‘Stop this right now’: Pro-life speaker at Edinburgh University interrupted by students

The planned talk, hosted by Edinburgh’s Life Society, did not go ahead

A talk planned to be delivered by a pro-life speaker at the University of Edinburgh was interrupted by dozens of pro-choice student activists on Monday.

Margaret Akers from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was due to speak about so-called coerced abortions at the event hosted by the university’s Life Society.

The planned talk did not go ahead, but following the interruption, an open debate about abortion ensued, with many in the room contributing. The pro-choice presence far outweighed that of pro-life students in the room.

Margaret Akers says she was “disappointed” with the events and has hit out at Edinburgh University, urging it to “use a firmer hand to protect freedom of speech” on campus.

The university says it is “committed to freedom of expression and academic freedom”.

A few minutes into the original presentation, approximately 25 student activists stormed the room with a megaphone demanding the talk was halted due to the SPUC spreading “misinformation” about reproductive health and contraception.

The Staff-Student Solidarity Network at the university has said they partially organised the protest.

“We are not allowing you to continue this talk”, said one protestor as they entered, whilst other pro-choice audience members accused Akers of having given a one-sided account of statistics surrounding coerced abortions in the early minutes of her talk.

The Life Society’s president, Sophia Tait, asked those who were not there intending to listen to the talk to leave.

Tense conversations between students in the room and Margaret Akers led to an agreement that the planned talk would not go ahead and a roundtable open debate would occur instead. Akers said she was “happy to cede to that” at the time, and asked that a neutral arbiter ensure the conversation remained respectful.

Those who wanted to contribute to the discussion raised their hands and spoke in turn, with exchanges becoming passionate on a range of issues including the presence of the SPUC on campus, the organisation’s funding, and the philosophical arguments surrounding abortion.

An Edinburgh student who has recently been through abortion rose to speak about her experience in tears, and accused the event of facilitating conversations that she said “shame people with uteruses for making decisions that are right for their lives”.

Pro-choice students in the room were keen to establish why a university-accredited society had been allowed to invite a speaker onto campus who is from an organisation that says it “campaign[s] to end abortion” and in 2012 campaigned against the government’s proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

A member of the society said that the talk was organised through all the usual administrative channels involving the Students’ Union, EUSA.

Akers and pro-life students at the event attempted to keep the focus on coerced abortion, the intended topic of discussion. When asked about SPUC’s record on same-sex marriage, the Life Society president said “we did not invite her to speak on that issue”.

A protestor compared only wanting to hear from the SPUC on certain issues but not others, to “inviting Hitler to speak about climate change”.

Akers was asked by The Tab on what basis her organisation has accepted £72,000 in donations from US donors in the last two years, as per Vice World News reports. She replied, saying she would speak to colleagues in the SPUC about whether the money had come with any pre-conditions. No further information has been presented on this question.

The discussion went on to cover the issue of defining the beginning of human life, with pro-choice students consistently emphasising their view that removing the right to abortion only harms those forced to give birth. One student said the label of ‘pro life’ was hypocritical, asking: “Whose life are you in favour of protecting?”

The event ended with a student declaring he was “f**king angry” at the University of Edinburgh” for allowing the speaker from the SPUC to use the space on campus.

A spokesperson for The University of Edinburgh said: “The University is committed to freedom of expression and academic freedom. Students and staff should feel able to discuss controversial topics, and that different viewpoints are respected.

“Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views amongst its members. We encourage respectful debate and discussion whenever there are differences of view or opinion.”

Margaret Akers from the SPUC said: “Based on the nature of the issue, and the vitriolic tone by many on social media ahead of the event, I was aware of the possibility of protestors. I have spoken to university groups on many occasions and have never faced backlash to that extent.

“I was disappointed with how the evening went. It became quite clear that I was not going to be able to present in the way I had prepared, so thought it wiser to open the floor to a discussion between students, so as to deescalate any tension in the room.

“I would have hoped the discussion could be more open, but it ended up being an opportunity for some students to air their grievances. The pro-life students have as much of a right to hold and voice their opinion as any other student group and should not be shamed or targeted for doing so. Part of the reason I give this particular talk is to amplify the voices of people who have experienced coercion to have an abortion they did not want. This is a group of people who often feel as though they have nowhere to tell their story – it was disappointing that the protesting students sought to silence their voices.

“Universities should be environments for free and open exchange of ideas – and that includes topics on which people vehemently disagree. In the future, I would hope the university use a firmer hand to protect freedom of speech at on campus events”.

The Edinburgh Life Society said: “The engagement from other student groups was unexpected, though we welcomed the opportunity to speak with students coming from a wide range of viewpoints.

“It was disappointing that this discussion began with our speaker being shouted down. Whilst we welcome questions and debate, there was no need for a society event to be derailed to facilitate this. The Life Society have repeatedly reached out to other student groups to coordinate opportunities for more substantive engagement than the events of Monday evening.

“Many of the points raised after our speaker had been shouted down addressed the SPUC’s attitude to pro-life vigils. It seems hard to miss the irony of objecting to an organisation that supports peaceful protest, by means of an antagonistic and disruptive protest.

“We recognise that life ethics is a complex and often emotive topic, and always aim to respect and listen to viewpoints that challenge our own. Moving forward, we hope it will be possible to find ways of doing that whilst also upholding our society’s right to host events in university spaces without harassment.”

Edinburgh University Students’ Association, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and The Staff-Student Solidarity Network have been contacted for comment and are yet to respond.

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