When I bring Pippa and Emily, the president and vice-president of Cambridge Students for Life, into the office, I have the kettle already boiling, hoping that a paper cup of tea can break (or at least warm) the ice.

While the water boils, I do the usual runthrough of what we have on offer: tea, coffee, or alternatively, beer. It’s admittedly three o’clock, but Emily’s shock is perhaps a little over the top. They both opt for a lemon and ginger tea.

The last time I saw the pair was at the Freshers’ Fair, sat startlingly at ease. Last year, the Exeter Students for Life’s presence at their Fair prompted a petition, and a media storm of controversy. Yet their Cambridge counterparts were met with comparatively little backlash, and challenges to their rhetoric seemed to not extend far beyond glares across the marquee.

“[Students] had their own ideas of who we were and didn’t give us the opportunity to show who we actually were”

Emily remembers the Freshers’ Fair as “really, really encouraging.” When I suggest that their experience can surely not have been overwhelmingly positive, she replies: “That’s more because [students] weren’t listening at all… they had their own ideas of who we were and didn’t give us the opportunity to show who we actually were.”

Pippa agrees. “People think well, you must hate women. Well clearly we don’t!” She laughs at what, for most students, is not clear at all. “We say we’re whole life ethics,” Emily explains, “from womb to tomb.” “We believe that everybody has the right to life, and that includes women, and people who are grown, and people who are disabled, and everybody including foetuses... they see us as people who hate women, rather than people who actually love all people. And that’s why, because we think foetuses are also people, we care for them.”

Beyond what they consider “love”, Emily and Pippa approach being 'pro-life' through a “feminist” lens, something which sounds oxymoronic. Emily mentions sex-selective abortions: “from a feminist point of view and being pro-women […] you want to support women and yet it will often be either the father or the other partner saying, no, you need to abort that because it’s not a boy. And that can’t sit right if you are actually pro-women.”

Abortion, from Emily’s perspective, “will often come from a man”. This argument seems to deny women both their bodily autonomy, and their mental capacity. Pippa raises a statistic that 15% of abortions are undertaken due to pressure. As Emily puts it, “pro-choice is often not the choice.” No report explains what this “pressure” entails — while Emily and Pippa seem to envision women marched to clinics by their husbands, “coercion” and “pressure” are umbrella terms encompassing a plethora of reasons for termination. In any case, only 1060 women were polled. The notion that 15% of abortions are undertaken due to pressure does not seem valid, and nor does it validate 'pro-life' feminism.

Implicit in such rhetoric is the idea that women are unable to make their own decisions — that abortions are a tool of repression, not liberation. Yet another study has shown that, although pressure from a partner can make up part of the decision, it is less than 1% of women who would cite this as their main reason for choosing to abort their pregnancy. In fact, women’s families and partners often pressure them to continue their pregnancy. The BMJ reports that one in four women at sexual health clinics are victims of reproductive coercion. This can mean pressure to abort, but most often means coercion into becoming pregnant.

The heads of Cambridge Students for Life are not just 'pro-life' because they’re “feminists”. “I believe that we’re all created in God’s image… the Bible says that God knit us together in our mother’s womb.” Emily clarifies that she does believe in science, and that from her perspective, “scientifically, the foetus is a child.” Pippa, a medic at Christ’s, argues that “from a medical perspective, I think the argument that a foetus is just a ball of cells doesn’t make much sense to me.”

For her, the most “natural explanation for when human life begins [is] at conception.” As a doctor, Pippa will have multiple fields ruled out — she is unwilling to work with human embryos, and doesn’t think she would be allowed to give some abortions and not others. She isn’t sure about this either, though, telling me: “I haven’t really fully considered when it’s an issue of the mother or baby dying or one of the bodies surviving. It seems logical to save the life, whichever one it is.” I am left as confused as she is over which life she means to save, although, it seems, a little more concerned.

They are aware of their personal limitations, though. “We aren’t trained therapists,” Emily underlines. “We can facilitate thinking. We can support others […] We can hand out things that raise awareness.” As well as handing out “little cards” with information on what the university can provide for pregnant students, they advertise various “pregnancy crisis centres” on their website. Couched in such euphemistic terms, one might assume that such centres would offer unbiased, compassionate advice. Unfortunately not. One centre they link to offers online and over-the-phone counselling, but their website contains the footnote: “We do not refer for abortion.” The centre also offers post-abortion counselling, cautioning that “women can experience guilt, regret, grief and other troubling emotions following an abortion/termination.”

Another charity which CSfL works with offers counselling for Post Abortion Syndrome (PAS), a form of PTSD whose symptoms, they claim, include “Fear of God’s punishment.” PAS is not recognised in the International Classification of Diseases nor the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. On top of this, studies have time and again shown that women are not negatively affected by abortions. Quite the opposite — relief is consistently the most common emotion felt post-abortion, and those who do experience negative responses are the ones most affected by stigma.


Mountain View

My EU homeland where abortion is still a crime

Cambridge Students for Life’s rhetoric is misleading, their statistics unvalidated and biased, and their co-option of feminist discourse worrying. I am left confused why such a misinformed group has been validated by the Student Union.

And yet, while our conversation leaves me at times feeling uncomfortable, I can’t help but feel a little compassion for Emily and Pippa. They insist that they are not campaigning to make abortion illegal, and Emily is the one to remind me that “you can have a hypothetical debate about it, but actually, it’s people’s lives.”

They maintain that they “would really like to facilitate discussion”, and are “not just showing pictures and scaring people off.” And as much as we disagree, there is some extent to which the three of us, hands clasped around now empty cups, can reach across to one another and find common ground on compassion, in all its dizzying complexity. Our conversation, although difficult, and at times infuriating, feels like a step towards untangling the intricacies of the 'pro-life' debate — and whether it should even be had.

Chatting about our plans for the day, I realise I can switch off the recording, and that the A word hasn’t been mentioned in a while. As Emily puts it, “I think it’s taboo, and maybe to an extent that’s okay, it’s okay that we’re not always publicly fighting about it, because this is people’s lives.” I agree — but looking at the leaflet I’m still holding, and their Facebook page advertising a termcard’s worth of talks, it’s clear they’re not exactly keeping their opinions to themselves.