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By Jonathan Tomlin
A pro-life student organisation has apologised to Hertford’s JCR after making misleading claims about a pro-choice group in a bulletin advertisement.
In an advert for a meeting held at Hertford on Tuesday night, Students for Life Oxford suggested that Abortion Rights, a national pro-choice organisation supported by the NUS and OUSU, “wishes to establish the provision of abortion up to birth, on demand”.
Students for Life apologised after the claim was branded “dubious” and “inaccurate”.
The apology said: “In response to concerns raised by members of the JCR, Students for Life Oxford wish to apologise for the inaccuracy published in the previous bulletin.
It added: “Our statement that the organisation Abortion Rights seeks to establish the right of women to have an abortion up to birth was indeed misguided.”
They admitted that their assumptions were made “too readily”, but defended themselves saying it was “entirely accidental” and continuing: “We do not feel that our statement merits the accusation of ‘lies’, but accept that we misinformed the JCR, and apologise wholeheartedly for this.”
The meeting itself had been the subject of controversy at the college.
The advert said the meeting was an opportunity for “discussion” and “debate” and read: “We’ll be discussing primarily the narrow approach of OUSU to the issue [of abortion], given its affiliation to the controversial organisation Abortion Rights.”
Tom Oakley, a student at Hertford, posted on the college Facebook group criticising the meeting. In a subsequent blog post he claimed that he was charged by other Hertford students with “trying to curtail this group’s right to freedom of speech, just because I disagree with them”.
Oakley also drew a comparison between the meeting and the furore about Exeter College hosting the Wilberforce Academy over the Easter vac.
He then wrote a letter to Hertford’s Dean, Dr Alison Woollard, outlining his concerns. He expressed doubt that it would be an “open forum in which to discuss both sides of the argument regarding a woman’s right to abortion”.
He added: “I found their claim that Abortion Rights advocate extending the time limit for access to legal abortion from the current 24 weeks ‘up to birth’ dubious at best.”
He argued that “by providing Students for Life with a room free of charge, Hertford is effectively sponsoring the event and making itself complicit in their activities” and suggested there were “legitimate welfare reasons for cancelling this event”.
But Woollard responded: “I would be very uncomfortable about refusing permission for this meeting to go ahead, as this would establish a role for College authorities in ‘policing’ the content of all student discussion meeting.”
She added that the College “is not in any way endorsing the views of students attending such meetings”.
Amy Owens, one of the organisers of the talk, who studies at Hertford, stressed before the event that it was “a meeting of the society rather than a talk as such”, adding that the organisation is “perfectly happy to hear the views of those who sit in the opposing camp – indeed we feel that that too is an important part of the process”.
Rather than “a debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion”, she said she hoped for a “talk about whether we feel it’s a necessary/viable move to challenge OUSU’s official stance as pro-abortion… given that they are meant to represent the whole student body.”
Following the event, Owens said it went “really well” and that “it was really fantastic to have such a constructive discussion” with attendees from both sides of the debate.
She said: “I am glad that college upheld our rights to freedom of speech and association, and our right, as members of the JCR, to use a room on college premises. Not to have done so would indeed have been a threat to essential liberties… I feel we dispersed some of the stereotypes surrounding typical ‘pro-life campaigners’, and were glad to take note of some very interesting university relevant issues raised by those who disagree with our essential ethical stance.”