say that security was called on the protesters, at least one of whom was allegedly dragged from the room. St John’s College, where the event was being hosted, then called the police, who escorted the protesters from the event. The rest of the talk took place after the protesters left.

The event was centred around the upcoming referendum in Ireland on abortion rights. Abortion is currently illegal in almost all circumstances in the Republic of Ireland. A nation-wide referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, which gives a foetus the full status of citizenship, is due to be held in May or June next year. 

The two guest speakers at the event were Breda O’Brien and Lorcan Price. The former is an Irish Times columnist and outspoken opponent of abortion, while the latter is a legal adviser on the pro-life campaign fighting the referendum.

Both WomCam and OSFL released statements concerning the issue. WomCam, in a statement released on the Oxford SU website, described the calling of the police by college as “a clear attempt to intimidate protesters, as we were not breaking the law.

“We were not protesting Oxford Students for Life or their speakers’ right to free speech,” the statement continued. “Rather, we were demonstrating that the speakers’ views deny millions of people bodily autonomy, that subject them to forced pregnancy, resulting in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and sometimes death. Both Breda and Lorcan are a very powerful part of this lobby.”

In a statement emailed to the OxStu, OSFL “expressed their sadness and anger at a deliberate attempt to shut down discussion and dialogue through harassment and bullying.”

“It is such a shame that the protestors [sic] never listened to what we actually had to say. Had they heard Breda O’Brien’s presentation, they would have realised just how much we do care if women die, contrary to their chanting.”

The campaign to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland has been active for years, but has had only piecemeal victories until the announcement of the referendum in September. Every year thousands of Irish women travel to England and Wales to get abortions, which in Ireland is only available when the mother’s life is under severe threat. Last year the UN’s human rights committee described the legislation as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

O’Brien, a regular columnist in the Irish Times and a secondary school teacher, is a prominent supporter of the 8th amendment. She is a patron of the Iona Institute, a Catholic pressure group, and has expressed the view that abortion should be illegal in every case, including rape and incest.

In an article last year, she described pregnancy as women’s “unique ability.” O’Brien said that abortion was “a wonderful way to reinforce patriarchy. Men can never become pregnant, so women have to imitate their limitation by becoming un-pregnant when they wish.”

In Northern Ireland the restrictions against termination of a pregnancy are even more severe. The UN human rights commission are currently fighting a court battle against the laws in the supreme court of Northern Ireland, supported by groups including Amnesty International. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where abortion is illegal in nearly all cases. The maximum potential punishment for procuring an illegal termination is life imprisonment.

Oxford Students For Life are a student-run group that describes its aims as seeking “to promote a culture of life at the university and in the wider community, advocating the protection of human life from conception to natural death.” They hold talks concerning both abortion and assisted suicide. 

This isn’t the first time an OSFL talk has been targeted by protesters. In 2014, the society organised a debate on the motion “abortion culture hurts us all.” Criticism was fierce over the fact that both the speakers for and against, respectively Tim Stanley, currently of The Spectator, and Brendan O’Neill, at the time of Spiked, were men. Christ Church voted to cancel the debate before it could happen, stating concerns over security.