12 April 2019
by Margaret Akers
This week was the annual National Union of Students (NUS) Conference in Glasgow. Thursday marked the last day, and pro-life students gathered to protest outside – calling on the NUS to respect and defend their freedom of speech.
The NUS is meant to represent student unions across the UK, and by extension their students. And yet – they continue to promote pro-abortion campaigns and publish resources that discriminate against those who identify as pro-life.
In the lead up to the referendum on the eight amendment in Ireland – the NUS promoted the #hometov8te campaign. They encouraged eligible Irish students to travel home to vote in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
Keep Campuses Pro-Choice
In 2015, the NUS produced a resource titled ‘Keep Campuses Pro-Choice’. This resource advises student unions on how to pass pro-choice policies, how to affiliate with Abortion Rights, and how to counteract pro-life groups on campus.
It states: ‘As a result of the establishment of the ‘Alliance of Pro Life Students’ there have been more anti-choice groups set up in University Student Unions, and we believe it is important for Student Unions to be confident in their ability to be pro-choice.’
It also advises on how to undermine pro-life societies on campus, saying, ‘If the anti-choice group or society has a website or Facebook page, explore the page to familiarise yourself with their beliefs and their links. Believing in something like a link between abortion and breast cancer discredits their other beliefs which can get others who may be influenced by them back on your side.’
Additionally, some Student Unions who are affiliated with the NUS have denied Union affiliation to pro-life student groups.
This year, on the last day of the NUS conference, a NUS twitter page tweeted out a ‘photocall’ in support of the #TrustUs campaign in support of decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland – and later posted the photo.
This campaign seeks to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland – without the extension of the 1967 Act (and the restrictions that come with it) and without a referendum. The campaign website states: ‘We believe that access to abortion is a human right and that the bodily autonomy of every pregnant person should be respected.’
Student Union Discrimination
Not only does the NUS openly promote pro-abortion policy, but it does not stand up in defence of the freedom of speech of pro-life students.
Regarding the NUS, Bernadette Waddelove, Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students stated, ‘The NUS’ own President from 2017-19, Shakira Martin, described conversations about free speech on campus as ‘annoying’ and a ‘distraction’. With her as the example of how important freedom of speech should be to student unions, it is perhaps no surprise that blatant censorship has prevented pro-life societies in Aberdeen and Edinburgh being affiliated with their unions’.
In Scotland alone, multiple Student Unions have refused affiliation to pro-life student groups. Glasgow Students for Life and Strathclyde Students for Life were only granted affiliation to their respective unions following the threat of legal action. Aberdeen Life Ethics Society and the Edinburgh Life Society are still fighting for affiliation on their campuses.
Taking a Stand
In response to these things, pro-life students from Scottish Universities gathered outside of the NUS conference in protest. The event was coordinated by the Alliance of Pro-Life Students and supported by SPUC Scotland. There were student representatives present from Glasgow University, Strathclyde University, and Edinburgh University – all of whom have faced discrimination from their Student Unions.
Signs had slogans reading ‘National Union of (some) Students’ and ‘Defend Our Freedom Speech’. The response was mixed. Many delegates came up and gave the protestors their support – sharing their concern that the NUS is not representative of all students. Others had a less positive response, with some cursing at protesters – but the event remained incredibly civil.
Speaking about the support the protest received, Bernadette Waddelove said, "It was great to receive lots of support from student delegates at the conference, whether pro-life or not, who agreed that the NUS is failing to represent all students and is fundamentally undemocratic. One student delegate said that it had been the worst three days of his life due to the sheer intolerance towards anyone who dared to have a different opinion. We have never expected everyone to agree with us - but to fulfil their role as centres of learning, universities need to be open to discourse from all sides.’
Michael Robinson, Director of Communications and Campaigns for SPUC Scotland, who came by to support the protest, said ‘It was encouraging to see so many pro-life young people standing up in defence of, not only the unborn, but free speech. Many of these young people also participate in SPUC Scotland’s Project Truth Roadshow. It’s reassuring to know the future of the pro-life movement is in such capable hands’.
Pro-Life societies from universities that are further afield also showed their support on social media by posting photos of their own signs. These included posts from Durham Students for Life and Birmingham Students for Life.
It is clear these students are not going to give up the cause of bringing the pro-life message to their University campuses. Jamie McGowan, a Strathclyde student who attended the protest said: ‘Given that the NUS actively publish guidelines on preventing the rise of our pro-life groups on campus, we’re here today to tell the NUS that their censorship tactics are counterintuitive to the student movement - a movement which necessarily operates around a free exchange of ideas and opinions. The pro-life worldview is one which is well-established in bioethics and academia, and we’re not willing to let a small group of students like the NUS threaten that status’.