The Students’ Union (SU) at Nottingham University have reversed a decision to prevent a pro-life group from affiliating to the SU following legal action.
In June, Nottingham Students’ For Life (NSFL) were rejected from becoming an official society, because the pro-life view did not align with that of the SU. NSFL appealed this decision to the Societies Council, but their application was rejected a second time by majority vote at a meeting.
Officers from Nottingham Student’s Union organised a protest against NSFL outside the building where their application was being discussed, holding posters saying “Don’t tell me what to do” and “Get in the bin”.
It was only after the pro-life group contacted lawyers and proposed to bring legal action against Nottingham Student’s Union that the SU reversed it’s decision. In a statement on their Facebook page NSFL said:
“The [Student] Union’s decision to affiliate us comes following the threat of legal action to the Students’ Union. [Our lawyers] reminded the Union that their decision to reject us not only went against their own policies but against their legal obligation to not discriminate against us on the grounds of belief.”
The group was formed to encourage debate and discussion or pro-life issues and to advocate for pregnant women on campus by ensuring they have options other than abortion available to them.
The pro-life group is describing this as a “victory for freedom of speech”.
Affiliation for student groups with the Students’ Union at a university is important for those groups as it permits them to use university premises for their events and often entitles them to a certain amount of funding. Any student group affiliated with their SU is entitled to these benefits, so preventing a pro-life group from having access to these benefits is clear discrimination.
Censorship of the pro-life view on university campuses is becoming commonplace in the UK with a number of similar instances within the last few years (see here, here and here).
“We have officially been granted the status of an affiliated society with the Union! We are delighted to have received affiliation and are looking forward to being able to promote a culture of life on campus.”
Clare McCarthy from Right To Life UK said:
“This is great news for the pro-life students at Nottingham and the pro-life movement in Britain more generally. The difficulty pro-life groups face in gaining official status in universities has become the norm and Student’s Unions seem very happy to violate their own policies on ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality’ to discriminate against those who take a different view on abortion to them.”
“Universities were once considered the forum in which ideas and opinions were discussed and argued however, more and more we are seeing attempts to censor the pro-life argument from being discussed on campus. This behaviour sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech and expression more generally.”
A pro-life student group at the University of Nottingham have denied affiliation to the Students’ Union on the grounds of their pro-life stance.
In an increasingly long list of instances of discrimination against pro-life groups at British universities, Nottingham Students For Life (NSFL) has found itself unable to be recognised as a society by the Nottingham Student Societies Council on the grounds of the Student’s Union’s own pro-abortion policies.
Being denied recognition as a student society limits what the pro-life group can do on the university campus in terms of; booking rooms for events and being entitled to funding from the university to attend conferences and run events.
Speaking with Right To Life UK, NSFL president, Julia Rynkiewicz informed us that the pro-life group was denied affiliation on the grounds that it conflicted with the Students’ Unions’ support increasing abortion access in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The Student Society Council were also apparently concerned about protecting students from harassment, although the pro-life group made clear that that was not their intention.
The NSFL president explained that the group was formed to encourage debate and discussion or pro-life issues and to advocate for pregnant women on campus by ensuring they have options other than abortion available to them.
Some members of the Student Society Council, who are supposed to assess the fitness of any particular group in becoming a recognised society, are understood to have directly protested against Nottingham Students for Life, raising questions about their impartiality in this regard.
Julia Rynkiewicz, president of NSFL said:
“The Students’ Union are meant to reflect the diversity of our student body. However, in advancing their own extreme abortion agenda and rejecting any sort of pro-life opposition, they are going against their own policies.”
“The fact that the pro-life view is a minority one on campus should not take away our right to exist as a society at the university. We do not hate, harass, judge or condemn anyone. We want every woman to be able to choose life”
Nottingham Students For Life will appeal the decision.
The draft General Comment has been hugely controversial because of its advocacy, in paragraphs 9 and 10, of not only legalised abortion but also assisted suicide and euthanasia. This despite the violation of the right to life that abortion always constitutes, and the abuses and contravention of the right to life that assisted suicide and euthanasia practices both enable.
