Friday, 16 December 2011

Bristol Students for Life

I hate internet debates.  I learnt early on that most virtual conversations were subject to Godwin’s Law, a sort of 2nd Law of Typing Dynamics which predicts that discussions are subject to entropy and will inevitably degenerate, containing less and less information and more and more comparisons with Hitler.  The world of social media offers us an escape from this because it re-humanises people - it’s difficult to call someone a Nazi monster online when you know you’ll likely be queuing behind them for a sandwich when back in meatspace the next day.  It was with this in mind that I decided to engage with Bristol Students for Life (BSFL) on Facebook.

I had written a letter about the recent pro-choice motion at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU) and this where my conversation with BSFL began.  I had been motivated to write this letter by letters to the Bristol student newspaper, Epigram, criticising the pro-choice motion at UBU.  In responding to them, I discovered a lot more about the subject including how the Coalition had abolished the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV in May, allowing space for anti-abortion groups to begin influencing policy.  More recently, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tabled an amendment to Health and Social Care Bill that could have caused delay to abortions and stripped the UK’s principal private abortion providers of their ability to offer counselling services.  

Outside of government, it is interesting to note that anti-abortion students have been organising nationally and internationally at events such as the International Youth Pro-Life Conference, coordinated by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). SPUC is a rather unpleasant group, including homophobic innuendo in clause VIII of their Submission to The Government Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology and supporting the Bedford Square 40 Days for Life protest, which was intimidating to people seeking the services of the BPAS abortion clinic there.

UBU has recently passed a pro-choice motion, mandating the VP Welfare and Equality to raise awareness of anti-abortion activities and reinforcing the existing Union “safe space” policy which will ban distressing literature featuring aborted foetuses or prayer vigil protests outside student services.

I have been accused of being “fluffy” because of my willingness to try to understand people who oppose my own point of view, but comprehension can only lead to better debate because it allows you to identify the real areas of contention.  Considering this, I entered a Facebook discussion with Bristol Students for Life to find out who they are and what they believe.

Positions Proposed By Members of Bristol Students For Life

A Fertilised Egg is a Human Being

This is the crux of their argument.  A woman’s choice to have a termination is therefore nonsensical to them because once an egg is fertilised it becomes fully human and should therefore be granted full protection under the law.  

The question “what is Human?” is a very interesting idea in the abstract, but one we are forced to make a decision when it crashes up against a the right to choose.  To me, it is self-evident that a fertilised egg is not a human whilst a bawling bundle of joy is.  Where you draw the line is a matter for medical professionals, the current upper-limit on abortion being 24 weeks in UK law.

I got an interesting insight into the attitudes of BSFL members in one of their responses to a question about why a fertilised egg should be so much more human than an unfertilised one:

I would like to point out that menstruation is the removal of an unfertilized egg - ie it is released BECAUSE it is NOT going to become anything. Its removal is necessary for the continuation of the menstrual cycle which functions to ensure that only a fertile egg is present, to maximise the chance of successful conception for the procreation of an offspring.
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

This argument grants a fertilised egg value by its potential and specifically imbues it with much greater potentiality than an unfertilised one.  However, a fertilised egg still needs to divide, travel down the fallopian tubes and successfully implant in the womb before gestation can begin.  Is failure during this stage the equivalent of taking a human life?  Pregnancy is a high-risk undertaking and it is partially the argument from viability which informs the current 24 week abortion ceiling.

Pro-Choice Motions Curtail Free Speech

Do we not have the right as a society to openly and politely express our opinions without the VP for Welfare and Equality campaigning against us? The motion does not say it will only campaign against activity which threatens these 'rights' through harassment. It says ALL activity. Whether peaceful or not. Do yo not see that this policy is highly dictatorial. The union cannot possibly simultaneously continue to facilitate open debate and freedom of expression if it takes a stance on such a divisive issue of conscience.
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

This is a question of balancing rights.  The Students’ Union has the responsibility to ensure free and open fora for discussion and debate, but also to protect the welfare of students.  On the one hand, discussions, talks and debates about abortion are entirely appropriate in a Students’ Union, but on the other distressing literature or “prayer vigils” targeting vulnerable pregnant people themselves are surely not.

