Newcastle University Student’s Union has rejected a motion to sideline an anti-abortion society.
Last Thursday, November’s council voted against overturning the Life Society and striping it of the official status.
The motion was defeated by 63% votes to 35%, with 2% abstentions that means the Life Society will continue to exist as an official NUSU society.
The meeting was far better attended than usually with people having to sit on the floor.
The divisive issue set off a heated exchange between two groups that lasted for half an hour before the final decision was taken.
The motion was called by the secretary of the Socialist Society, Elena Sirett, who made an emotional plea to vote against the Life Society, which had “a negative impact on the mental well-being” of students.
Fope Olaleye, the president of the Feminist Society, backed the motion calling for students to avoid anti-choice rhetoric.
But the Student Council voted against the motion as the majority believed it was not democratic and contravened the principle of freedom of speech.
Sunil Nambiar, who voted against the motion, said: “If we’re aspiring toward a community of open discourse, every point of view must be kept engaged.
“Conflicting stances need to be challenged by debate and example, not excluded.”
Sirett said: “I detest that many of those who argued against my motion attempted to depict the argument as an issue of the Life society’s freedom of speech.
“No woman on this campus should have their own personal choices shamed and, to quote the Life society members who spoke at the meeting, ‘challenged’ by a group that spreads false scientific information about the consciousness of embryos”.
Matt Wilson-Body, the president of the Socialist society, was disappointed that the motion failed to pass only because “the debate was framed as a free speech issue”.
He said: “The Life Society has every right to hold and voice their opinions as they wish.
“However, with a number of women informing that union’s support for the anti-abortion group has made them feel unwelcome, NUSU’s continued association with the Life Society will make more and more students shy away from using union services and support avenues.”
He added: “NUSU has a duty to make students feel safe and supported on campus.
“With recent reports showing that they provide some of the worst mental health support in the country, it is clear that it has no interest in doing so.”
The Life Society claimed it would be “unjust” to cut them off from the Students’ Union because of “false accusations, presumptions and prejudices”.
The president of the Life Society, Roisin Stanley, said: “I think one reason these people want us de-ratified is because they believe the negative stereotypes that the media portray of pro-lifers and have not actually taken time to have a conversation with us about the society.”
Benjamin Eckford, the secretary of the Labour Society, explained his choice to back the motion, saying that the Life Society “was not what it said”.
He said: “It was not the case of being pro-life.
“We are all pro-life, and they are anti-choice.”
“What I don’t believe is fair for the Students’ Union is to fund and therefore approve of a society, which seeks to limit and deny people a choice.”
Eckford added: “But they are perfectly entitled to make a free speech argument.”
There is no proof of any wrongdoing by the Life Society, but a few expressed concern that members might soon embark on damaging campaigns against abortions.
Sirett admitted: “It is true that the Life society has yet to do anything overtly offensive”.
Speaking after the event, Stanley told the Courier the Life Society would not take any actions following the meeting.
She said: “We have done nothing to contravene our constitution or harm anyone.
“People pointed out concerns about how our activities would affect the welfare of students.
“However these concerns had already been raised by the societies exec, when we were ratified last year.
“And we have already put appropriate measures in place in our constitution to mitigate these concerns.
“So, we will not be changing anything because we weren’t doing anything wrong prior to this meeting.”
The Life Society was ratified last spring and currently has about twenty members.
It claims to promote “a culture of life and respect of human dignity amongst society members” by hosting pro-life talks, debates, movie nights and socials.
Last year a pro-life group of students from Strathclyde University, Scotland, was rejected in receiving financial support from the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association (USSA).
It was later followed by an online petition that called to oppose a ban on the funding – about 5000 people have signed the petition.