Is student activism dead? It depends where you look
The obituaries are already being written. We are witnessing “The Death of Student Activism”, say the headlines in The Huffington Post and The Spectator. “Student activism is completely dead,” one student tells the Independent on Sunday, while another explains: “The saving-the-whale student – that’s the student of the 1960s or the 1970s. The student of today is hedonistic.” The notices are appropriately mournful. “Today,” one of Oxford’s student newspapers recently lamented, “us soft-centred students have lost our radical side. We need more causes and more courage.” But perhaps the obituarists are looking in the wrong places.
If you want to find young people joining together against injustice, take a glance at the pro-life movement. The campaign group Abortion Rights noticed the trend back in 2013: “Scarily,” they announced, “we’ve had many student unions reporting increased anti-choice [sic] activity on campuses.” Since then, there have been various attempts to close down or censor pro-life societies, but they haven’t worked: just in the last few weeks, two more groups, UCL Life Ethics Society and Students for Life St Andrews, have gained official status.
When you ask activists what first motivated them, they often talk about the one-sidedness of current public debate. Emily Milne of King’s College London was “galvanized” into action, she says, when her Students’ Union were considering a pro-choice motion riddled with false claims. “Someone needed to say something,” she felt. “So me and a couple of friends started a society.” They’re “still going strong” two years later, most recently collaborating with the London Legal Salon on a series of speaker events.
It is easy to feel powerless in a country where abortionists carry out over 700 terminations a day, while well-meaning parliamentarians fine-tune a bill to offer lethal poison to the terminally ill. But powerless is exactly what you are not, especially not at a university, where so many people take stock of their lives and their principles. It is also a place where these issues count, given that the most common age for women to have abortions is 22. Bethan Cleary got involved with Cambridge Students for Life when she found out that a couple of her friends had recently had terminations. “Of course, I did not and do not judge them negatively for their decisions. Far from it,” she says. “But I was really saddened and somewhat horrified to think that more often than not, the students making these sudden decisions in extremely stressful and scary circumstances only ever hear one side of the argument”.
The internet has helped the other side to get a hearing. Donald Morrison was sitting at home in the Western Isles of Scotland – where, he remarks, “there’s not much opportunity for ‘boots on the ground’ work” – when a bit of Googling brought him to the Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS), the umbrella body launched in late 2012. He realised he could make a difference. “It is so encouraging and inspiring,” he says, “to see the next generation – that’s us – taking up the mantle and really fighting for the lives of unborn children.”
I can testify to APS’s impact: it’s through them that I got involved with Oxford Students for Life. In the last few years we have made the pro-life case – putting on talks and debates, running a blog – while trying to express those principles in action: we’ve sung carols at a care home, raised funds to help vulnerable mothers, and campaigned for better provision for student parents. Something about our message, we like to think, has resonated with people: when one of our events was cancelled after security threats, a surprisingly large number of fellow-students came out of the woodwork to express their support.
It has never been so easy to connect with the national movement, and I recommend it to any students or students-to-be out there. Why not spend your irresponsible student years taking a little responsibility for the people who the powerful like to forget – above all for the elderly, the ill and the temporarily small? If there isn’t an existing group, APS will breathe life into a new one. The nice thing is that it only takes one person to found a pro-life society. It only takes two people to make it a going concern. After that – well, as Ben Kingsley says in Gandhi, “When you are in a cause that is just, people pop up from everywhere.”
If you were a student and want to learn more about getting involved in the pro-life movement then follow the link to APS’s website http://allianceofprolifestudents.org.uk