The precedent here would be UBU’s “BNP No-Platform” policy.  It would impinge free speech to ban the BNP for what they believed, but the ban was made on the grounds that their speakers’ entourages have been aggressive towards students at other universities in the past.  I am certainly not calling for BSFL to be banned - this motion clearly outlines what behaviour is and is not acceptable and why this is an issue of student welfare and not free speech.

On the specific issue the VP Welfare and Equality campaigning against BSFL, I would highlight that nowhere is the VP mandated to prevent them holding peaceful events.  I would be the first to defend Bristol Students for Life if the Union were to obstruct their talks and debates or in any other way make them impossible.

Prayer Vigils Outside Abortion Clinics Are Acceptable Protest

Anti-abortion campaigners from American-based Christian group 40 Days For Life picket a Marie Stopes clinic in London. Photograph: Susannah Ireland/Rex Features

I would also like to defend 40 days for life. I know it may seem like a very strange concept because you don't believe in God. That's fine. I will explain it to you.

Those who take part in 40 days for life are praying for the women who go into the clinic and for their unborn children. They are praying that these women will decide not to have an abortion. There is no harassment involved. They put up a sign about 40 days for life and stand there. There is no law against that and they are not misbehaving in any way. If the women want to speak to them, then they will do that, but women are not put under pressure to speak to them. I said it at the first student conference that SFL attended and I will say it again: if women feel guilty because of the mere presence of somebody who believes that abortion is killing, then perhaps it is because deep down they know this to be true and cannot stand to think about it.
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

This attitude demonstrates a critical failure of empathy.  It is one thing the write to your MP and lobby government about abortion, quite another to target vulnerable people who will already be concerned by the social stigma surrounding abortion that persists to this day.  The commenter fails to mention that in the case of the Bedford Square protest, one member would stand directly by the door of the clinic, addressing those who tried to enter and handing them leaflets and rosaries.  This is clearly intimidating.

The final sentence of this quote is the most chilling and yet revealing at the same time.  It shows an almost post-modern disregard for evidence and fact, giving moral authority to intuitions.  Something does not become true by virtue of coercion.

Applying Indirect Pressure Is Acceptable Protest

… did you know that the recently opened BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square is situated on the ground floor of a residential building? [32-36 Romford Road, Stratford E15, to be precise].

That is to say, that there are residents living in the same building as the BPAS clinic. The residents weren't informed by their Landlord that he had leased the ground floor to BPAS.

A lot of residents are angry about this and have signed a petition to Mick Sweeny, chief executive of the landlord One Housing, protesting that they have been kept in the dark about this.

Do the residents not have the right to protest? Imagine you were one of the residents in Bedford Square and you were kept in the dark about this. Surely having abortions taking place on the ground floor of residential building is objectionable. In my opinion, terminating unwanted, unborn children on private, residential premises, is an abomination.
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

To operate in that building, planning permission would have had to have been sought for the use of the ground floor as an abortion clinic. If the residents weren’t aware that it was an abortion clinic, then its impact in terms of noise or disturbance must be low. Residents have the right to protest on environmental or safety grounds, if a nightclub were to be opened there, for example. An area does not become degraded in some way merely because an abortion clinic exists there, this would be an essentialist argument.  Medical clinics like dentists, for example, have operated in residential areas for as long as I can remember.

the 'waste' from the abortion clinic that [name removed] mentioned was being stored in the same storage room as the tenants of the building. This means that aborted foetuses are currently stored in containers alongside other people's household waste. Whether or not the clinic made any noise is irrelevant
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

Once again, this falls for the same fallacy as in the previous quote.  It also shows a lack of understanding about the stringent regulations which govern the disposal of medical waste.

Pro-Choice Literature Fails To Give Prominence to Keeping a Child

Your point about the definition of pro-choice, is, however, I'm afraid to say, rather ignorant and I would love to believe that pro-choice truly sought to identify the best interests of the women confronted with an unplanned pregnancy. However, you cannot deny that, whilst pro-choice groups are not anti-birth, they hardly portray themselves in a neutral light. Check out these websites and tell me whether they highlight that sometimes an abortion is not the best choice the women has made and that continuing with a pregnancy can result in more happiness than ending it:

- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

This attitude betrays a certain error of understanding because keeping a baby is clearly the “default option”.  It is unsurprising that the “splash page” of a pro-choice website would emphasise the abortion option because the decision to have an abortion is one a pregnant person must actively make.  In any case, these websites are hardly representative of the counselling pregnant people receive before receiving an abortion, where all options are outlined and discussed.  The purpose of these websites is to create a non-judgemental atmosphere, where a pregnant person is truly free to choose, free from the social stigma associated with abortions.

