By: Dr. Nicky Priaulx
Participating in Pro-Life Inquiries: Engagement and Impact
In the contemporary academy we’re encouraged to participate in public debate and indeed to make an ‘impact’. But many are motivated simply by virtue of civic responsibility and the desire to make a difference to engage – whether through connecting with government, third sector or the broader public. In this respect, the ‘Conscience Inquiry’ might look like a wonderful opportunity to do precisely that when it’s so on topic.
However, for those tempted to feed into this ‘Inquiry’ quite some caution is needed. There is certainly prestige in submitting evidence to Parliament, but this is not presenting to Parliament. It will go to some folks in Parliament, but that’s it. If you choose to submit oral evidence, be more careful still – you’ll go to the Houses of Parliament but there too, that’s it. This is an informal group of individuals who have a very specific agenda they want to put into action and they are becoming increasingly hyperactive in so doing.
A Pro-Life Inquiry for Pro-Life
When coming to submit evidence online or sending in hard copy written submissions it is important to consider who is judging ‘the evidence’. If Fiona Bruce MPs name is there, and it sits alongside either any reproductive technique, abortion, dying (or indeed, more likely “living well”), then we’re probably talking about an exclusively Pro-Life affair. Of course, this is a little more apparent on the latest website, given the small print, but even then, if Twitter is an indication, some academics with that knowledge still seem to be approaching the so-called Conscience Inquiry as if this constitutes an opportunity for informed debate and discussion. For those expecting ‘balance’, be warned – that’s not going to be forthcoming – or at least if it looks that way, have a look at the report from the abortion and disability inquiry first. Ask questions before you participate; various academics, including myself, had our responses ‘woven’ into an overarching narrative that very few of us could ever subscribe to. It was nasty stuff.
On the so-called Inquiry I participated in, there was no sign of this being led by the APPG for Pro Life. I didn’t know Fiona Bruce MP at that stage from Adam. But now I know to carefully steer anything in which she is involved given her status as Chair of the APPG for Pro Life. And she plays out her Pro-Life colours dutifully as her various Parliamentary interventions over the last few years demonstrate – taking exception to abortions on the grounds of disability, gender, mitochondrial donation, and more to boot. She’s a Pro Life mover and shaker, using her buddies in both Houses of the same political leaning to form panels or clusters of support for Pro-life measures. It’s almost impressive.
For me personally, in giving oral evidence, and a little wet behind the ears politically in thinking that all was as I expected it to be, my engagement with this Inquiry came as a horrible shock. I found out who the panel members were rather too late in the day (I should have asked) – and long after having submitted a lengthy report in advance which I assumed would be read by a balanced panel. I had extensively prepared for a balanced panel. Having received the transcripts of the earlier three sessions released to me on the day, I spent my time on the tube en route for my ‘day in Parliament’ furiously reading through these with a sense of increasing horror and disbelief. I didn’t need to know the panel members to know that something was afoot. Each transcript was drenched in pro-life. Pro-Life conversation. All of this now, seems hilariously obvious; but it wasn’t at the time – because I was set up for and genuinely believed that this was official Parliament business and it was a big deal and a glorious opportunity to make a difference. That was not going to be the case; and from the transcripts of earlier sessions, I had a sense of what was coming – but didn’t know the extent of it: I was presented with an exclusively Pro-Life panel. That that was the case, rather unfolded (hostility towards me by the hissing audience and the panel itself who ran with a bizarre line of questioning in the course of giving “oral evidence”).
Some of panel’s pro-life stripes were easily discoverable through searching the registers of APPGs: prominent members of the APPG for Pro Life (Fiona Bruce MP, Baronness Masham of Illton, John Pugh MP), and those who despite not being members of that APPG at the time, such as Rob Flello MP have since signed up for the APPG for Pro Life (but was on the APPG for the Holy See at the time, which was possibly a clue). The red flag for me, was the notoriously Pro-Life Baroness Knight of Collingtree – a prominent name (Jill Knight) in the context of debates in the lead up to the Abortion Act 1967. Some less easy to position members if one hasn’t closely followed debates in the two House, gave me the hope of balance, which wasn’t there. Indeed the political leanings of the panel have become clearer to me since – composed of those who either spoke out against gender-based abortions (Baroness Hollins of Wimbledon), and those who provided backing for Fiona Bruce MP’s Abortion (Sex Selection) Bill 2014-15 (Jeremy Lefroy MP, Virendra Sharma MP). That was the panel.
There are significant and fascinating intellectual issues to be explored around section 4 of the Abortion Act 1967 and all of us know of very talented scholars working on issues of conscience who would – in a genuine and balanced inquiry have important things to say. But that’s the caveat really – this inquiry isn’t after what is interesting and intellectually fascinating.
Of course, there are still merits to participating in this – to at least disrupt what would be in the absence of our voices, an otherwise smooth Pro-Life script. But when dealing with Pro-Life groups in these kinds of settings, much greater thought is needed about what to say and how to say it. While the result of my own naivety and spending too much time deliberating over intellectual issues and wanting to provide a ‘useful’ and nuanced account, none of that mattered for this. In fact, that was problematic. Rather – more time was needed in thinking through – and asking – who my audience was. You should ask –APPGs are required to inform you of their membership. Had I known, my responses, and indeed entire preparation for that Pro-Life Inquiry would certainly be different now – I stumbled without thinking into an inquiry about abortion without thinking who would be motivated – really motivated – to hold one, and why.
Nevertheless, while I’ve been critical of my own oversights here, what I have learnt is why a Pro-Choice position must be uncompromising, clear and straightforward. And in particular, how in this particular terrain, it is always critical to stick to that (because you’ll be asked questions which try to pull you into ‘difficult’, marginal or ‘grey’ areas – and for Pro-Lifers, those zones are the place where their gains are made). Fiona Bruce MP and her friends are not interested in balanced debate; instead they will be looking to ‘extract’ from your written evidence and through a line of questioning, areas of your responses that fit their agenda. Your work can be utilised to lend them legitimacy even where you sought to achieve the opposite. Even if these ‘inquiries’ aren’t that important at the end of the day, you’ll feel your time was wasted and probably abused, in the process.
Knowledge then, of the role that APPGs play, who funds them (e.g. in the case of the ‘Conscience Inquiry’, the funders of the APPG for Pro-Life: CARE, and Life) and ensuring that the presentation of these so-called Inquiries are as transparent as can be is critical. And we now have a few more tools available at least to try to ensure that that is so. If we get tricked, members of the public will too, understandably. We can make it a little harder for informal groupings of Pro-Life campaigners to pass their ‘inquiries’ as Official Business, but it takes poking around in odd places.