Bigotry and the Academic Abortion Debate

By Alberto Giubilini
Oxford Martin School and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanitites, University of Oxford

For further discussion on this topic by Dr Giubilini see his oped in The Irish Times

Last month I was invited by Oxford’s Students for Life (OSFL), the pro-life student organisation at the University of Oxford, to take part in a public debate where I was asked to argue against their motion that “Conscientious objection in healthcare, concerning beginning and end of life issues, benefits society as a whole.” Having worked on conscientious objection in healthcare (e.g., doctors not being willing to perform abortions for personal moral or religious reasons) in the past, I thought (and still think) I had some very strong arguments against conscientious objection in healthcare in general, and conscientious objection by religious doctors in particular. I was very keen on challenging the pro-life position on this topic. I therefore accepted the invitation, although I was a bit surprised by it, given that OSFL were presumably aware of my positions on topics that for the pro-life are very sensitive, such as the ethics of abortion or of infanticide.

But I was curious to see and test to what extent the pro-life community was really committed to freedom of speech and would allow me to defend my views, so diametrically opposite to theirs. During the event, I therefore tried to push my arguments to their most extreme conclusions and to be as provocative as possible; for example, at some point I suggested that an unwanted pregnancy is comparable to a disease and that therefore doctors have a duty to medically treat it by performing an abortion. I have to say I saw many people in the audience jolt in their chairs, which I did expect. Nonetheless, after my talk there was a very civil and calm discussion: the pro-life defenders debated my arguments, allowed me to reply, and thanked me at the end of the debate for my participation and what they considered challenging views.

This episode assumes relevance in light of another episode that occurred a few weeks before that and which also involved OSFL. Actually, it is worth noting that the event in which I took part was held in a small room at Trinity College because Queen’s College denied OSFL the use of one of its rooms, after the episode I am about to relate.

OSFL had organised an event to discuss, from the pro-life perspective (as you would expect from a pro-life group), the proposal to legalise abortion in Ireland. Of course, the invited speakers were very critical of the idea. In particular, among them, there was Irish Times correspondent Breda O’Brien, well known for her opposition to abortion. The event was disrupted, and speakers prevented from speaking, by a group of pro-choice feminists. According to reports, some members of the Women’s Campaign (WomCam), a feminist pro-choice subgroup of the Oxford Students’ Union, “stood and began to chant continuously until O’Brien was forced to stop,” and they squeezed out people who wanted to attend the event.

As reported by OSFL’s co-president Anna Bamford, “It was impossible for the committee or security to engage in any meaningful manner with the protestors. This continued for approximately 40 minutes: protesters shouted, jeered, stood in front of the projector and chanted.” Eventually, police needed to be called, but the start of the event was prevented for almost an hour. WomCam defended themselves from the accusation of violating the pro-life group’s freedom of speech through the following statement: “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate; it is not a question of opinion. Access to healthcare is a basic human right.”

This statement conveys several confusions. First, it simply assumes that abortion is above all a matter of access to healthcare as opposed to, say, competing notions about what constitutes a person. In other words, it is to assume the very thing that is being debated, a serious fallacy. The statement also shows an apparent incapacity to distinguish substantial moral issues (i.e., whether women’s bodily autonomy should be the prevailing consideration in the ethics of abortion) from the more fundamental issue of freedom of speech, i.e., the liberty of individuals—whether pro-choice or pro-life—to freely defend their positions, especially in academic settings.

The New Bigotry?

We live in an age of political correctness. The tendency to exclude certain topics from public discussion because they might offend certain groups – which defines political correctness – is apparent both in academic settings and outside “the ivory tower.” For example, many comedians have recently lamented that political correctness is killing their shows, because the range of what counts as politically incorrect has expanded. But of course this is not only a problem for comedians. Academics sharing certain ideas with the lay public often encounter similar problems. A few years ago I  co-authored a controversial paper on the ethics surrounding after-birth abortion, or infanticide. Many pro-life and some pro-choice individuals as well, were offended by the ideas expressed in that paper, and reacted not just by challenging the arguments offered, but also by sending death threats to the authors or by suggesting that the topic should not even be up for discussion. Some – both within and outside academia – suggested that, given how offensive the topic was, such reactions were understandable, if not justifiable (a comprehensive analysis of the relevant events can be found here).