In recent weeks, Right To Life has mobilised a petition that has enabled people to send comments to the UNHRC on this issue.
In the RTL Submission, Peter dismantles the draft General Comment’s support for anti-life practices, discussing amongst other things, the:
Humanity and international legal rights of the unborn child
Illogicality of deriving a right to abortion from the right to life
Irrelevance of concerns over life and health to abortion provision
Reality of illegal abortion dangers and safety concerns
Need for support for pregnant mothers and unborn children
True meaning of ‘dignity’ and ‘autonomy’
Evidenced harms of assisted suicide and euthanasia, especially to the elderly, those with physical and mental impairments, the terminally and severely ill, and other groups
Failure of limited eligibility criteria and proposed safeguards
Importance of hospice care and reforms to improve palliative services and analgesic medicine
BPAS has launched a new campaign, Just Say Non, which seeks to attempt to lower the cost of levonorgestrel, an ‘emergency’ contraceptive colloquially known as the ‘morning after pill’ (MAP). The reason for the ‘Non’ is that their fairly well-produced campaign video tries to argue that the £30 it costs to buy this pill at the counter is the same as a very cheap trip to France, where one can buy the MAP for €7, allegedly with change to spare:
As arguments go, this is a fairly fun if flippant way to illustrate their point, but it only works if you don’t give it five minutes serious thought. After all, this is ‘emergency’ contraception we’re talking here; there’s a 72 hour window for a woman to get the drug and use it. Given this, I can’t quite work out whether the calculation argument is more batty or puritanical.
I mean, we would all love to live in an alternative reality where you can get a last minute plane ticket to Paris for €20. (“While free movement still applies!” – nudge nudge, wink wink, for the Remainers in the audience.) And maybe that is the sole transport cost if you actually live in an airport and fancy walking from Charles de Gaulle to Kilometre Zero and back. Frankly however, if your idea of a fun holiday in Paris is staying an hour to buy a contraceptive and have a cheap coffee and croissant, then La Ville Lumière is quite simply wasted on you.
Anyway, as enjoyable as pointing out the holes in BPAS propaganda is, you might be wondering why I should be bringing this up at all. After all, this is a blog about life issues; what has emergency contraceptive usage got to do with the right-to-life movement? Admittedly, this is not immediately obvious. A recent discussion helpfully illustrates its relevance however, and helps us clarify what has often been a confused and under-informed controversy.
The other day, Sky News hosted a segment debate between Ann Furedi and Aisling (pronounced ‘Ash-ling’) Hubert, a member of the Evangelical Protestant pressure group Christian Concern, on the BPAS proposals. Hubert has become known in the last year on the issue of abortion due to her attempted private prosecution of two doctors whom a Daily Telegraph investigation in 2012 exposed for sanctioning illegal sex-selective abortions. Her attempt was quashed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), as they shamefully took it over, promptly dropped it, and left her with a legal debt of £47,000. You can see the exchange, here:
If you know the issues at stake here, you’ll have found it a very frustrating discussion. Aside from Hubert’s initial raising of concerns surrounding the taking of powerful synthetic hormones by minors and wider health concerns, elements that were too little touched upon, the rest of the discussion was taken up by both Furedi and Hubert’s disagreement on the nature of the MAP. Unfortunately, both their comments muddied the waters.
In order to see this, and before we go into what they said, it will help first to establish some basic embryological and biochemical facts.
As human beings, we begin to exist as biological entities at conception, when our father’s sperm and our mother’s egg fuse together to become a new entity: the unique embryonic individual that is you or me. This is elementary stuff, and should be obvious to anyone who was paying attention in Year 7 Biology, but I have nonetheless laid out the scientific evidence before and for an excellent written account I recommend the website of the brilliant HEAR campaign on the Isle of Man. In any case, whilst this point marks the beginning of our existence, it is not taken by the consensus of medical science as defining the beginning of pregnancy.
