Last week, the Liverpool Guild was caught up in a furore of controversy after it approved a Pro-Life society. Within days, a petition had been set up to ban the society; this petition was then removed from the Guild’s website because its aims were inconsistent with free speech legislation. By Friday, an opposing Pro-Choice society had been launched. Its founders were “incredibly concerned for student welfare” and wanted their “own platform [to] respectfully challenge their views”.
This is a step in the right direction: banning was never the answer. It seems clear that the Pro-Life society, which came under the category of affecting change, should never have formed – not because it should have been suppressed by Guild censors, but because its very creation comes from a place of deep cultural sickness.
Behind the veil of labels such as ‘Pro-Life’ – dressed up as an emotional plea for the ‘rights’ of unborn children – lies a deep misogyny: a rejection of the rights of women. It is, in fact, the essence of misogyny: the latent conviction that a woman’s body, choices and her sexual agency should be handed to the State on her behalf.
Undoubtedly, this ideology is dangerous. Its continued subtle relevance in social discourse shows the depth of our cultural sickness. When we debate whether abortion should remain legal and free or return to a restricted underground world of illegality, we are accepting that women’s bodies are still a site of public ownership and discourse.
If you find this difficult to swallow, consider the likelihood of students coming together to attack the bodily and social autonomy of another group. ‘Make Homosexuality Illegal Again’ – or ‘Pro-Family’, as they’d undoubtedly market their movement – wouldn’t have such a ring.
The analogy is as good as any – in British society, polls consistently show that around 30 per cent of people think abortion should be illegal. As recently as 1983, 50 per cent of Britain thought homosexual relations were “always wrong”. Still, in 2012, 22 per cent held this damning view of gay rights. A recent poll also found that half of British Muslims felt that homosexuality should be illegal. Yet, though most people accept that these people have a right to these views, the extension – a movement to re-criminalise gay sex – really hasn’t taken off in the same way as the anti-abortion movement.
Consider, then, how synonymous womanhood has been with motherhood, historically; the punishment of ‘fallen’ women into the early 20th century, and the continued policing of women’s bodies and sexualities in the 21st. When the Pro-Life movement campaigns for women to go full-term against their will, it is clear that our cultural subconscious is battling something deeper than the sanctity of life’s demise. The simultaneous drive for capital punishment and abortion barriers in America’s Deep South proves this.
The bias is still written into our laws: while homosexuality was completely decriminalised, a work-around clause was simply added onto the existing law from 1861 banning abortion. This is important: abortion is still technically illegal in the UK, and the fragility of our rights and freedoms should never be underestimated.
The so-called ‘Pro-Life’ movement is a fierce and often ugly movement which aims to criminalise and construct barriers around safe and legal abortion. This year, a 21-year-old woman from Belfast was imprisoned for taking an abortion pill – several more faced trial. An Irish Times report found that Irish schools had been providing children with factually incorrect and biased views on abortions – perpetuating the ideology that imprisons women.
In the USA, reproductive rights are under increasing threat: whilst the divisive President-elect Donald Trump backtracked on many anti-immigrant policies, his message to women is clear: your bodies belong to the State. And in the UK, intimidating American-style demonstrations are on the rise. Clearly, Liberty has exceptions. If hurling abuse at a desperate young woman at an abortion clinic isn’t one of them, our society is very confused.
Where the pro-choice activists often fall down, however, is in their unwillingness to listen. Questioning the morality of abortion is perfectly legitimate – the topic combines deep philosophical questions about applied moral logic and what we mean by ‘life’ with science and often religion – a volatile mix. We cannot combat Pro-Life’s reductive arguments with statements like: “an embryo is just a clump of cells”. We should be loud and clear that philosophical debate is welcome within the pro-choice movement – those who want the future tainted by coat-hanger abortions are the ones we oppose. What the so-called Pro-Life movement is trying to take away, besides women’s sexual and bodily agency, is their right to make a moral choice.
Equally important, though, is that though the society’s formation is regrettable, the petition to ban it was dangerous. It’s easy for the Left to divide and argue within ourselves. What the Liberal Left lack in understanding, the New Left lack in insight. Abortion – and reproductive freedom more broadly – is essentially bound to the New Left’s favourite concept – privilege.
In Northern Ireland, women with money go to England, and those without go to prison. In the USA, it is the poorest women who’ll struggle to travel hundreds of miles if Trump’s plans go ahead. Let’s not pretend the picture would be any different in the UK, if abortion was criminalised: privileged middle-class students would simply empty their bank accounts and travel to France. For us to ignore the dangers of this movement is an insult to poorer, less educated women who would lack such freedom. It is incredibly naive to view this controversy merely as an amusing battle between conservative Catholics and Fem Soc.
Similarly, though, the New Left’s reflex-ban response only creates problems. Firstly, it only contributes to the disdain of the Liberal Left, providing a distraction from our shared values. Most importantly of all, if 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that political opinions fester best when they’re insulted, derided and forced underground. For every extreme pro-lifer, there are likely many religious conservatives who disagree with abortion, but don’t want coat-hanger abortions and suicides either. These are the people we should be engaging with and winning over. If we try to ban without foresight, like America, we will be Trumped.