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Philippa Taylor: The closing of the Oxbridge mind. Better not to debate controversies such as abortion


Not for the first time, a college at a top UK university has completely shut down an attempt to organise a balanced debate on abortion.

Are the students running scared of possible credible opposition to their ‘abortion is the answer to everything’ mindset, by closing down all conversation with those who disagree, rather than engaging with it?

Or are they simply unaware (despite being – apparently – among the brightest students in the UK) that by shutting down any views other than their own that they are being both intolerant and utterly illiberal?

Christ Church Oxford have refused permission to debate the motion: ‘This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’, featuring historian Tim Stanley proposing the motion, and Spiked Editor and Big Issue Columnist Brendan O’Neill opposing.

It was only last year that the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign also tried to shut down a debate on abortion: ‘Genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion’. This was despite the fact that they had speaking on their side, Anne Furedi, CEO of the UK’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), and a well-known and confident protagonist on abortion issues.

It certainly seems like pro-abortion students at both universities are fearful of any debate.  Instead of engaging with opponents of their views, and presenting and arguing for their own views, they run scared and cry foul, and stop all debate completely (which then neatly brings it to wider public attention!).

The irony of this, and indeed the absolute stupidity of it, did not pass by Furedi, when she wrote a stinging article in Spiked, last year, extolling the value and necessity of debate.

For a start, she pointed out, how can we possibly win an argument if we don’t even join in the debate?! If people only hear one side of the argument they will be more likely to be convinced by it.

Second, Furedi says, if we take our ideas seriously, debate is essential to test and develop our ideas and to convince others.

Third, pitting our own arguments against an opponent is one of the best ways to learn to be more clear, concise and precise, especially if the opponents are able and informed and there is a moderator to keep order.

Fourth (and most telling in this situation), she points out that when we try to silence someone, we simply tell the world we fear what they might say.

Furedi says: ‘Whether they [their opponents] succeed or not depends on how we engage with those arguments – which we won’t do well unless we listen, answer and debate…’

She concludes: ‘You don’t have to be a Cambridge intellectual to understand why debate and discussion should be encouraged.’ (Although in this case it seems that being a Cambridge or Oxford intellectual means you don’t understand the need for debate).

Whatever side of the abortion (or insert here another ‘controversial but legal issue’) debate we stand, we must all engage with our opponents and cannot simply close down the conversation when we disagree.

It seems particularly ironic, though, that it is at both Oxford and Cambridge universities of all places, centres for thinking, learning and debating, that an opportunity for engagement and discussion on a controversial, but legal procedure, has been shut down and debate has been gagged.

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Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship @PhilippaTaylor_

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