Exposing Exeter: The rise of pro-life student societies

The University of Exeter has been thrown into a flurry of negative media coverage after their pro-life and anti-abortion society sparked controversy. The group, who call themselves ‘Exeter Students for Life’ claim to be ‘fighting for the lives of preborn babies in the womb’, and ‘advocate against abortion, promoting the dignity of human life’. 

The group is comprised of four leading members who have some rather shocking opinions on abortion. On their Instagram, the president of the society writes that ‘abortion is part of the rebellion against God’. The vice president goes on to say that he ‘do[es] not believe that any woman really wants to have an abortion’. Exeter Students for Life recently held a workshop on ‘pro-life basics’ and they welcomed freshers by explaining ‘being a pro-life student is not going to make you the most popular person at uni’. Although the group reference this on their Instagram in a light-hearted manner, it does indicate that creating a society around these beliefs does not have a place in the university environment. 

A petition has been set up to ‘strike down Exeter “pro-life” society and stand up for women’ and currently has almost nine thousand signatures. This petition aims to reach ten thousand signatures, with the hope that students will show their disapproval of the pro-life society. The group is in fact funded by the Exeter Student Guild, which has led students to question why the student union are displaying direct support for pro-life beliefs and allowing them to be broadcasted on a larger scale. 

Although people are causing a stir and speaking up about the controversial group, it has raised an important point of reflection for other students, as many realise their own university may have a pro-life society that they were not even aware of. There are a number of Russell Group universities that have societies similar to that of Exeter’s. Unfortunately, there are only six to date that do not have pro-life societies  – Warwick, Sheffield, York, Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle, according to The Tab. This is only including the twenty-four Russell Group universities- there are almost certainly more in other universities across the UK.

University is definitely a place for learning and debating, however, these societies are directly harmful to reproductive rights. The presence of these groups on campus will inevitably make for a hostile and unsettling environment for both staff and students. The effect these societies can have has already been shown, as at a recent freshers fair, Oxford University’s ‘Oxford Students for Life’ stall was torn down by students who refused to leave, resulting in the stall being completely taken down. According to ‘The Oxford Student’, the society displayed placards that read ‘life from conception: no exceptions’ despite that being a scientifically inaccurate argument. It’s alarming that the top ranked university in the country (according to ‘The Complete University Guide’ league table) has a society dedicated to spreading harmful information, whilst making students and staff feel unwelcome and at risk. 

Though, student-led pro-choice movements are on the rise and popping up in retaliation to pro-life groups. On the University of Exeter’s ‘new society ideas page’, an ‘Exeter Pro-Choice Society’ has appeared and is waiting for at least twenty five students to register interest. Considering the speed at which this has appeared, it seems hopeful that there are students willing to support reproductive freedoms and rights.