Katarina discusses why the SRC should not concede to legal pressure from anti-abortion societies.
*The author recognises that some people who may get an abortion do not identify as women and fully supports the right of any pregnant person to an abortion.
The Student Representative Council is affiliated with over 300 student societies on campus. Affiliation with the SRC is not necessary for a student society to form or hold events on campus, but it comes with several benefits, such as access to SRC grants, the right to book rooms on campus, being allowed to apply for a Freshers’ Fair stall, and the ability to run official Freshers’ Week events. In December 2018, the anti-abortion society Glasgow Students for Life sought affiliation but was turned down. In a letter to the society, the SRC stated that Glasgow Students for Life does not align with the SRC’s values of bodily autonomy due to their belief that pregnant people should not have the right to an abortion. The following year, the society threatened to sue the SRC for discrimination against anti-abortion beliefs, which they claimed to be a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act and EU case law. The SRC folded and re-affiliated the Students for Life society.
The SRC, as a body representing and supporting students at the university, must first-and-foremost consider the impact that their decision not to affiliate with a society has on student well-being, particularly when it comes to vulnerable student populations. Female* university students are a particularly vulnerable group as most are young and often financially dependent on their families. The age demographic of university students makes the debate surrounding anti-abortion societies on campus particularly salient. A fifth of all abortions in 2020 were carried out for women aged 20-24, making female university students one of the most common demographic groups to get abortions. Yet the independent healthcare provider Marie Stopes UK has found that just a third of women in the UK would tell their family if they were considering an abortion. Equally, a third would tell their friends, less than two thirds would tell their sexual partner(s), and 6% of women would not tell anyone apart from a medical professional. Many university students are for the first time responsible for their healthcare in an unfamiliar city, making it all the more concerning that many of them cannot count on support from their friends and families if they get an abortion.
Young university students deserve support from their university in their right to choose whether to have an abortion. Ensuring that students wanting an abortion do not face ambivalent messages about whether the organisation representing them supports their bodily autonomy is important for protecting their mental health, as links have also been found between stigmatisation/lack of support and an increased risk of mental health distress among pregnant people wanting an abortion. The SRC, as an organisation which has student support and well-being as one of its key pillars, should ask itself whether affiliating anti-abortion societies is reconcilable with its responsibility to support and advocate for vulnerable student demographics.
The main argument put forward by the Glasgow anti-abortion society, as well as other anti-abortion societies at UK universities seeking affiliation with student representative bodies, is that denying them the same platforms and opportunities granted to affiliated societies goes against their right to freedom of speech. The SRC may not agree with their values, the argument goes, but should affiliate them nonetheless in the interest of promoting academic debate. Freedom of expression and debate is indeed vital at academic institutions, and as a body which represents the student population, the SRC should promote constructive debate between students with different views. However, allowing anti-abortion societies to form and express their views is different from supporting their attempts to prevent pregnant people from accessing abortions, should they choose to do so. Platforming and financially supporting anti-abortion societies promotes the idea that women’s right to healthcare as an issue up for debate; it perpetuates the idea that abortion rights are a political issue, rather than an issue of allowing pregnant people to determine their own healthcare. The SRC cannot have it both ways by claiming to support pregnant people’s right to bodily autonomy and the depoliticisation of their bodies, whilst simultaneously providing financial and public relations support to societies which deny this right and politicise bodies.
By choosing to end its affiliation with anti-abortion societies, the SRC would be sending a message in support of women’s right to bodily autonomy. Such a decision would not, as explained above, ban anti-abortion societies. The SRC may well face another lawsuit should they choose to unaffiliate Glasgow Students for Life, but that should not prevent it from fighting for an academic environment in which women and other pregnant people feel supported and empowered, rather than ashamed, in their right to make decisions about their healthcare.