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  • Meher Vepari

“Coerced abortion”: the insidious facade of ‘pro-life’ ideology at Edinburgh University

After a contentious talk organised by Edinburgh Life Society was disrupted by numerous individuals and student groups, Meher Vepari reflect on the messaging and implications of their campaign:

Artwork by Mariam Tovmasian (IG: @tomwunderbar).

Three weeks ago, a student-run ‘pro-life’ society organised a talk at the University of Edinburgh. I put ‘pro-life’ in quotation marks because the society and wider movement is not, fundamentally pro-life, but anti-choice. To be pro life is to value life and protect it in all aspects. And if an abortion protects a mother, then that is pro-life. Edinburgh Life Society is an anti-choice group.

The talk took place in the basement of 40 George Square at 7.30pm. Most of the building lights were off, leaving us to walk in semi darkness. It was ominous from the start. The room itself was much fuller than I expected; I surveyed the crowd, spotting a row of people at the back holding protest signs and a group of FemSoc members. I was relived that the crowd seemed overwhelmingly non ‘pro-life.’ The Life Soc president introduced their speaker, Margaret Akers, an Edinburgh University graduate and current member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). She began her talk by welcoming everyone and saying how happy she was to see so many new faces. But her voice betrayed the enthusiastic sentiment; she was very, very nervous.

Perhaps because in the build-up to this talk, Life Soc received a huge amount of online backlash within the University’s student community. While neither EUSA* or the University of Edinburgh commented on the matter, FemSoc openly denounced the university for allowing the talk to take place on campus. The comment section on Life Soc’s post about the event was overwhelmed with voices of anger and rejection. She knew she’d be facing a rough crowd.

On the SPUC website, under What We Do, you can find the core of their message, of their “VISION” as written themselves:

A world where abortion is unthinkable.

But they didn’t state this from the start – it took an intervention by student activists, heated discussion and relentless questioning until Akers admitted to being anti-abortion herself. Acker’s intial message was that many women are forced into having abortions, and the NHS doesn’t adequately screen for this kind of coercion and abuse. Backed up by numerous anecdotes and dubious statistics, this narrative was repeated throughout the evening by Akers and members of Life Soc. Activists and audience members questioned how banning abortion would end coercion, but their answers were vague and evasive. When probed on their support for the ‘pro-life vigils’ taking place outside abortion clinics, they claimed they had no involvement in the organisation.

In Scotland and England the introduction of 150m buffer zones around abortion clinics, in which 'pro-life vigils' would be illegal to hold, has been debated in Parliament over the past few months. When someone brought up the fact that SPUC encouraged people to write to their MPs in protest against this proposed law, Akers replied casually, “I just don’t organise them, but I support them.” Throughout further debate on buffer zones and their 2012 homophobic petition against the legalisation of gay marriage, they insisted on sticking to the topic of the talk, an effort in vain as the rest of the room rejected this obliqueness. Despite Akers agreeing to “cede the floor to a wider discussion,” the answers that the room demanded about how banning abortion would end coercion and violence were largely evaded.

As the conversation tumbled on, there was a word which stuck with me, one I don’t use lightly: insidious. The messages and ideals that SPUC and Life Soc propagate are, fundamentally, insidious. Their slides detailed the traumatic events of physical and emotional abuse pregnant people faced, with the aim of aborting their child. The emphasis was always on the fact that they were coerced and therefore banning abortion was a benign act to end coercion. This is blatantly nonsensical. If the issue is coercion, then why focus on abortion – should the emphasis not, rather, be on tackling the systems of coercion that continue to oppress and control people with uteruses? They deflected this question until it was finally stated by the society’s president that they viewed abortion as murder. They believe that from the time of conception, a foetus is a human life. And so they inadvertently admitted that the issue wasn’t about coercion, or about the violence pregnant people may be subjected to when stuck in abusive environments.

They use annecdotes of trauma as a smoke screen to hide anti-abortion ideology behind. If these are true stories, then SPUC are utilising abuse in order to justify their generalised, scientifically disproven statements. If the anecdotes are fictionalised, then their entire sense of compassion for coerced people is simply a tool to further manipulate their target audience. Either way, this is a form of coercion. And it is abhorrent. And it made a lot of people in the room really, really angry.

