In Depth

Why anti-abortion activists are targeting UK universities

National Union of Students reports rise of pro-life groups on campuses

Anti-abortion activists are increasingly targeting UK university campuses in a bid to recruit students to pro-life causes, according to a new study by the National Union of Students (NUS).

The number of anti-abortion societies in university students’ unions nationwide has risen just eight in 2018 to 14. The increase comes despite “fierce opposition from students who are overwhelmingly pro-choice”, says The Guardian, which reports that “some student unions have been threatened with legal action if they attempt to prevent anti-abortion groups opening on campus”.

The publication of the NUS study comes months after The Independent reported that a number of pro-life students had received threats of “milkshaking” - being pelted with drinks as a means of political protest - from their peers as their movement grows increasingly vocal.

According to The Guardian, an organisation called the Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS) is helping students to set up their own anti-abortion societies, and encouraging them to “affiliate with their students’ unions in order to gain access to facilities, resources, students’ union funding and training opportunities”.

APS chief executive Madeline Page said: “Our societies remain autonomous and students are welcome to run their society as they see as most appropriate to their university’s setting. We do not dictate how they should be run, nor do we run any societies as an organisation.”

Cardiff University has become the latest campus battleground following a vote by the students’ union to adopt an official pro-choice stance.

In response, an new anti-abortion society called Cardiff Students for Life was set up in October. The group’s website encourages members to get involved with the wider anti-abortion movement through events such as the annual March for Life and “40 days of life” vigils outside clinics.

Rachel Watters, women’s officer at the NUS, told The Independent: “Some externals which are anti-choice have had a greater presence on campus and some are attempting to form societies, but the vast majority of students and student unions oppose that view.” 

Anti-abortion activism in the UK

Anti-abortion movements have been active in the UK since the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act. 

These groups include the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), which was first established to try to prevent the act from being passed and which says its mission is to “protect human lives at the national and local level, and to build a society free from abortion”.

Until recently, pro-life organisations have been marginalised in the UK, but CNN reports a recent increase in “Americanised tactics” in anti-abortion activism in Britain, as campaigners follow the examples of their more vocal, militant US counterparts.

Speaking to the US broadcaster in July, Franki Appleton, an advocacy adviser for abortion services provider Marie Stopes UK, said that women trying to access reproductive health services in Manchester were facing some of the worst anti-abortion harassment ever seen in Britain. 

“Over the past 14 years, anti-abortion gatherings outside the (city) centre, in particular, have been escalating in frequency and size and there has been an escalation in the harassing behaviour as well,” she said.

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