Hundreds of students across the University of Exeter’s campuses have called for the Students’ Guild to disaffiliate Exeter Students For Life (ESFL), an anti-abortion society.
Affiliated with the Guild since March 2019, ESFL’s webpage says that it “exists to promote and encourage a culture of life” and “will equip our members with the tools to confidently share the pro-life message in a sensitive and respectful way”.
Criticism has been focused on quotes from committee members, with one saying that “I do not believe that any woman really wants to have an abortion” and another arguing: “Abortion is part of the rebellion against God and deserves punishment.” The latter has since been edited to remove the mention of punishment.
The group told the Anchor that it has received death threats.
A Change.org petition aiming “to strike down a society that threatens the safety and wellbeing of women across the University of Exeter” has accused the Guild of “funding hate speech”, receiving over 4,300 signatures.
An open letter asking the Guild to disaffiliate ESFL and cease its funding has received over 1,400 signatures, saying: “A society promoting anti-choice views is not only divisive but dangerous.”
It added that the society “clearly contradicts the empowerment that Exeter’s Student Guild seeks to provide for its students and inhibits the ability for Exeter to be a safe space for all” and the fact that it is led by two men undermines the university’s focus “on gender safety and diversity and inclusivity”.
Mental health campaigner Ben West has also condemned the “awful” society.
The Guild has not announced plans to disaffiliate the society, saying: “We are committed to the principle that both debate and deliberation should not be suppressed, and we encourage and support our members to engage, within the law, in both a constructive and responsible manner to contest any ideas they oppose openly and vigorously.” It added that it will investigate any alleged breaches of its code of conduct.
ESFL President Alireza Ghazi-Torbati told the Anchor: “As a society, we speak up for and take a stand for the rights of pre-born children, 200,000 of which lose their lives to abortion every year in this country. We aim to equip pro-life students to advocate for the pro-life position and to provide a space to discuss the issue respectfully and sensitively. We also aim to support prospective and current student parents, as well as those who may be suffering post-abortive trauma.
“The UK has traditionally been a bastion of free speech, but in recent years that has been eroded, and the trend has been reflected in over 100 of our universities. Pro-life groups in particular have been targeted and faced attempted censorship for valid beliefs held by many across the world.
“Our student group should enjoy the same rights as every other student group on campus, free of discrimination or harassment. The death threats made against members of our society are completely unacceptable and deeply disturbing. We have contacted the university. We would like them to take immediate action on this.
“Exeter University must be a marketplace for free thinking, which is what universities are designed to be. As George Orwell said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.’”