A referendum has been called to decide whether the Students’ Union should adopt the motion “Support the Right to Choose”.
Impact spoke to the students leading both sides of the campaign.
Fran Cowling is leading the Yes campaign. She was also the member of Students’ Union council who proposed that the motion goes to referendum: “I didn’t think it was right to leave it to council given members might not have fully consulted their constituents. People might feel it’s a waste of money but actually the Union is asking you for your opinion rather than being hush-hush through council”.
The motivations for this motion are not just based in the Union’s approach to the issues raised by the Right to Choose motion: “The UK has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU and Ireland. Adopting this policy means that the Union supports a change in national policy to make it fairer for UK citizens”.
Fran also noted: “Women can experience harassment when they go to clinics. Abort67, a group who came here last semester to protest, have actually followed women or stood outside clinics and harassed women. Abortion is a difficult decision to make anyway, the last thing you need is someone telling you you’re a bad person”.
A part of the motion resolves to: “Support the Women’s Network in providing a counter demonstration to any groups which present a threat to women’s safety and/or intend to restrict reproductive rights from harassing students on campus”.
Even if the motion does not pass, Fran says the Women’s Network will “still be vocal. The WN will still go ahead and do what they think is right; they’re elected in that role. It’s in the motion as a safeguard. We had a hard time when Abort67 came. We felt isolated and under supported. In future we would like more support from the Union; we were actively under attack.
“[If the motion is passed] we can reprimand the Union. If the motion falls then we can’t hold them to account”.
One of the members of the No campaign who has been outspoken on the issue is Luke Mitchell, current Democracy and Communications Officer in the Students’ Union. Fran commented: “Luke has a lot of male privilege. He’ll never be in a situation where he might have been raped or had an accident. The same goes for Elliott [Johnston], the head of No campaign. They’re never going to find themselves in that situation unless they find a uterus hidden in there somewhere.
“At the end of the day, people like Luke are never going to find themselves in that situation, and I want that guarantee that I’m going to have safety”.
In response to claims that this will change the existing stance of the Union, she commented: “We’re already a pro-choice Union. The policy that lapsed had to be renewed; there was a meeting with some of the liberation officers where some people felt that the sexual health and the abortion policy should be submitted separately”.
However there have been questions raised as to the relevance of the Union having a stance on such a private and personal ethical issue. Fran argued: “The Union supported equal marriage; I think that’s more contentious than abortion. Ultimately you have to ask ‘is the policy hurting anyone?’ And no, it is not hurting anyone”.
Impact contributor Charlotte Abbs wrote an article outlining the danger in adopting this policy: “The Students’ Union is supposed to represent the students of our University. This should be regardless of religious or political beliefs. It is not appropriate for the Union to take a side in ongoing debates such as the morality of abortion.”
Fran responded: “We don’t live in a pro-life society; this policy doesn’t alienate [students]. We’re not saying we’re pro-choice. It has been like this for the past three years, it’s been in the big red book [the Union constitution]”.
In the case of a No vote in the referendum, Fran said the safeguarding of the welfare students seeking abortions at the University was not guaranteed: “I know that sounds really horrible but its true.
“Its vital that the Union has as part of its guidelines that the Union has support for those choosing to have an abortion or to continue with pregnancy, so that students in vulnerable situations know that if they turn to the Union they wont face judgement”.
Her hopes for the turnout are at least to reach the 10% needed for quoracy, especially given that people can abstain as well as vote Yes or No: “I feel passionately about people having a say in the Union, even if they abstain or vote No. The reason I asked for a referendum was so that the students had an active say in this policy”.
Elliott Johnson is leading the No campaign: “I don’t believe the SU should actually be involved with this. It’s just a waste of time, a bit of rubbish really. People can get very passionate about these debates but really it’s not an issue for the SU to be involved with.”
When asked why he was taking his stance in the referendum, Elliott answered, “I can’t put myself in the shoes of a woman, because I’m not one, but I can put myself in the shoes of someone who needs help.”
“If they want to have policies they should be on education or student welfare. I don’t think it should be anything to do with a very personal, moral issue,” he added, speaking to Impact.
In his blog post on the issue Elliott termed the SU “fools”, saying they lived in “Cloud Cuckoo land” and called for the SU to “Resign!”.
He also posed the question, “[do] the SU president and his staff [want] to perform abortions in the Portland Building?”
Elliott, who is ‘pro-choice’, also says the Union should not ‘waste [students] money on such nonsense’, saying the money would be better spent on training courses for the Women’s Network.
“We’ve been given money for the campaign, the democracy officers have been on it, it has been going through the SU for a while, council time and the executives time have been taken up, and a lot of the women’s network time has been going into this.
“Surely [the money] should be spent on the women’s network and actually helping people with abortion. It seems a little counter intuitive to me.”
When talking about Charlotte Abbs’ reaction earlier this year to the potential SU pro-choice stance, Elliott agreed with her, saying,
“The Students’ Union is supposed to bring people together not be divisive. This referendum and this policy are definitively not being inclusive. “
When asked about his expected turnout, Elliott said he did not think it would reach quorate, saying, “Most people actually agree with us but they won’t vote. There’s a lot of student apathy.”
Despite his opinions on the motion put forward by the Women’s Network, Elliott did credit the Network for “trying to focus more on big issues for women,” but said that “they’re going about it in completely the wrong way, and are actually not helping.”
“We already have a very good Women’s Network working to help people with abortion, and they do hold counter demonstrations. I just don’t think that we need to have a policy on it, which I think will restrict people in what they believe.”
“Let’s not concentrate on the words. Let’s concentrate on the actions,” he added.
Antonia Paget and Emily Tripp