“I have made a moral judgement, and I’ve decided that it is worse – infinitely worse – to force a living, breathing, autonomous individual to do something against her will than it is to terminate an as-yet unformed, potential human life. That is the bottom line for me: the freedom and autonomy of a woman are more important than the continued existence of a fetus.”
It’s difficult to imagine a clearer and stronger articulation for abortion rights than this. Although there’s a conversation to be had about when a fetus becomes fully human, notes its author, the idea that a woman should be forced to carry it to term denies women the “moral agency to take greater control over their bodies and futures.”
These remarks and others were to be spoken last Tuesday at Christ Church — a constituent college of the University of Oxford in the U.K. — as part of a debate on abortion. Unfortunately these words were never uttered, nor were those of the opposing side. That’s because some 300 students succeeded in getting the debate canceled by threatening to attend it with instruments in hand so they could disrupt the exchange.
The reason? Both debaters were to be men.
Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill — author of the aforementioned quote as well as this piece decrying his censors — and historian Timothy Stanley were to debate the motion, “This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All,” with obviously O’Neill opposed, and Stanley for. Lest I be accused of misrepresenting the objections to the holding of this debate, allow me to quote Niamh McIntyre, one of the event’s loudest critics:
“Instead of inviting women to speak, the group decided that two men…. were better placed to discuss the issue. They thought it was appropriate to let men discuss if and when women should be able to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies. Neither will ever have to consider having an abortion. As you can imagine, those of us with uteruses were incredibly angry that they were able to speak for and over us.”
If a person is pro-choice, that person ipso facto believes that “women should be able to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies.” It seems McIntyre is saying that even if a man is pro-choice, his uterus-less existence renders him unfit to talk about abortion.
We’ve seen similar objections from pro-choice advocates when they lament the dearth of female lawmakers or witnesses in congressional committees and hearings pertaining to women’s reproductive rights. Of course, they have every reason to be outraged. After all, these legislators are not having a debate simply for the sake of having it, but rather to enact an agenda with real consequences for the lives of millions of women. At the same time, however, merely having women on a panel about reproductive rights hardly means they will advocate for abortion access. Banal as it may seem to point out, there are women are are anti-abortion and men who are pro-choice, but given McIntyre’s reasoning, the opinion of the man — with whom she agrees — is invalidated because he doesn’t have a uterus.
But this isn’t how debate works, or life for that matter.
Every day, women the world over undergo treatment and receive care for ills such as breast and endometrial cancer from male doctors. Similarly, men receive treatment and care for prostate cancer from female doctors. Who but an Oxford feminist would maintain that those men are unfit provide women medical care for women’s ailments, and that those women are unfit to provide medical care for men’s ailments because they don’t share the same reproductive organs as their patients?
I would hope no one, and that the only thing a patient wants in a doctor is the ability to treat and cure, and not a uterus or a prostate. Ailing patients who wish to be well should care as much about the sex of their doctors as much as they care about the color of their eyes. Medical treatments and medical skill do not have sexes and neither do ideas. They must be assessed on their merits. To judge an idea based on the person who holds it is to commit the ad hominem fallacy. It’s wrong and just plain intellectually lazy.
But McIntyre’s initial objection becomes a moot point, as we see that the bigger issue for her is the mere notion of the debate itself:
“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 [sic] a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil [sic] to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.
“Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical.”
As much as McIntyre and I wish abortion were always legal and everyone were pro-choice, this is obviously not the case. Though a higher percentage of Britons than Americans support abortion rights, opinion isn’t exactly unanimous across the pond. Furthermore, varying degrees of abortion restrictions remain throughout the U.K. And regardless of public opinion on, or legal status of abortion, the notion that a topic shouldn’t be up for debate at a university is fundamentally anathema to everything such an institution should stand for.
Just as troubling here is McIntyre’s belief that a debate can have “a detrimental effect on mariginalised groups.” Like the Berkeley students petitioning against Bill Maher’s upcoming commencement speech, what McIntyre is saying is that some people’s mental constitutions are so feeble that they must be protected from “the idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate.” This sentiment is not at all unlike some of the arguments made against women’s suffrage, when many men asserted that “politics are necessarily corrupting,” and it is therefore necessary to keep women out of such business.
“This isn’t censorship. This is a fundamental part of free debate and free speech. It’s the right of students to say, ‘You know that thing you said you were going to talk about? Well I don’t think it’s going to be any good. And in fact I think it’s going to be damaging to our life and our university and this is our way of saying so.'”
Truth be told, the only “damaging” aspect of this fiasco is giving students the false impression they have the right to be protected from discussion that makes them uncomfortable. But there is no right to be comfortable in this way, despite the insistence to the contrary by some. It is not the obligation of a university or any other institution to shield every single person from every idea that could possibly offend their sensitivities. And any university that does so not only violates its charge as an institution of higher learning and a forum for the free exchange of ideas, but does the students it’s sheltering a grave disservice by giving them the expectation that as they go through life they can demand to be free from any and all offenses.