Pro-Life Campaigns are Secular

... it does not seem that your letter differentiates sufficiently between ordinary people who have doubts about the morality of abortion, and lobby groups who employ doubtful methods and become distracted by other prejudices that their employees may have. This is somewhat simplistic. Your opinion of the Catholic Church, to which you are, of course, entitled, is another issue.
- Bristol Students for Life Facebook Group Member

Pro-Life campaigners are secular in a narrow sense of the term.  SPUC has been coordinating with SRE Islamic to influence the SRE syllabus in Tower Hamlets.  It is evident, however, that this secularism is merely a pragmatic arrangement to spread a hardline Abrahamic morality.  At Bristol, the stunning correlation of members in Cassoc (the Catholic society) and BSFL is surely no coincidence.  BSFL are not secular in the commonly accepted use of the word - it takes religion to infuse a fertilised egg with with “essence of humanity”.
The increased activity of anti-abortion groups is concerning, but there is much that can be done such as the passing of Pro-Choice motions at Students’ Union so that protection for pregnant students is explicitly recognised.  Precedents for these motions on the websites for the Oxford, Leeds and Bristol students’ unions.  


  • The link accusing SPUC of homophobic innuendo was incorrectly cited as being from their "Safe at School" campaign. It was, in fact, from clause VIII of their Submission to The Government Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology.
  • The BPAS Clinic in Bedford Square is their main Press Office, not Headquarters.
  • It seems that the member of BSFL with whom I was discussing the Bedford Square protest may have confused it with another one in Stratford. I have given them the benefit of the doubt.


  1. Excellent piece, with only one small thing I would add: With regards to a fertilised egg being essentially the same as a human, did you ask what they think about the fact that a huge proportion of fertilised eggs are deemed "nonviable" by the woman's body and are rejected in the same way an unfertilised egg is?

    This happens *so* often that it casts rather a doubt on the religious aspect of the pro-life cause. I'm not sure that the non-religious would really need to address it, though if they wish to criminalise abortion then we would see similar cases to those in America where women who miscarried were charged with (something like) manslaughter or murder.

  2. You pretty much already know what I think about all of this, so suffice to say: You correcly pluralised Forum! Go you! :D

  3. Also, while I disagree with what they are saying, they seem (from what you have posted here) to have been polite to you, and have made an effort to explain what they think. For that I would commend them.

  4. Gav: I didn't explicitly ask them about the fertilised non-viable eggs, no. I only thought about it as I was writing this article, so did not have the opportunity to discuss it with them.

    Caitlin: Thanks for your plural approval :-P. Yes, BSFL were always polite and willing to engage in robust debate. Definitely to be commended.

  5. Thanks for sharing the blog post. Face-palm comes to mind.

    1) Linking to one's own letter in a paper is not a source of authority; it comes across as self-important, especially when that letter makes wild and inaccurate claims with no evidence.

    2) Did the blogger do any research to back-up his slur that SPUC is homophobic (whatever the author’s subjective understanding of that term might be and, how it is even relevant)? Did the blogger go on yet another self-created platform (Education for Choice blog perhaps? and do a copy-paste job? Seems so as both read more or less word for word and neither provide an actual link or citation to the source (that’s called providing evidence by the way).

    3. The quote that the blogger claims is from Safe at School is actually from SPUC's submission to the government inquiry into human fertilization and embryology ( the link provided is an example of evidence). The quote is nothing to do with the Safe at School campaign as far as I can see. Kindly provide evidence or apologise.

    4. Please defer from blog-preaching on the campaign concerning a newly opened abortion facility. I am fully aware of those who have spoken to and worked with the residents, managers at the abortion facility and its call centre, councillors, planning department, housing association, local MP, and local doctors and nurses. The blogger does not have any real understanding of the situation, the residents, or the details and proceedings of the last 5 months (that’s called evidence by the way). To try and pass judgement comes across as sniffy and elitist.

    4. The HQ of BPAS is in Warwickshire, not London. Yet another example of no evidence or accuracy.

    5. Why suggest joining atheist, feminist, or LGBT groups? It is clear you are sterotyping these groups and individuals and imposing your own position on abortion onto them. Being feminist, atheist or homosexual is not synonymous with being supportive or abortion.