There is a more general problem underlying this type of reaction, however, a problem that concerns both academic and non-academic debates. Here, I want to focus particularly on academic debates. In academia the problem in question is created not only by people who are pro-life or conservative generally, as one might be inclined to think, but also by so-called “liberal” and progressive people. Let’s start by discussing what the problem is.

The problem I am talking about is that on university campuses there is today a tendency towards bigotry. Being offended by certain topics to the point of wanting to shut down discussions can, in certain circumstances, turn political correctness into a kind of bigotry. Following the dictionary, we can define bigotry as “intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.” In this dictionary sense, bigotry does not describe the content of one’s moral beliefs, but rather the extent to which someone is prepared to expose her ideas to counter-arguments and evidence. Also a more philosophical definition of “bigotry” – such as the one provided by John Corvino – does not tie bigotry to any particular political or moral view, whether “conservative” or “liberal.” According to Corvino, bigotry is “stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination.

The aforementioned reactions of some pro-life (and, to a smaller extent, of some pro-choice) people to the after-birth abortion paper are a clear example of bigotry. But it would be a mistake to think that in academia bigotry is a prerogative of the pro-life or conservative camp. Actually, as the feminists’ disruption of the OSFL’s event demonstrates, pro-lifers and conservatives in academia are often victims of bigotry on the part of (some) feminists, pro-choice supporters, and liberals more generally. This is because bigotry is a function of the (un)ease with which someone is offended by other people’s opinions or even by scientific hypotheses, and there is no reason to think that feminists, so-called liberals or pro-choice advocates are less susceptible to being easily offended than conservatives. One can hold the most progressive or liberal ethical and political views and still be a bigot in the sense of I have defined. As Teresa Bejan recently wrote in an article in The Atlantic, today, “[w]hile conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down.” As a self-identified liberal, I have to say that, sadly, this claim finds confirmation in my experience.

Various changes in academia in recent years testify to the rise of political correctness and also, I want to suggest, of a dangerous tendency towards bigotry that fosters a climate of hyperprotection towards students and the academic community in general, to the point of excluding certain topics or words from discussion in universities. For example, the rise of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech-policing through bias-response teams can contribute to a culture characterized by intolerance, illiberalism, and the erosion of academic freedom. This culture risks undermining at least three very important goals of colleges and universities. First, as John Stuart Mill argued, free exchange of ideas—especially controversial ideas—is an essential means of discovering truth. Second, free exchange of ideas provides a forum for a vulnerable minority to argue for their position on an equal footing with the powerful majority—lifting up those who otherwise wouldn’t have the power to make their voice heard. Third, one could even argue that free exchange of ideas is good when practiced for its own sake.

Unfortunately, some academic communities are curtailing free exchange of ideas with regard to certain topics. The abortion debate provides a good example of how political correctness and bigotry often tend to prevail over free speech and academic freedom, and often not because of the attitude of conservatives and pro-life supporters.

Forty years ago it might have been revolutionary, courageous, and politically incorrect to publicly defend abortion as a woman’s right. Today, although abortion is still illegal or stigmatized in many places, we are witnessing, in academic circles (though not in the whole society), an opposite tendency. Arguing against abortion in academic settings is becoming increasingly more politically incorrect: it is seen as unacceptable because it is taken to be offensive to women and to threaten their right to abortion. In academic circles, supporting abortion, for example campaigning for women’s right to abortion on university campuses or organizing pro-abortion debates, is the new conformism.

Now, conformism is not bad per se; however, it becomes worrisome – and dangerous – if conformists mistake the fact that most people agree on a certain issue, such as, within academic circles, women’s right to abortion, with an alleged right to silence anyone who does not share the majority’s view. And even more worrisome is the fact that universities themselves have sometimes acted out of this perspective when responding to anti-abortionist initiatives.