That may seem odd, as we are used to thinking in terms of pregnancy as the period in which a baby, whether at the embryonic or fetal stages of her development, is in her mother’s womb. This initial instinct makes sense, linguistically. The word ‘Pregnant’ is derived from the Latin praegnant-, probably from prae (before) and gnasci (be born). So, our normal idea of pregnancy is that it is the entire period of a child’s existence before birth.
The colloquial understanding does not correspond however, to what the British Medical Association (scroll to page 1, and sub-section What is abortion?) and indeed the courts have said. These define ‘pregnancy’ as beginning at implantation, when the already conceived human being forms a biological connection with her mother and begins to be given nutrients from her.
Such a definition has its own understandable reasoning. After all, the biological reality is that conception takes place not in the uterus, but in one of the two fallopian tubes. The newly conceived unborn child must then pass down into the uterus, and attach to the endometrium, the uterine wall of her mother’s womb. It is at this point that ‘gestation’ begins (that is, ‘[t]he process or period of developing inside the womb between conception and birth’; from gestationemvia similar words meaning ‘to carry’), and this is also when the current consensus defines ‘pregnancy’ to have begun.
I say ‘consensus’, because the established understanding is not due to some magisterial statement from a medical authority, but has come about as responses to the political debate around abortion. Perhaps partially due to this, and the more common – and you might argue, common sensical – understanding of what pregnancy entails, this is all a matter of some legitimate controversy. Nonetheless, this is the established state of things, and there seems little point arguing the toss: the human being begins at conception, and pregnancy (the carrying or gestation of a new human being) begins at implantation.
What is the relevant consequence of this? Quite simply, it determines the language we use when we talk about drugs that are used to ‘prevent pregnancy’, based on the different potential effects they may cause. There are three distinctions we must make:
Contraception: Derived from ‘contra-’ (against), and a shortened form of ‘conception’, this is any method that prevents conception from occurring (i.e. prevent sperm from meeting an egg).
Abortifacience: This describes drugs (‘abortifacients’) that cause a miscarriage through causing the degradation of the endometrium or womb lining that develops in pregnancy, and which gives nutrients to the unborn child. One example of this is RU-486, also known as the ‘abortion pill’. This is an anti-progestin, which means that it blocks progesterone, a hormone necessary for the maintenance of the womb lining. This causes the lining to break down, and starves to death the developing embryonic or fetal human being.
Contragestion: This is the third much lesser known action. The word ‘contragestion’ is derived from ‘contra-’ and gestation, so ‘against gestation’, and was coined in 1985 by the French biochemist and endocrinologist Étienne-Émile Baulieu, who concluded that a technical term was needed to describe the prevention of implantation, which did not fit the traditional definitions of either ‘contraception’ or ‘abortion’. What contragestives do is prevent the already conceived child from implantingin the mother’s womb by disrupting the development of the womb lining, which is necessary for the embryo to implant in her mother’s womb. This as with abortifacience prevents her from receiving the nutrients she needs to survive, and so she perishes.
What distinguishes abortifacients and contragestives is therefore their biological effect: abortifacients end the gestation [pregnancy] of an already implanted unborn child, whilst contragestives prevent the implantation (and thus gestation) of an already conceived child. This is what leads to the medical and legal distinction: what is seen to be ‘aborted’ in abortion is a pregnancy, and thus if implantation has already happened, then pregnancy has begun, and the disruption of this is the aborting of a pregnancy. If implantation has not yet occurred however, then the prevention of this taking place is a ‘contra-gestion’ (an action against the beginning of pregnancy). So, since contragestives do not end an already beginning pregnancy, they are not counted as abortifacients, but as a distinct chemical agent.
This is a neat distinction, but of course what should be immediately obvious is that contragestion is essentially morally equivalent to abortifacience. In both cases, the already-conceived unborn child is killed by being starved of the nutrients she needs to survive, either by the ending of a gestation that is already taking place or of one which is about to take place.