On top of spreading blatant misinformation - such as claiming most people are simply sent abortions “in the post” with no prior NHS official screening, and that legal and illegal abortions are effectively as safe as each other - the response to those who bravely shared their own personal experiences of abortion and miscarriage was blatantly disrespectful. The first to do so was one of the activists, who shared her recent experience of abortion and why groups such as SPUC and Life Soc make the decision so much harder for people in her position. The second person shared their story to disprove the claim that the NHS abortion services failed to screen people adequately for abuse. The third talked about their recent, unexpected pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, and how crucial it was for them to be in a country where abortive services were accessible.

Akers' response to each of these was to thank them for sharing, express how glad she was that this was their experience, but to reiterate that “most women” - or rather, “the women I’ve spoken to” - have had very different experiences. Her own research cited only one set of statistics, taken from a wider BBC study about reproductive coercion; the rest of her evidence was purely anecdotal. Not only does this study lack scientific evidence, which is massively problematic for a talk given in an educational institute, it also gave Akers no basis to disregard the stories that the activists and other audience members shared.

At these points, they undermined their own arguments. When a pro-life student brought up “classical liberalism,” it was such an absurdly unrelated topic half the room couldn’t help but laugh. When the Life Soc secretary said that the people at ‘pro-life’ vigils who “do not shout, [..] scream or do any of these horrible, nasty things” also “might” hold up photos of dead babies, the irony was so obvious it was somewhat comical. I fundamentally believe everyone should have the right to access abortion should they wish, therefore I sometimes find it hard to believe how anyone, especially other women, can subscribe to anti-choice mentality. But, even if Edi Life Soc didn’t have the biggest membership, we have seen the huge influence of the anti-choice movement – one only has to look to the US, where abortion has been banned in 13 states and that is expected to increase, to be reminded of the dangerous influence these groups have.

Political influence stems from ideological influence. Life Soc, SPUC, and the wider anti-choice movement, by seeking to remove this layer of bodily autonomy, are reinforcing the concept of a ‘woman’s duty’ to protect life at all costs; to sacrifice herself for her God-given purpose of childbearing, to suffer the burden of an unwanted pregnancy - all because bearing life is ultimately her duty. On a document intended to be used as “Written Evidence” against the introduction of buffer zones, SPUC claims that they “present an alternative [to abortion] in a peaceful and loving way”. They go on to state that –

" The Court of Appeal decision on Dulgheriu cites the women who use the Ealing abortion clinic: "Some are children. Some are victims of rape. Some are carrying foetuses with abnormalities, even fatal abnormalities. Some may not have told friends or family … They may be in physical pain and suffering acute psychological and emotional issues both when attending and leaving the Centre." These are precisely the women to whom peaceful pro-life people offer help, and many accept that help. "

This is a sickening statement. SPUC aims to eradicate abortion for everyone – through their vigils, they seek to monopolise people’s vulnerability. Whether the person is a child, a victim of rape, financially unable to provide for a child, or physically endangered by pregnancy – the message under all these layers of doctrine is that to bear a child is the woman’s duty. While they claim to be “peaceful”, their message is manipulative and harmful: they should not be given a platform to spread their regressive ideologies.

As it became increasingly evident that the concern for coerced women was an insincere façade for anti-choice theory, it also became clearer how truly ingrained this ideology was amongst the pro-lifers in the room. In response to the activists’ message that SPUC and Life Soc were not wanted at the university, a pro-life student said, “This is our university too. You know that, right?” This phrase stayed in my mind. It was true, technically. Taking away an official platform is crucial, but doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that this ideology remains.

Perhaps there is nothing to be done about this. But the most important thing is to ensure adequate education and access to abortions is provided for everyone. It is vital to tackle the systems of coercion, so that sex, contraception, pregnancy and abortion are truly always a choice for people, and anti-choice groups aren’t able to utilise someone’s trauma to advance their own agenda.

If you believe that life begins at conception, and that abortion is murder, then don’t get an abortion. Simple. The right to choose is the right to freedom. Enjoy your freedom, and have the basic human decency to respect the freedom of others.

*Following the event, EUSA held a vote, the outcome of which defined them as an explicitly pro-choice group.

See a recent Guardian publication about what different stages of a pregnancy really look like.

See @youthinresistance’s instagram for more information about the event and wider student activism in Edinburgh.

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