This state of affairs should be condemned regardless of what one’s views about abortion are. People should be free to argue and campaign against abortion—or, for that matter, against any issue, from same-sex marriage to euthanasia—even if (we think) they are mistaken. It should be clear that this is not meant to be a defense of normative moral relativism, but of the value of a healthy pluralism that only freedom of speech and academic freedom can preserve.

Of course, freedom of speech and academic freedom should have certain limits. In particular, there are plausible arguments that so-called hate speech should be restricted, provided we can clearly circumscribe “hate speech” and we resist the temptation to apply this label to any kind of speech we dislike. According to its legal definition, hate speech is “speech that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability).” What is worth noting here is that hate speech is defined by the intention of the speaker to insult, offend, or intimidate. But different positions in the abortion debate, whether for or against abortion, are certainly not instances of hate speech. In the same way as those who put forward arguments for a right to abortion do not intend to offend or insult the pro-life, but only to defend a certain moral view on abortion, also those who oppose abortion do not intend to offend, insult, or intimidate women or pro-choice advocates, but only to defend a different moral view on abortion. Not being instances of hate speech, and, more in general, not being motivated by the intention to offend others, both positions are (or should be) protected by principles of free speech and academic freedom.

Thus, that some feminists or some women are offended by anti-abortion events is an irrelevant consideration: the pro-lifers do not have an absolute duty not to unintentionally offend pro-choice feminists, who in turn do not have an absolute right not to be unintentionally offended by pro-life arguments. Granted, the distinction between what is intentional and what is merely foreseen or foreseeable is notoriously a fishy one, and there will certainly be some cases in which the distinction is blurred. But in fact, in most cases in which issues of freedom of speech arise, it will be relatively easy to distinguish a claim made with the intention to offend someone and a claim that offends only unintentionally (whether foreseeably or not). Thus, for example, anti-abortion messages will probably offend many feminists or many women who did have an abortion, in the same way as pro-abortion messages will probably offend many pro-life supporters. But none of these messages are typically expressed with the intention to offend someone; therefore, they should be tolerated and indeed, if we value free speech and academic freedom, encouraged.

Since events that are not intentionally offensive are protected by principles of free speech and of academic freedom, trying to shut down these events, as did both the feminists of the Oxford Student Union and the pro-life individuals who sent my co-author and me death threats after the after-birth abortion paper, means neglecting basic principles of free speech and academic freedom, or at least having a too narrow and limited view of what these principles mean. On the occasion of the two events organized by OSFL, conservative and pro-life people have shown a greater commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom than “liberal” and pro-choice feminists.

Some Practical Suggestions

Here are some principles or rules that I believe everyone, regardless of the ethical or political views they hold, could and should agree to in an academic setting:

  1. When something someone says causes offense, whether foreseeably or not, we should ask whether the offense is intentional
  2. There is no right not to be unintentionally offended
  3. There is no duty not to unintentionally offend others (whether there is a duty not to intentionally offend others is a more controversial issue, which I am here happy to leave open)
  4. Free exchange of ideas should be equally enjoyed by everyone, even if some find the ideas offensive (unless offense is intentional)
  5. The more committed one is to traditionally liberal or progressive ethical approaches, the more stringent the requirement to ensure a free exchange of ideas
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8 Responses to Bigotry and the Academic Abortion Debate

  • Daniel Kennelly says:

    #2 and #3 are really different manifestations of the same proposition, right? I would strike #3, as it seems like a necessary corollary of #2. And then rewrite #2 as follows: “There is perhaps a duty not to intentionally offend others (a proposition which I am happy here to leave open for debate), but there is certainly no right not to be unintentionally offended.

    The reason for my quibble with #3 is that it seems like it leaves open the possibility that 1) not only is there a requirement to rigorously examine one’s conscience to determine whether every utterance could give offense, but that 2) failures along these lines incur a debt with the offendee. We should be duly considerate of others’ feelings and opinions, to be sure—and in that sense there is an obligation. But an offendee should not be able to use an offender’s failure to be duly considerate to exert power or claim a debt over the offender.

    #4 also seems to flow from #2 as well.

