Scottish pro-life student group in suspense over its fate

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With the University of Aberdeen's student association meeting one person short of a quorum last week, it will be at least five months before a pro-life group will have another chance to overturn a pro-choice policy it calls discriminatory.

In October the Aberdeen University Students' Association prevented the affiliation of the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society, citing its own pro-choice policy. The move limits Ale's access to funds and venues at the university.

After failing to have the policy changed, Ales filed a lawsuit April 12 against Ausa and the university, "alleging unlawful discrimination against the society and the violation of rights protected by UK law."

According to Aberdeen daily The Press and Journal, Ales put a motion before Ausa to re-word the pro-choice policy at its April 23 meeting. "But while it required 38 members to form a quorum, only 37 attended – forcing the meeting to adjourn without any decisions made," wrote James Wyllie.

Ausa will not meet again before September.

An Ales spokesman said that "while it is frustrating that student political engagement at Aberdeen is so anaemic that a minimum quorum can't even be reached, the students don't bear the sole blame here," The Press and Journal reported. The pro-life group charged that had the student association's board of trustees repealed the policy, "no lawsuit would have been necessary and the discriminatory policy would have been relegated to the dustbin where it belongs."

Ales announced the rejection of its application for affiliation Oct. 19, 2018, saying: "We were rejected because the Student Council passed a policy in November 2017 declaring AUSA to be 'pro-choice' and pledging to 'no-platform' any society that opposes abortion. Since our proposed society is unashamedly pro-life, we have been banned from affiliating."

The pro-life group said that the pro-choice policy is "being used as political cover to ban student speech on campus, it also treats the student body as undivided on the issue of abortion."

Ausa has cited its pro-choice policy, adopted in November 2017, as the basis for its decision. The policy says, in part, that "Ausa should oppose the unreasonable display of pro-life material within campus and at Ausa events."

Ales' suit charged that Ausa's no platform policy violates the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 by restricting "the freedoms of association and belief for certain students on the basis of an ideological litmus test."

In an April 19 statement on its Facebook page, Ausa noted it had been "served with a writ" and that "we are not able to comment on the content of the lawsuit in any detail as we are in the process of seeking legal advice. However, we would like to reassure our students that we firmly remain a pro-choice institution and strongly support the values that this idea represents."

The Press and Journal reported April 25 that an Ausa spokeswoman said its pro-choice policy "remains suspended until the necessary amendments have been made to bring the policy in line with the relevant legislation" and that "there is therefore no barrier to the proposed Aberdeen Life Ethics Society affiliating to Ausa and any application will be treated in the same manner as any other application to affiliate."

Ausa's board of trustees has recommended that the student council repeal the pro-choice policy.

Earlier this month Ales said it has twice submitted motions to the student body to allow its affiliation, but "on both occasions … our motions were decisively defeated by the students in attendance."

"It was disconcerting to watch our fellow students affirm and uphold our legal disenfranchisement, but it serves as proof that student democracy at Aberdeen is broken, serving only to insulate students from dissenting opinions."

Pro-life groups at other Scottish universities have faced similar problems.

Last year the the University of Strathclyde (in Glasgow) lifted a similar ban on pro-life groups, following legal pressure. Strathclyde Sudents for Life argued that the student associaton's no platforming policy violated the Equality Act 2010 "by directly discriminating against a group of students based on their beliefs."

More in Europe

Glasgow Students for Life were barred from affiliation by the Glasgow University's Students' Representative Council last November.

In March 2018 a joint committee on human rights of the UK parliament noted troubling barriers to free speech at the nation's universities, writing: "Whilst the original intention behind safe space policies may have been to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups can feel secure, in practice the concept of safe spaces has proved problematic, often marginalising the views of minority groups."

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