Philippa Taylor

Censuring debate and free speech at Oxford University

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

oxfordNot for the first time, a college at a top UK university has completely shut down an attempt to organise a balanced debate on abortion.

Are the students running scared of possible credible opposition to their ‘abortion is the answer to everything’ mindset, by closing down all conversation with those who disagree, rather than engaging with it?

Or are they simply unaware (despite being – apparently – amongst the brightest students in the UK) that by shutting down any views other than their own they are being both intolerant and utterly illiberal?  And they could now be open to a legal challenge.

Christ Church Oxford have refused permission to debate the motion: ‘This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All‘, featuring historian Tim Stanley proposing the motion and Spiked Editor and Big Issue Columnist Brendan O’Neill opposing.

It was only last year that the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign also tried to shut down a debate on abortion: ‘Genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion’. This was despite the fact that they had speaking on their side Anne Furedi, CEO of the UK’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and a well-known and confident protagonist on abortion issues.

It certainly seems like pro-abortion students at both Universities are fearful of any debate.  Instead of engaging with opponents of their views, and presenting and arguing for their own views, they run scared and cry foul, and stop all debate completely (which then neatly brings it to wider public attention!).

The irony of this, and indeed the absolute stupidity of it, did not pass by Furedi, when she wrote a stinging article in Spiked last year, extolling the value and necessity of debate.

For a start, she pointed out, how can we possibly win an argument if we don’t even join in the debate?! If people only hear one side of the argument they will be more likely to be convinced by it.

Second, Furedi says, if we take our ideas seriously, debate is essential to test and develop our ideas and to persuade others.

Third, pitting our own arguments against an opponent is one of the best ways to learn to be more clear, concise and precise, especially if the opponents are able and informed and there is a moderator to keep order.

Fourth (and most telling in this situation), she points out that when we try to silence someone, we simply tell the world we fear what they might say.

Furedi says: ‘Whether they [their opponents] succeed or not depends on how we engage with those arguments – which we won’t do well unless we listen, answer and debate…’

She concludes: ‘You don’t have to be a Cambridge intellectual to understand why debate and discussion should be encouraged.’ (Although in this case it seems that being a Cambridge or Oxford intellectual means you may not understand the need for debate).

It seems particularly ironic, though, that it is at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities of all places, centres for thinking, learning and debating, that an opportunity for engagement and discussion on a controversial, but legal procedure, has been shut down and debate has been gagged.

At one level, a lesson to take from this is that we must all engage with our opponents (whatever ‘side’ we are on) and we cannot simply close down the conversation when we disagree. But at another level, this is a bigger issue because freedom of speech is precious and without freedom of speech, and the freedom to articulate beliefs without fear, no other freedoms are safe.


Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy



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