It has recently been brought to my attention that the Student Union is having a referendum to see if students want to support a motion that calls for greater abortion rights for women through measures such as making getting an abortion easier and simpler. To quote from the motion at Part 2, Point 3, “Women and people capable of childbearing should be the decision makers over their own bodies and current abortion law in the UK does not give women and people capable of childbearing the right to choose” In terms of the latter part of this Point, abortions are restricted to 24 weeks and if the pregnancy involves a greater risk to physical or mental health of the mother, or existing children of that family. One can only assume, then, that the SU does not like these restrictions. Indeed it states in Part 2 Point 4 that Abortion laws in the UK are more restrictive than Europe, where abortion is ‘on request’ for up to 3 months, and in Part 2 Point 5, it declares that requiring two doctors to judge that there are risks to physical or mental health is ‘outdated’ and the law should allow abortions ‘on request’. They too outline in Part 2 Point 6 that there are not enough public funds to help people have abortions. It then goes on to say in Part 3 Point 4 that they wish to see the SU support campaigns that make access to abortion easier and fairer. Finally, in Part 3 Point 5, the motion states that the SU should support the Women’s network in providing counter demonstrations to any groups who present a threat to women’s safety on campus and/or intend to restrict reproductive rights from harassing students on campus. In summary, the motion is calling for easier access to abortions by having a ‘no questions asked’ style policy that is fully taxpayer funded. To comment upon this, I will both consider the motion itself, and then the role of the SU and if such motions are appropriate.
The SU Motion
The first point that strikes me about the motion is the way that it fails to explain a lot of what it says. For example, it states that the two doctor rule is ‘outdated’ without explaining why this is and thus why we need change, and it fails to explain why abortions should be ‘on request’ as opposed to being allowed only for medical reasons. Why this shift? Why should we allow an on demand abortion service without any checks that a medical requirement brings? It can only be assumed that the SU is fine with healthy women aborting healthy foetuses. Again, why is this so? No philosophical or medical answers are provided for these changes. Equally, by not requiring there to be a medical issue with the mother, why should the NHS have to pay for those that are not done for medical reasons? In an age of growing medical costs for the NHS (as people live longer), is it a viable use of resources to pay for non-medically essential procedures? Should a different body pay for these, or should it be a market-based private solution where no medical concerns drive the choice to abort? No explanations are offered. Approximately there are over 200,000 abortions each year in the United Kingdom. Is the SU concerned by this number at all? Have they considered this before calling for even easier access?
Of greater concern to me is the final point in Part 3. This calls for the SU to ‘support’ the Women’s Network in providing counter-demonstrations to groups who threaten female safety (which I can support) and/or intend to restrict reproductive rights from harassing students on campus. Firstly, when it speaks of support, is this the provision of funds, people, equipment? or is it a case of using the SUs name also? Is a group who is intending to restrict productive rights one which supports the present law (which allows abortion to be legal) or is it just aimed at pro-life groups? Finally, the word ‘harassment’ could be ambiguous. Will a criminal definition be used, in which case the police should be called and no such ‘counter-demonstrations’ are necessary (making the point redundant), or will it be a lower standard and something that the SU itself defines? Would that be wise?
The SU’s Role and Function
As has been expressed online, does this Point actually restrict freedom of speech on campus? If students or societies express an opinion, or hold a demonstration, that says abortion is wrong, or that the present law is correct, will the SU genuinely counter-demonstrate against its own students? I understand that other societies can hold counter-demonstrations, but the SU? Is this what the SU is all about? I do not believe that it is. On such contentious moral issues, the SU should not be taking an official position and enforcing that against its own students. Who on earth do the SU’s agents think they are? A campus should be about free expression, free association and free speech (unless it is outright illegal like racism for example, of which an opinion on abortion is not). There are a multitude of different students from different backgrounds and different moral outlooks and the SU should not be taking official positions which could easily be at odds with many students they are there to represent. The SU should be there to foster a tolerant and caring environment for all students and not a potentially hostile one. Indeed the first line of the Big Red Book (The SU’s Constitution) states “WE THE STUDENTS of the University of Nottingham form a Union that shall act in all our Interests embodying the principles of equality, democracy and justice” It goes on to make clear that the SU should provide representation for all of its students (Mission Statement). Is the SU therefore violating the first and second sentences of its own Constitution? How incompetent. When I first came to the University, I was not aware that the SU was some sort of external political force that was making comments and taking actions on my behalf on national issues beyond the obvious ones relating to education. Indeed, I accept that the Constitution does state under Aims (1) that it will represent the interest of its members at all levels within and beyond the University. However, the last part has to be there to authorise the SU making statements on educational matters beyond the University (such as tuition fees). I do not believe that this wording justifies comments and motions on practically anything in the world. The SU is there to represent me in the running of the University, and not in the running of the country. The SU should be an impartial student organisation that quietly organises campus affairs and tries to improve a student experience whilst at the University. Waging into national moral debates, beyond education, goes a little too far. However, this is probably a symptom of the people who run the SU. They seem to forever want to leave a legacy and be remembered before they are cast into obscurity and are superseded by the latest line of student politicos. If only they truly focused on the campus and doing their portfolios to the best of their abilities.
It has been claimed that past practice shows that the SU does comment on national issues outside of educational affairs. This is just another incident that, for me, goes beyond what the SU should be about and what functions it should reasonably have. The logic of the argument of past practise would justify the SU having an official position on anything at all. Indeed, if past practise justifies future practise, and so the SU operates a system of stare decisis (stand by what has been decided: a legal principle where a previous decision of a court is binding or persuasive), where is this written in the Constitution? Why not pensions, the military, transport, Europe, crime, the health service, foreign affairs, the environment. Actually, why doesn’t the SU just go and write a complete political manifesto, completely devoid of any use on campus? That would help to waste even more time and alienate even more people.
This is just another example of the SU trying to increase its scope into non-educational matters further and generally aggrandise itself beyond what is necessary to perform its functions. As said above, this is a symptom of those that run the SU and their clear desires to want to be involved in national politics, at which student politics gets overlooked. They should not try and use the SU for their own political ends. The SU should be akin to a service provider who remains neutral on issues that do not concern the provision of that very service. I call for the days of simpler SUs who just get on with making their University the best it can be. Demonstrate on contentious national issues in your own time; not in my time, on my behalf and in my name.