Fem Soc caused a bit of a stir at the recent Sabbatical and Trustee Election Candidates Question Time. And when I say Fem Soc, I of course actually mean myself, however all of the tweeting going on about the supposedly inappropriate question – and the recent news article in the Orbital about the event – firmly associated the question with the Feminism Society. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this – I am the secretary of the society, and some would say I am a prominent feminist activist at RHUL. Others would say that I just have a very big mouth, but that's a whole other story.
The question I asked to the candidates for Vice President for Education and Welfare was whether they are pro-choice. This question was initially disallowed by the Democracy Officer, on the grounds that it was “irrelevant”. We'll come to that later. Eventually, after a little heckling from the back of the room, the question was allowed, once I'd reformulated it into... basically, not the same question. I should state at this point that this article is not meant to be an assault on the integrity of the Democracy Officer – we disagreed, and he won, because he is an elected official of the Student Union and I am not, so he was entitled to make the decision he did. However, I would like to explain why I believe that his judgement was incorrect. The question of whether the VPEdWelfare candidates support a woman's right to choose could not have been more relevant, and the women of Royal Holloway deserved to hear the answer.
Let's take a look at Regulation C, which lists the duties of elected officials of the student union. The VPEW is, amongst of course a great many other things, responsible for “providing information and support on welfare … issues”, “organising necessary campaigns on welfare … issues” and liaising with College, charities and community services to ensure welfare provision for students. What this means is that the VPEW will be responsible for the policy of the Student Union on providing information to students about contraceptive and abortion services. They will choose the leaflets that are available in the welfare suite, they will choose whether or not to form partnerships with charities and organisations providing support for students who experience and unplanned pregnancy during their studies. They will decide whether campaigns on contraception and sexual health contain any information about abortion, and what that information is.
We should quickly address a major sticking point in any kind of debate like this: what does “pro-choice” mean. Pro-choice does not, and I cannot emphasise this enough, mean pro-abortion. You can be pro-choice and hate the idea of abortion, you can be pro-choice and have moral convictions that mean you will never yourself choose to abort a foetus. However, being pro-choice means that you support the a woman's right to choose to have an abortion if that is what she wants. The slogan “our bodies, our choice, our right to decide” is common amongst the pro-choice movement, and sums it up really: women should be able to have access to all the necessary information to make their own decision about what they want to happen to their own body. Access to safe, legal abortion is a cornerstone of the women's liberation movement.
It is the right of students to be able to access a full range of welfare information from their Student Union, and that includes comprehensive, unbiased information about abortion and referrals to abortion charities and helplines. I do not believe that a VPEW who held a fundamentally anti-abortion stance would be able to fulfil their duties to the students of Royal Holloway. A moral stance which prevented a VPEW from providing welfare information about abortion, from including abortion issues in campaigning work, from liaising with College and external providers on the issue would be fundamentally opposed to the role of a VPEW. Pro-choice is about just that, choice, and if a VPEW would be unwilling to promote choice for students who experience an unplanned pregnancy during their studies then the electorate had a right to know that. That is why I asked my question, and that is why it was in no way irrelevant.