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Controversy swirls at Oxford after abortion debate is canceled

 Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
(Mark Wilson/Getty)
  1. An abortion debate originally scheduled to take place at Oxford University's Christ Church college has been canceled after university officials expressed concerns over safety.
  2. The pro-life group Oxford Students For Life planned to debate the motion "abortion culture hurts us all." Tim Stanley of The Telegraph would have argued in favor and Brendan O'Neill of Spiked against. Criticism of the event grew rapidly because both debaters were men.
  3. As those opposed to the debate organized a protest, Christ Church officials met to discuss whether or not the event should go on as planned. In the end, the event was canceled after Christ Church "voted to inform College Censors about the mental and physical security issues surrounding the debate."

Men talking about "abortion culture"

The motion being debated was "This House Believes Britain's Abortion Culture Hurts Us All," with Stanley being in favor and O'Neill being opposed.

Critics quickly took issue with the phrase "abortion culture." "What the fuck is abortion culture?" was the title of a Facebook post by now-deleted Facebook group Oxrev Fems, obtained by Buzzfeed. The Facebook group was formed in response to the news of OSFL's debate, and was the place where the protest of the debate was being planned. The post continued: "This Tuesday Oxford Students for Life are putting on a super cute debate with two cis guys on whether people with uteruses deserve to have any choice over their own bodies." Oxford's Women's Campaign issued a similar statement condemning the public debate, saying, "It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies."

Niamh McIntyre, one of the organizers of the protest, published an op-ed in the Independent titled "I helped shut down an abortion debate between two men because my uterus isn't up for their discussion." McIntyre condemned OSFL's selection of male speakers, taking issue with the fact that the group "thought it was appropriate to let men discuss if and when women should be able to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies."

OSFL conceded that abortion is an issue that "especially" affects women. "For that reason we have hosted two all-women panel debates in the last year," they said in a statement. OSFL also offered WomCam, a feminist society at Oxford, the opportunity to co-host a public debate with them "as a sign of our commitment to dialogue on this challenging issue."

Why Oxford officials cancelled the debate

University administrators canceled the debate, citing safety concerns. Officials did not spell out exactly what their worries were. OSFL then searched for an alternative venue to host the debate, but ended up pulling the plug when no venue would oblige them.

In the Telegraph, Stanley responding by arguing that the parameters of freedom of speech were being redefined by certain segments of the left. "You are free to speak so long as it doesn't offend certain sensibilities, which of course amounts to no real freedom at all."

O'Neill ran an op-ed in The Spectator, cheekily referring to the debate protesters as Stepford Students — his term for those who look and smell like students, but who possess "brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform." He also lambasted Oxford for kowtowing to student protesters:

So at one of the highest seats of learning on Earth, the democratic principle of free and open debate, of allowing differing opinions to slog it out in full view of discerning citizens, has been violated, and students have been rebranded as fragile creatures, overgrown children who need to be guarded against any idea that might prick their souls or challenge their prejudices.

But McIntrye argued that cancellation of the event was not tantamount to censorship. Oxford Students for Life could hold the event and air their views elsewhere, she noted, adding that Christ Church sanctioning the debate would have harmed the women whose lives the debate concerns:

The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue.

In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.

In other words, argued McIntyre, two men mansplaining abortion hurts her and women everywhere, and for that reason the topic isn't for them to discuss.

But Stanley took issue with the men-can't-discuss-abortion claim, arguing that "the idea that an ethical issue can only be debated by the people directly affected by it is self-evidently unintelligent." However, he noted, the planned debate wasn't about whether or not abortion should be permitted, but rather how abortion affects the societies that permit it. Those societies, he notes, are made up of both women and men, which means that both women and men have a stake in this discussion.