By Frances Howe, LLB
Content warning: abortion, ‘pro-life’ perspectives and sexual assault
On 13 October 2021, hundreds of students at the University of Exeter gathered to protest against the University of Exeter’s Students’ Guild’s support for the Exeter Students for Life society (ESFL). The sit-in was organised by Sit Down N Shut Up, a movement created this March to raise awareness on the rising sexual assault cases occurring at the university.
ESFL states that they ‘promote and encourage a culture of life among the students on our university campus at Exeter. We advocate against abortion, promoting the dignity of human life and striving for its protection.’ The society, which costs five pounds to join, is affiliated with the Exeter University Students’ Guild. The Guild has said that the society has never received any funding from them.
Via social media on 27 July 2021, the student president of ESFL stated that they are ‘pro-life and anti-abortion because I want to end the murders happening every day and because I want to see people saved.’ They also stated that ‘abortion is part of the rebellion against God’ and equated participating in abortion as a sin.
The society does not identify with any religious affiliation. Instead, it identifies as secular. Despite this, the society this year had organised ‘prayer vigils’ outside of abortion centres. In a private Facebook group titled Pro-Life Exeter, a post on 26 June advertised the ‘40 days for life campaign’ stating: ‘There will be prayer vigils outside of an abortion centre to publicly pray, witnessing and visual displays. This will be done peacefully and will act as a way to educate others (mothers, people passing by, pro-choice people etc.).’
The University of Exeter’s Students’ Guild published a statement on 4 October 2021 in defence of its affiliation with the society: ‘As your Students’ Guild, we support freedom of speech. We want to foster an environment where our members can participate fully, feel able to question and challenge, express new ideas, discuss controversial and or unpopular opinions within the law – all without fear of intolerance or discrimination.’
“…not only does it trigger and shame anyone that has had an abortion, but it may prevent people from making the right decisions for themselves should they ever be in such a position.”
Sit Down N Shut Up has published two open letters directed to the University of Exeter and to the Students’ Guild. In the letter dated 4 October 2021, the organisation stated: ‘By allowing this society to push an anti-choice narrative on campus, not only does it trigger and shame anyone that has had an abortion, but it may prevent people from making the right decisions for themselves should they ever be in such a position.’ This letter had gained 2441 student signatures by 20 October 2021.
In the open letter dated 12 October 2021, Sit Down N Shut Up responded to statements made by the Guild. The group demanded ‘the immediate disaffiliation of the ‘Exeter Students for Life’ society,’ an apology from the Guild to the student body, and increased transparency in how societies can gain affiliation with the Guild including any safeguards to ensure that societies ‘do not threaten the welfare of students.’
As of 19 October 2021, an online petition calling for the disaffiliation of the society by the Guild had gained over 9,000 signatures.
According to the Tab, Oxford and Exeter are accompanied by a further 15 out of 24 Russell Group universities to have ‘pro-life’ societies. On 7 October 2021, students at the University of Oxford removed parts of the Oxford Students for Life freshers fair stall. According to an article published in The Telegraph on 7 October, several students placed pamphlets displayed at the stall into a bin on the second day of the fair.
Oxford Students for Life published a statement on Twitter in response to The Telegraph article and stated ‘We were sorry that a small minority of students thought such intimidation tactics were ok, or would be effective.’ The society has since disabled the ability to leave comments on their Instagram page.
In speaking with the SOAS Spirit on 15 October 2021, a spokesperson for the Oxford University Students’ Union stated: ‘Unlike most student unions, Oxford SU has no control over which student societies can exist, the rules they have to follow or the materials that they choose to publish or promote. Societies are registered by our Proctors’ Office, which is a central university body – so student societies (including OSFl) receive no funding from us, and we have no say in whether they are formally recognised or not.’
The statement also included: ‘All registered societies are allowed to have a stall at the Fair so long as they apply for a spot on time, and we cannot turn away any registered society on the grounds of their beliefs, in accordance with our university’s rules on free speech.’
Photo Caption: Exeter University students at the sit-in on 13 October 2021 (Credit: Max Brownridge).