    #5 seems superfluous. Everyone (liberals, progressives, conservatives, traditionalists, centrists…at least in the modern political context) could just as easily—and with just as much justification—say the same thing about their own camp. It sounds a tad tribalist to assert that “Our side is or should be the authentic free speech side.”

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      Thanks for your comments. It’s true that some of those points can simply be derived from others. But my strategy was to provide some principles that could be as clear as possible from the all the different perspectives of the people involved in these debates, i.e. those whose claims could potentially offend others and those who could potentially be offended by others’ claims (which is why, for instance, I’ve put a principle about duties and a corresponding principle about rights). #5 was meant to be an invitation to those who consider themselves to be more liberal and progressive, such as those in favour of abortion, to more carefully consider what their commitment to liberal ideas implies in terms of free speech and academic freedom, which they sometimes tend to forget.

  • Surrexi vere says:

    Poche idee ma confuse. Altro che solidi argomenti.

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      thanks for your comment “Surrexi”. It would be better to post comments in English. The English translation of your comment is “Few but confused idea. These are not solid arguments”. It’s not very clear to me what arguments you don’t find convincing. I’d be happy to address your concerns if you could expand on your comment, ideally in English. Thank you.

  • Krithi says:

    As a student who is often told that I am over-sensitive, too easily offended, is told that “safe space culture has taken over” and that “life doesn’t come with trigger warnings”, I am very familiar with these arguments.

    I don’t believe that the two events you’re referring to above run by OSFL are equivalent. One is a debate on conscientious objections, which – from the OSFL website – appeared to include two speakers to discuss each side of the proposed motion. The other is an event whereby two “pro-life” speakers would speak for a total of 50 mins before questions. I don’t agree with the way that you have used the apparently contrasting reactions of the pro-life speakers/audience members in the conscientious objection debate and the WomCam protesters in the “Abortion in Ireland” event as evidence of greater commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom from the “pro-life”/conservative side. These events do not take place in a vacuum; rather, as events happening in Oxford, one of the foremost academic institutions in the world, they capture widespread attention and can be used to legitimise and tilt the power dynamic in favour of those who are expressing their views on such a platform. The power dynamic in Ireland with regards to those who hold pro- and anti-abortion views is massively different from the UK, and hosting Breda O’Brien and Lorcan Price – who already have such a massive platform in Ireland for their views – without any counter-speakers who represent the view of those in favour of abortion in Ireland (arguably a dangerous position to hold) was irresponsible. This “legitimisation” following speeches at academic institutions can and does occur – for example, when Marine le Pen spoke at the Cambridge Union in 2013, she noted on her website that she’d spoken there, using it to legitimise her position and demonstrate her influence as a politician.

    Secondly, I don’t agree with the definition of bigotry as being an “intolerance towards ideas different from one’s own” and the way that you have used it to frame your discussion of “liberal” students encouraging bigotry at universities. This definition is too simplistic. I am intolerant towards racists, who have a different idea of what it means to have a skin colour that is not white. Does that make me a bigot? There has to be a consideration of the power dynamic here, and the wider social implications of said “intolerance”.

    You then use this definition to state that “bigotry is a function of the (un)ease with which someone is offended” – i.e. the more someone is offended, the greater the intolerance and hence, bigotry results. Your use of the term “offense” in this context implies that this is simply a case of hurt feelings, and so, you conclude in your “practical suggestions” section that if the offense was unintentional (i.e. if someone’s feelings were hurt unintentionally), then that’s OK. There are two main problems with this:
    1. “Taking offense” is a by-product rather than the actual thing that causes harm. Not all offense is equal. “Liberal” students take offense because of the wider societal implications of certain statements and positions. For example, the use of the term “abortion culture” in a previous event held by OSFL in the actual debate motion itself (and terms within the debate motion are not meant to be challenged or debated within debates) caused “over-sensitive snowflakes” such as myself to take offense because it suggests that abortion culture is a thing, and that it is not up for debate during the debate. It triviliases the experiences of women going through abortion by referring to their decision as being part of a “culture”. This is in contrast with a racist person who “takes offense” at the thought that three women of colour can present a BBC breakfast show, for instance (https://mobile.twitter.com/sandra6208/status/946286015769137153, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/three-asian-women-presented-bbc-breakfast-it-sparked-race-debate-1653001).