    6. A post of "reckons" and "I thinks" which can be expected on a blog, but it doesn't cut mustard as anything serious.

  6. Thanks for you comments evidenceplease. I've posted a "corrections" section at the end of this article now.

    1., 2. & 3.) That was a mis-link, I did, indeed, mean to link to the Education for Choice blog, although, as you point out, that was incorrect too! I've updated with the correct submission article link as you suggested and added a retraction at the end.

    The reason I included the reference to homophobia was to demonstrate that SPUC don't just campaign on abortion, but operate within a conservative moral framework. Indeed, the inclusion of clause VIII seems somewhat unnecessary in a submission on Human Fertilization and Embryology.

    4.) It seems that the person I was discussing this with had confused the new Stratford clinic with the one in Bedford Square we had been talking about. I've yielded benefit of the doubt.

    4.) Correction made and retraction given.

    5.) You're absolutely right, but I've certainly found these groups to have the greatest interest in the topic. Friends from LGBT and Feminist groups have been the most interested, perhaps I ought to suggest that they form a pro-choice coalition instead.

    6.) As an "outsider" to the pro-choice and pro-life movement, though with evident pro-choice sympathies, this article was intended as an introduction to the activism currently occurring. I'm afraid it's the general public, like me, who have to be swayed in this debate!

  7. Hi Michael,

    I'm Eve, the President of Bristol Students for Life. I have responded to your blogpost at: It is always important to have respectful debate on this emotive issue of conscience. It would be great to hear your comments as well as those of Widgetas, Caitlin and evidenceplease.


  8. Hi mike,

    I thoroughly recommend that you reconsider your view on abortion by typing the word abortion into google and click images. This clearly demonstrates the horror of what abortion is. Why do you support this evil? have a look at what you support....

    Why do you support the murder of innocent children? Do you get satisfaction out of the view that children are being murdered in such a brutal way underneath a banner called 'choice?'

  9. To Robert:

    I watched the video, and interestingly the thing that made me most uncomfortable was the thought that footage of someone's medical procedure has been posted on the internet for all to see, with no information provided concerning the origin of the footage, or whether the patient gave consent for it to be shown and used in this way.

    As for the angry and judgemental language used in the above post, that's pretty much a perfect example of what Mike is talking about in his blog post...

    I understand you have strong views on this issue, and that's fine, but there are better ways to express them.

    Also, in fairness to the BSFL society, they claim to be dead against the language and tactics displayed in your post.

  10. Dear Jon,

    I don't think that Robert has used bad language. He is passionate about being pro-life and that shows through. I think his questions are valid and not in the least bit offensive. Michael supports abortion, Robert thinks that abortions are evil (as do I), and so he is asking why Michael would support something which is evil. They were questions, not accusations and we are talking about killing children here so I think some heated language is to be accepted given the subject matter!

    It's true that BSFL do try to be polite at all times. Perhaps the way Robert has put is not exactly the way I might have done it, but I agree with his ideas.

    I have to say that I do find it very very disturbing that you watched a video of a child being killed and the thing that made you most uncomfortable were the origins of the video... The likelihood is that the video was being done by somebody who had the consent of the medical staff and the mother. I hope you are not implying that this was a pro-lifer who filmed the abortion? Do you really think that a pro-lifer would stand by while a child was being killed in front of them and film it? That would not happen. Perhaps you are right that they should publicise the details of the video, but then I suppose that those who support a woman's right to 'choose' would then say that abort67 would be violating the physician's and the woman's right to anonymity?

  11. Also, I have my own blog if you are interested in having a little read and commenting? I welcome any challenges! :)

  12. Hey Michael,

    Just a reminder that our first talk will be next Wed at 7.30pm (Blandine Richards Room, 2nd Floor, Union).

    The speaker will be Janet Secluna Thomas who works for NLH UK (No Less Human).
    NLH is the disability rights division of SPUC (The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). Members of No Less Human aim to promote a greater understanding of the needs of disabled people and the responsibility of society to care for these people and protect them; Janet and her colleagues monitor the local and national press for items relevant to their work and reply to such items from a pro-life perspective.

    We welcome yourself and anyone who wished to learn more about our society to attend the talk. We welcome a positive discussion.

    See the facebook event for more information:

    Eve Farren