Given the neatness of the biological distinction, and the consequential moral equivalence, it isn’t difficult to see why language in this area is so frequently confused. Even Baulieu, the aforementioned coiner of ‘contragestive’, used it in reference to RU-486, a drug that is properly speaking abortifacient in the way it works. Worse, even though as we have seen the word ‘contraception’ classically refers to the preventing of conception, it is colloquially used to describe:
“The deliberate use of artificial methods or other techniques to prevent pregnancy as a consequence of sexual intercourse. The major forms of artificial contraception are: barrier methods, of which the commonest is the condom or sheath; the contraceptive pill, which contains synthetic sex hormones which prevent ovulation in the female; intrauterine devices, such as the coil, which prevent the fertilised ovum from implanting in the uterus; and male or female sterilisation”.
So, the irrationally and unhelpfully wide semantic domain of ‘contraception’ now effectively conflates both contraceptive and contragestive agency, even though these are biologically distinct chemical effects.
Given how careless our language is on these issues, it’s little surprise that the concept of contragestion is relatively unknown, and that so many people on either side of the abortion debate see only a strict dichotomy between contraceptives and abortifacients. On the one hand, right-to-lifers can often assume that when we talk of abortion, we mean any action from conception onwards that kills an unborn child, and so they label drugs that have contragestive effects as abortifacients. On the other, abortion lobbyists, seeing that contragestives are not defined as abortifacients, assert blindly that they are therefore purely contraceptives.
Further, and coming to the nub of the issue, this linguistic problem is compounded by chemical reality: there are no pure contragestives, because chemicals with contragestive qualities are always primarily meant as ‘emergency contraceptives’.
Ulipristal acetate (Ella) for example, like RU-486, is an anti-progestin. It blocks progesterone, and works mainly by stopping or delaying the ovaries from releasing an egg. Since (again, as with RU-486) the blocking of progesterone retards the womb lining, this means that it carries the potential to be contragestive. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates all chemicals that act to prevent or to end pregnancy, states that:
“[Ulipristal Acetate] works mainly by stopping or delaying the ovaries from releasing an egg. It may also work by changing the lining of the womb (uterus) that may affect attachment (implantation)”.
That is, whilst it is primarily a contraceptive, it can have a secondary contragestive effect. Crucially for the Sky News exchange between Furedi and Hubert, the same is true of levonorgestrel, the MAP. This does not block progesterone, but is a pill with a progestin hormone (a synthetic version of progesterone). Contrary to what Hubert claimed, there is no NHS statement of the contragestive effect of the drug (in fact, both national and local information I have looked at is entirely silent on that specific issue). The Family Planning Association (FPA) does admit it however, and the FDA states in the same page as previously linked to that:
“[Levonorgestrel] works mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. It may also work by preventing fertilisation of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg) or by preventing attachment (implantation) to the womb (uterus)”.
Consequently, both Hubert and Furedi were quite right, and quite wrong. In her beginning comments, Hubert was absolutely correct to point out that:
“[T]his is also about preventing implantation, which is when the sperm and the egg [have] already met, and you’ve got a unique, whole, alive, human being, and it’s going to be prevented from implanting inside the womb… It is actually causing the end of a unique, whole, human life”.
“[I]t is really that everybody understands that… this pill cannot cause an abortion. If you’re already pregnant, it doesn’t work”.
As we can see, however, these two statements are not mutually exclusive. Levonorgestrel cannot cause an abortion, but it does end the life of a unique human being, and regardless of what we call it this is (as Hubert points out) a human rights concern.
Unfortunately however, this point was obscured by Hubert’s claim that “this isn’t just preventing pregnancy”, and that “it has abortifacient qualities”. In fact, the MAP is just about preventing pregnancy, as defined by the current medical and legal consensus, and is therefore not an abortifacient. By repeatedly and erroneously insisting that it is, as well as unfairly calling the denial of this a ‘lie’, Hubert enabled Furedi to employ the medico-legal consensus in her favour by again correctly stating that:
“If this Pill were a method of abortion, it could only be used in an abortion clinic. It could not be issued by pharmacists at all because the abortion law regulates abortion”.