    2. Whether offense is intentional or unintentional depends a lot on the offender having an awareness of what would and wouldn’t be offensive to the offendee. If someone held several positions of privilege, it is extremely likely that they wouldn’t have put themselves in the shoes of marginalised groups that face oppressions and in some cases, intersecting oppressions. And so, many offensive things they say would be unintentionally offensive because they haven’t had to put the labour in to figure out what may or may not be offensive. This obviously doesn’t hold true for margjnalised groups that occupy spaces dominated by groups in power, as these marginalised groups are constantly aware of things that are of importance to said groups in power, through art, literature, media, school curricula, university curricula, and the over-representation of members from groups in power in positions of authority. So, if a cis, white, heterosexual man who benefits from several intersecting privileges says something unintentionally offensive to people of colour, or the LGBTQIA+ community because he hasn’t bothered to think about what may be important or offensive to them, whilst at the same time demanding that margnisalised groups “prove” why he is in the wrong (a wearingly common scenario in both online and real-life spaces), then should he get away with it?

    Finally, a lot of critique surrounding student activism centers on the ideas of students being overly sensitive, or censoring points of view that they are too uncomfortable with. I’m not able to spend time fully unpacking the damaging trope of the “censoring student” or the “over-sensitive student” here, but this blog post does so very well: https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/06/25/against-students/

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    Krithi you raise many interesting points. One is particularly relevant to my work as I have to organise these kinds of controversial events. You argue rightly that giving someone a platform in Oxford gives them a kind of credibility. But do you believe that, in the spirit of Alberto’s article, we should engage in academic debate with them? Say I organise a debate on abortion and I invite a prominent prochoicer and one of the hard line Irish prolifers. Does that unreasonably legitimise the hard line prolife position? It’s a genuine question about politics vs academic debate. I wouldn’t organise a debate between evolutionary theorists and creationism, though I did go to a debate between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Sheldonian (which was sold out) on the origin of the Universe.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Alberto wrote, quoting John Corvino “bigotry is “stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination.”
    and
    Krithi wrote: “There has to be a consideration of the power dynamic here, and the wider social implications of said “intolerance”.”

    I think the real dispute is about the “consideration of power dynamics” or Corvino’s “larger system of subordination”. Those dynamics are usually assumed or imported from other contexts. They are not usually part of an evidence base clearly tied to the specific institutions in question. This, for me, is the reason I regard with skepticism blanket claims about this or that group’s free pass on intolerance on the grounds that their have, in other settings, been on the receiving end of a larger system of subordination. Within a different context group X may experience subjugation, but within this context they may not: on what bases and within what constraints are these contexts importable?

    The power dynamics on campuses do not mirror those within wider society, and there is virtually no conversation about how this difference is to be accounted for (if at all). Groups that are marginalised in society can be strongly represented, powerful, even, on campus. Naturally, people from those groups don’t see *their* power as the problem. But it may be, if it leads to “stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people” within the prevailing power dynamics of the institution. (Pretty clearly, this is how liberals (UK sense) or conservatives (US sense) experience life on campus.)

    At what point should campus power cliques be required to accord the same tolerance to their campus colleagues that they demand from them? I guess the most favourable way I can see “Snowflake power” on campus is that the folks in question are so desperate to win political victories in a wider society that they become blind to their own excesses. It’s like the old “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” line from Vietnam: at one level it makes perfect tactical sense, but at another it is a complete own goal, because independent minds who don’t share your urgency regarding the matter will think you’re behaving unjustifiably. That’s why it matters – because ultimately social institutions (military, academic) are responsible to society as a whole, whose views we need to reflect.

  • Paul says:

    I wonder whether this freedom of speech would be extended to the neo-nazis or ISIS extremists or are there simply lines which are placed by those in power to determine who gets the right to speak without protests

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