Universities are the Latest Battleground For the Anti-Abortion Movement
Students across the world have become a target for the tactics and messages of those opposed to a woman’s right to reproductive healthcare, Sian Norris reports
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Students and universities have become the latest battleground for the global anti-abortion movement, including in the US and the UK where religious freedom groups support so-called “pro life” students and societies and are quoted in Government reports on free speech.
Having previously focused their energy on faith-based groups, increasingly anti-gender groups are targeting youth communities.
In Kenya and countries where access to safe and legal abortion is more contested, anti-abortion groups have been gaining ground among student populations, medical student and President of the Medical Students Association of Kenya Zebedee Nyakwara Motanya tells Byline Times. He believes women have the right to reproductive healthcare and sees first-hand the impact of unsafe abortion in the hospital wards where he trains.
“We see terrible, terrible things happen,” says Motanya. “We might see a girl trying to tie something around their abdomen, some try and put things through their vaginal canal, in the hope it will force an abortion. Some try traditional concoctions or they go ahead and jump from a high place”.
Often women and girls, Motanya explains, buy abortion pills online or from pharmacies, which can be sold at high prices.
Now in his fifth year of his medical studies, Motanya has seen the growing influence of anti-abortion politics in the student population, where young people are encouraged to join chastity clubs and sign ‘pro-family’ declarations.
“It is really taking roots here, as opposition groups try to counter pro-choice work,” he explains. “They’re trying their best to capture the students and the youth when they are still young and naive. Before they have information about these issues”.
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Disinformation and Silencing
One of the leading groups targeting students in Kenya is the Empowered Youth Coalition (EYC), which has multiple members in the African continent. It is linked to Family Watch International – a religious right organisation founded in the US that has a record of campaigning against LGBTIQ rights in East Africa.
“EYC has an objective of uniting and mobilising young people across the region to promote anti-gender rights,” Tashrifa Silayi, who works in the Kenya office of reproductive rights NGO Ipas, tells Byline Times. “It targets university students, claiming to create a movement of young people advocating for family and life values”.
Young people are the majority in Africa, and so focusing their efforts on students is a way, Silayi explains, for the anti-abortion movement to win greater support for its agenda in the region.
“Through setting up chastity clubs, encouraging students to make their own content, and having prizes for the most innovative content, they are creating a movement of anti-gender, anti-LGBTIQ young people within the university,” states Silayi. “At the same time, they target young professionals within the universities, like lawyers and medical students to be part of their clubs, ensuring that future professionals hold the values that they’re advocating for”.
EYC asks members to sign a declaration proclaiming the belief that a child has the “right to life” and the right to be “reared by their mother and father who honour their legally sanctioned marriage with fidelity”. Family is given primacy – and heteronormative families at that. Cash prizes worth up to $1,000 are offered to young people aged 15-35 who produce music, video, poetry, artwork, written articles, and photography on EYC’s campaigning themes.
The organisation also shares disinformation about the health impacts of having a termination – a crucial tactic of the anti-abortion lobby.
A “Fact or Fiction” quiz on the website asks a series of questions about sexual and reproductive healthcare, including whether girls and young women who have abortions are more likely to experience depression/anxiety, substance abuse issues, suicidal behaviours or “all of the above”. The answer it provided was the latter – despite the NHS and other healthcare bodies confirming that having an abortion does not increase the risk of mental health issues.
A further example of anti-abortion disinformation is a worksheet shared by EYC about a character called “Jacquie” suffering from “post abortion syndrome”. This is a non-existent diagnosis for which there is “no evidence” and which has never been accepted as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association.
The worksheet poses the question: “What are some ways Jacquie tried to cope with her depression from her abortions?” before suggesting an answer could be that “she took alcohol, had multiple sex partners, overworked herself”. It also asks the participant: “Why do you think Jacquie would even consider ending her own child’s life?”
While students are free to hold anti-abortion views, the concern is that these organisations are gaining influence in a region where access to safe and legal abortion is severely restricted, where there is a lack of comprehensive sex education, and where alternative narratives are repressed – leading to the spread of disinformation.
“You get students coming up and they’ve not been exposed to sex education, they’ve not been exposed to sexual and reproductive health information, they’ve not been exposed to information about gender-based violence,” says Motanya. “These anti-gender groups really target them and capture them when they’re young and push their agenda on them when they are still young”.
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The impacts are two-fold. The first is on women’s health, as seen by Motanya in the hospital wards and evidenced by rising rates of teenage pregnancy. The second is the chilling effect on pro-abortion, pro-LGBTIQ speech – even as those who push anti-gender agendas often do so in the name of free speech.
“For young people who need reproductive health services, including abortion services, they are creating an environment that is full of stigma and judgement, pushing more young women and girls who need access to safe abortion services to go for unsafe options,” explains Silayi. “This results in an increase in deaths or even injuries, because now they’re exposed more to unsafe options as compared to the safe options”.
“It means women don’t seek help when they really need help,” Motanya adds. Unsafe abortions kill 2,500 women and girls in Kenya every year.
The Western Perspective
Organisations such as Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – based in Arizona – have long used freedom of religion and freedom of speech arguments to support anti-abortion societies, students and debates in universities across the world, including here in the UK.
In 2019, ADF International – the European arm of ADF – supported the anti-abortion group Glasgow Students for Life after the society was denied affiliation to the student union. It also supported midwifery student Julia Rynkiewicz after she was suspended from her studies for four months, due to her links to an anti-abortion society at her university.
The extremist anti-abortion group Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK targeted Cardiff University campus after the university adopted a “pro choice” stance, displaying graphic abortion imagery. It was met with counter protests.
In doing so, it was following in the footsteps of its US colleagues – CBR – where similar anti-abortion protests took place across campuses.
It’s not just protest tactics that the European anti-abortion movement has learned from the US. One of the reasons ADF International focuses on campus rows in the UK is because its parent in Arizona has fought and won numerous cases supporting university anti-abortion student societies, including in in Fresno, Eastern Michigan University, Louisiana, University of Buffalo, Oklahoma State University, University of South Alabama and others.
This suggests that the tactics of how to promote anti-gender agendas, including via universities, are being exported from the US to Europe and beyond.