This gave Furedi quite a bit of cover whilst she herself mischaracterised the nature of levonorgestrel. Just as Hubert wrongly insisted that the MAP is an abortifacient, so Furedi misleadingly asserted that the MAP is a contraceptive on the grounds that that “[t]echnically, contraception stops a pregnancy from being established”. We have seen that as a matter of definition this is true, but it is not the whole story, since the normal meaning of ‘contraception’ wrongly includes the distinct concept of contragestion.
It also allowed Furedi to undermine Hubert’s intellectual trustworthiness by caricaturing her as having:
“[A] completely fundamentalist attitude to what contraception is… [and] a perverse and very unscientific notion of what abortion is and what pregnancy is”.
This was false, as Hubert rightly accounted the embryological facts and the potential biological effect of levonorgestrel, even if she mistakenly cast it as abortifacient. Still, this followed on from Furedi’s adoption earlier in the discussion of a very typical abortion lobby trope. Whilst Hubert later unfairly accused Furedi of lying, earlier Furedi similarly imputed a degree of mendacity to Hubert, when she exhorted her to:
“… [b]e honest and say that [you oppose the MAP] for moral reasons, it’s that “we don’t think that these young people should be having sex”, because there is absolutely no other reason why it shouldn’t be available…”
The common abortion lobby slur here is that right-to-lifers are less interested in human rights than they are controlling the bodies or sexuality of others. That Furedi should genuinely employ this silly instance of the abortion lobby’s deluded demonology only illustrates the confusion and incomprehension of her appreciation of this topic. Yes, the MAP is a contraceptive, but it is also a contragestive, which is why Hubert was crucially correct in stating that, “of course this is a moral issue”: that distinct effect kills an innocent unborn human being at one of the earliest stages of their existence.
If you know, as Furedi certainly does, the case for the humanity and personhood of the unborn child, and that this necessarily applies after the human being begins to exist at conception, then there is no way you can claim that “there is absolutely no other reason why” someone might oppose the availability of contragestive drugs. Unless, that is, you are unaware of this element of the MAP’s biological effect. Only this charitably explains how she can straight-facedly paper over this distinct effect and search for alternative explanations as to why someone else would oppose it.
The Furedi/Hubert Sky News segment was hugely flawed then, but also very helpfully illustrative. One thing it shows is the importance of care and precision for right-to-lifers in our use of language. It might be tempting for some to consider the terminological consensus fundamentally broken, or even deliberately biased, and insist on referring to contragestives as abortifacients because there is no moral difference between them. All such people will achieve, however, is their effective exclusion from the primary discussion, or else an undermining of their advocacy, as they allow themselves to be presented as unscientific rubes, or dishonest peddlars of crypto-religiose woo. The current language is largely rational; a better tack would be to use it well enough so as to be able to bring out the ill-informed and irrational arguments of our opponents.
This is quite literally vital, because of what else was illustrated by the segment: the confused and ill-informed public awareness regarding the science and ethics of emergency contraception. A lot of time was wasted in what was a conversation spoilt by a failure to note important distinctions. And I say ‘important’ for good reason. These nuances aren’t just matters of pedantry, but inform the way that ordinary right-to-lifers morally live their own lives in consistency with their own principles. It isn’t just Levonelle and Ella, but according to the NHS also IUDs, and according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) and the FPA, even progestin-only pills and injections, that have contragestive effects.
Much can be debated about whether various forms of contraception are contragestive, and we should be open-minded and throughly evidence-based in considering such matters. By knowing as best we currently can the full effects of these drugs and devices however, and carefully describing them according to the accepted terminology, not only can right-to-lifers be better informed and able to live out their conscientious principles, we can more effectively advocate for them in the public square, and show that it is our position that is most in keeping with physical and moral reality.
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