Students for Life: a Controversial Society

Dominic Nolan talks with Jack Stukel, the President of the Students for Life – St Andrews, about running a controversial society in a university environment.

What does your society do?

Students for Life St Andrews is all about promoting a culture of life in St Andrews University and to celebrate life from conception till natural end. To that end we have educational talks by speakers, some discussion around life ethics issues and we are raising funds for care and volunteering work related to crisis pregnancies and palliative care.

Due to the controversial nature of your society have you ever experienced any protests?

Yes, in addition to individuals confronting us with their disagreements, the only organised protest we have had so far was at a speaker called John Deighan: he was speaking on the history of the pro-life movement in the UK. I don’t think it was organised by any particular group but it was a group of friends who showed up to the talk with a banner which said ‘Keep Abortion Legal’ and then they all came to the talk. They were more or less respectful but occasionally they were sniggering at a couple of points that Mr. Deighan made and they asked a couple, what I thought were, kind of inane questions at the end. Although it was the only major protest we’ve seen.

How would you describe your relationship with other societies in the university?

I have reached out to several other societies and tried to do some joint events; most of them have ignored those requests but we have a working relationship with the Catholic society and we actually have a good dialogue with the feminist society, although their committee is opposed to the pro-life view. Personally however, I know Jo Boon, who is the president of the feminist society, and so we have been trying to work on some collaborations for debates and things like that. We have tried to reach out to the debating society but nothing has really come of that; they don’t seem very keen on addressing our debates.

Do you think it’s possible to be both a feminist and pro-life?

Absolutely I do. I would consider myself a pro-life feminist. If by feminism we mean the belief that men and women are equal in dignity and that neither should be treated as inferior, then I am absolutely a feminist and all efforts should be made to codify that in law and in society. The pro-life movement does not denigrate the rights of women to control over their own bodies, it just subordinates that right to the right to life of the child. You can see that subordination in other issues as well. We subordinate our own right to act in certain situations to give others the right to safety. We can’t do whatever we want if it infringes upon other people’s rights. It is a matter of which rights are more pressing and more urgent, so I think it is very possible to be a pro-life feminist.

Other universities have seen pro-life events cancelled by protests. What is your view on students’ ability to express pro-life views at university?

There is certainly a culture of silencing the debate, especially in the last couple of years in this country. I think it is all about promoting a culture of free speech: allowing all views to be rationally discussed, no matter how outlandish they may seem, among the student body. If you disagree with an opinion, then by all means disagree with it and argue against it but trying to prevent the debate from taking place is completely contrary to the whole idea of a university, which is supposed to be a bastion of free thinking and where all ideas are valid. The other thing is that the school administration has to support that and it cannot yield to the outcry that certain controversial opinions should be denied an equal platform. We saw recently in Oxford where a debate was protested by pro-choice protesters, but it was the school who eventually shut it down for reasons of “student safety”, where it was obvious that there was no unsafe activity going on but that is the rationale they used. It’s about promoting a free speech culture and the school administration supporting that.

How would you describe your relationship with the students’ union?

It’s kind of multifaceted. For the most part there has been very little in the way of institutional discrimination. I would not say that they have treated us unfairly. I wouldn’t say that they entirely support us. When we were applying for affiliation with the students’ union we had all our paperwork filled out, we had everything that they asked, and yet we found out later that the vote to allow us to become a society was sustained by a vote of 1-0, where everyone else abstained as they would not vote in favour of us. They couldn’t find any reason not to support us but they would not put their own votes in favour of allowing us to become a society, so it’s only by the slimmest of margins that we exist as an affiliated society because of reluctance on the part of the union to acknowledge us. It is only because there was one sympathetic ear on the committee that we exist at all.

As far as grants and things go I think we have been treated alright. I think the union has had a hard time this year just in terms of getting everything organised, so I don’t want to cast dispersion on them as I know they’ve got a lot going on. I think however, that there is a base reluctance on the union’s part to co-operate with us, but they do it, they hold their nose and they do it… so far anyway. We’ve had some issues in the past such as venues we’ve booked suddenly being closed or locked but I think that might just be administrative oversight, though it has happened a couple of times.

What do you think the general opinion of the student body is on pro-life issues?

For the most part I think apathetic would probably be the word I’d use. I think there is a core of highly motivated people who are against the pro-life movement, who disagree with our views and who are very loud and they exist mostly around the feminist society from what I can see. St Andrews is a bubble, I know we say it all the time but it’s so true. For the most part people would just say: ‘Oh, there’s a pro-life society – I’m going to go to class.’ They don’t care much but I would say that the people who are casually intolerant of us far outweigh the people who are casually tolerant of us. We’ve had occasions at events such as Freshers’ Fayre where we’ve had snide comments, we’ve been harassed, criticised to our face, and I don’t think that happens to other societies, not that I can see anyway. So I would say that certainly the culture is not a pro-life culture at the moment and not entirely sympathetic in the student body but most people at the end of the day, I think, don’t really care. But I’d like to change that. People should be thinking about it, even if they disagree we want people to be thinking about this.

Do you have any upcoming events?

We are hoping to have a pro-life baby shower. We are trying to raise supplies for mothers in need, mothers who may not be able to afford things like nappies or strollers. We’re hoping to have a dessert potluck, like a normal baby shower, but people would bring baby supplies that they bought and donate them, and we’d play some baby shower games if we had time. We would pack up all the supplies and ship them to either Sisters of the Gospel of Life, which is in Glasgow, who help mothers in need, or the Good Council Network in London who do similar work down south.

How much is membership and how can people if they are interested get in touch with you?

Membership is £3 and if they are interested you can find us on Facebook, Students for Life – St Andrews, or you can talk to any one of us at our events, we will also be having some bake sales coming up as well, or you can be added to our mailing list, we’re at Students4Life@st-andrews.ac.uk.

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Feature image courtesy of Students for Life-St Andrews.

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