By Charlotte King
Disclaimer: This article deals with a sensitive topic which some readers might find distressing.
Following Cardiff University Students’ Union adopting an official pro-chance stance at this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 21, a divisive debate has emerged not only between Cardiff University students but with those unaffiliated with the University and Students’ Union too, culminating in a hostile set of protests outside of Cardiff University’s Main Building on Wednesday December 4.
CBR UK, a pro-life group who are not affiliated with Cardiff University or the Students’ Union, returned to protest on university grounds for the second time last week, bringing with them graphic posters and leaflets to, as they state, highlight “the reality” of abortion.
Members of CBR UK took some time out of their protest to speak to Gair Rhydd about who they are and why they are protesting outside of the university. The group describes themselves as “acting as a voice for the voiceless” and aim to “[raise] awareness of the humanity of the child.” The group believe that “if something is growing, it’s living. If something has human parents, it stands to reason that it’s human.”
Gair Rhydd was informed that CBR UK has been visiting university campuses across the UK to spread their message, and believe that following the AGM, Cardiff University is an institution which is “[stifling] free speech”.
At this year’s AGM, students voted in favour of a motion which commits the Students’ Union to support a pro-choice abortion stance, improving its ‘Pregnancy Support’ services so that it provides the same level of support for other health-related issues the Union provides services for, such as mental health, wellbeing and sexual health.
It also requires the Students’ Union to alter its abortion terminology by using the term foetus to describe a 13-week old pregnancy rather than using the term baby; to provide up to date information on the back of Students’ Union toilet stalls about where individuals can seek help if they are pregnant; to create a pro-choice awareness campaign which highlights the importance of access to safe and legal abortion; and to ensure societies affiliated with the Students’ Union do not spread “misinformation” regarding abortion and pregnancy nor do they participate in activities against Union policy.
Speaking to the CBR UK protesters, Gair Rhydd enquired whether the group feels it is appropriate for them to be protesting a Students’ Union development outside a university which does not concern CBR UK directly. In response, a member of CBR UK said: “In our case, we will appear if there is [an] injustice to the unborn. We feel there is [an] injustice to the unborn here.”
With regards to the graphic imagery displayed on their posters and in their leaflets, Gair Rhydd questioned whether these images were appropriate, highlighting the damaging effect these graphic images could have on passers-by, including children and individuals who may have had abortions previously. CBR UK commented: “These images are actually disgusting, they’re horrific, they’re really bad. They upset me, they upset my colleagues, but please understand, we don’t like to come out here.” When questioned about the lack of sourcing of their imagery, CBR UK directed one towards their website.
Following on, one enquired whether the use of quotes from a couple of hundred years ago next to unsourced, graphic imagery could constitute misinformation. In response, CBR UK members again directed one towards their website.
One member of CBR UK also commented on how they feel their protest tactic has “certainly made everyone sit up and think about [abortion] which is one of our aims…To open up the debate, to make people think about it, to look at the reality of what that choice is.”
Ultimately, they argue that the Students’ Union is “hiding behind” the term foetus to avoid the reality that from conception, the clump of cells is a baby and they feel that as a group, they must protect the unborn who “have a right to continue living and a right to be protected.”
Shortly after CBR UK arrived outside the Main Building, Cardiff University students began to form a quickly-growing counter-protest in efforts to conceal CBR UK’s display from view. What started as a group of five or six students steadily grew to become a wall of protesters objecting to CBR UK’s presence.
Gair Rhydd spoke to two students who kickstarted the counter-protest outside the university Main Building. When asked why they were in opposition to the group’s display, one stated: “Recently within our Students’ Union when the motion was raised to be a pro-choice university. We have seen a backlash against that and I fundamentally do not believe anybody has the right to tell another woman what to do with her body.
“I fully respect that some people have pro-life views and they are entitled to those views, but the difference is a pro-choice stance allows that pro-life and the pro-choice whereas a pro-life stance sees you stand there telling other people what to do with their body.”
As more and more counter-protesters quickly began arriving holding anything from cardboard squares to posters to even framed paintings to conceal CBR UK’s display, Gair Rhydd spoke to CBR UK to hear their thoughts on the action being taken against their presence.
“It’s their right to [protest] and I do believe in this country that we have the right to express our views, whether it’s popular or not. That’s fair enough to them” one CBR UK member said. “I don’t want them to be trying to cover us up in the same way that I wouldn’t wish to do the same to them.” Another member also commented: “they seem to be nice people but it doesn’t seem to be a very well-thought-out protest. I don’t know what they are protesting. That we are standing on the grass or that we are protecting human life? It’s not clear.”
As more protesters began to arrive outside the Main Building, tensions raised and altercations began to occur between the two protest groups, with one student shouting at a CBR UK member: “You in the middle! Have you got a uterus? No? F**k off then!”
Speaking to the protesting students about whether they feel arguing with CBR UK is the best way to approach their presence on university grounds, one student said “To be honest, arguing with any pro-life protester is never going to be an endeavour that’s worth your time because they don’t listen to reason. They’ve got their beliefs and they’re adamant to stick to them and they’re never going to change those beliefs. The only thing you can do is shout at them.”
With Wednesday 4 December also being the final day of the UCU Strike action, some university lecturers who had been taking part in the strikes also joined forces with the students protesting against CBR UK.
Cardiff University lecturer Andy Williams told Gair Rhydd that he was protesting in “solidarity” with the students. “I think that the vote that was taken at the AGM by Cardiff students was the right decision and a brave decision.
“I think nobody should have control over women’s bodies but women themselves and I think the display that we have behind us, which quite thankfully we’re blocking from view at the moment, is an absolute scandal and there’s no place for it anywhere near university grounds. As far as I’m concerned, they should sod off and leave women’s bodies alone!”
Prior to the events of December 4, Gair Rhydd spoke to Isadora Sinha, the individual who proposed the motion at this year’s AGM, who said that she has received “overwhelming positive responses” from students throughout Cardiff University, but that she has also been subjected to negative backlash. Referring to CBR UK, she states that they “shouldn’t be meddling in our democratic processes”.
Continuing, Isadora told Gair Rhydd that she has received insults, death threats and being called a “murderer”, and said that one of her friends contacted the police because they were so concerned for her safety. Isadora also expressed how the backlash has taken a toll on her mental health. Overall, she stated that in the face of the abuse and backlash, she did question whether putting the motion forward was the right thing to do. However, after receiving support from fellow students and hearing from individuals about why they support the motion, she believes it was. “That’s what is so great about the student community; we support each other no matter what choices people make.” Isadora is now gauging interest for a pro-choice society.
The Students’ Union also recently published a statement on the Union adopting an official pro-choice stance, stating that the motion was adopted “in line with [their] democratic processes” in response to an overwhelming majority vote. In response to concerns amongst some students that the motion could limit freedom of speech and expression, the Union stated: “The trustees shall ensure that, in enacting the motion, appropriate measures are maintained to protect freedom of speech and expression in line with the law.” The Students’ Union emphasises that their stance does not intend to “censor” any student group or individual, nor does it aim to deny their right to affiliate with the Union.
They continue: “We acknowledge that this debate is emotive, however, we urge all students to consider the potential impacts of their words and actions…Democracy within and outside of the Students’ Union is founded on healthy and respectful debate.” The Union concludes: “We will defend vehemently the freedom of expression for future generations of students.”