MANASSAS, Va. — This fall, college students on a number of U.S. campuses saw the large pink, trendy tear-drop-shaped banner labeled the “Planned Parenthood Project” (PPP) and might have thought the nation’s largest abortion provider was on their campuses — though, according to polling data, many of these students would not have known about Planned Parenthood’s bedrock connection to abortion.
Instead, the manned display was a very specific awareness campaign from Students for Life of America (SFLA) to inform students about the practices of Planned Parenthood. The displays and volunteers reached 40 campuses in 20 states over eight weeks from September into November.
“It wasn’t: ‘We’re anti-abortion or we’re pro-life.’ It was: ‘Look at this organization; look at their bottom line — they prey on women in crisis to profit themselves,’” said Tina Whittington, executive vice president of SFLA, about the effort.
Last June, SFLA commissioned a poll of 18- to 24-year-olds that included questions about their awareness of Planned Parenthood’s connection to abortion and their attitudes toward the organization.
SFLA was surprised to find that 59% of that age group did not know Planned Parenthood performed abortions or did not think they did. They also found that young people who knew the organization did abortions held an unfavorable view toward the group.
“So we knew there was a correlation there — between telling people what Planned Parenthood does and their favorability, how they viewed Planned Parenthood,” said Kristan Hawkins, the president of SFLA.
Hawkins said that other polling data indicates this younger generation is pro-life and that they respond with negative words such as “murder” when given the trigger word of “abortion.”
Hawkins said in regard to her organization’s strategy of ending abortion, “You have got to take Planned Parenthood out of the equation,” citing that the organization itself performs the most abortions in the U.S. and that it also will “prop up” local abortion facilities.
“They’re the big dogs. They’re the ones pushing for all the pro-abort legislation; they’re paying all the legal fees,” said Hawkins, referring to legal work against pro-life legislation and attorney fees for abortionists accused of breaking the law, including wrongful deaths.
From Data to Campaign
Students for Life of America decided to put the data in practice and devised a campaign that would not be a typical pro-life display, wanting to avoid appearing like a faith-based pro-life group. Instead, SFLA was laser-focused on creating awareness between Planned Parenthood and abortion, as well as alternatives to the organization.
Pro-life groups across the country ran the Planned Parenthood Project (PPP) displays, spoke with students and gave out literature.
Participating pro-life groups included a diverse range of campuses, including students at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Texas-Austin, Ohio State University, Gonzaga University and LaSalle University.
SFLA provided all the materials through funds from private donors, and the group’s regional directors helped operate the displays with student members of the colleges’ pro-life organizations.
The rather simple display featured pink signs focusing on the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood in 2011 and the amount of money it brought in through abortions. Data was taken from Planned Parenthood’s own annual report in 2011-2012. The signs also gave evidence about the organization allegedly having a monthly quota for abortions.
One data point compared the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood to its adoption referrals in 2011 as being 145 to 1.
Another sign, labeled “Where You Can Go for Real Help,” pointed to centers with STD and pregnancy testing and a link to OptionLine.org, a resource for crisis-pregnancy centers and maternity homes.
Students on campuses not visited by the campaign could find the same information, print out flyers and watch a short video on a dedicated website.
At the displays, students and other volunteers for campus pro-life groups stood ready to talk with people who dropped by the displays. Volunteers also had literature about Planned Parenthood to give away, along with information on post-abortion resources.
Included with the display were 915 little pink crosses, which were planted in a grassy area. The markers represented the average number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood daily.
High Stakes in New Mexico
Samantha Serrano is the student leader for Students for Life, the pro-life group at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. Serrano also works at Project Defending Life, a crisis-pregnancy center near campus.
Serrano and her friends’ pro-life mission is especially important, as the UNM Center for Reproductive Health, located off campus, performs abortions up to 22 weeks. Serrano believes the facility receives funding from the University of New Mexico and said the school’s medical students learn how to perform abortions there.
On Nov. 19, Albuquerque citizens vote on whether or not to ban late-term abortions 20 weeks after fertilization. Hawkins penned an editorial about the special vote, and SFLA has brought attention to the University Women’s Resource Center, encouraging people to vote “No” on the ban.
In regard to the PPP outreach on Sept. 13, Serrano said, “It went really well,” though they encountered three or four extremely angry people. She said they “had a lot of really good conversations, and a lot of people left saying, ‘Wow, I feel a lot more educated about this.’”
Elsewhere, according to Whittington, students at the University of Buffalo who identified as “pro-choice” thanked the pro-life group for being there, “because they didn’t know this about Planned Parenthood.” In the past, this particular campus pro-life group experienced harassment and vandalism in response to their outreach efforts.
At the University of California-Berkeley, Mia Antonio, one of the co-leaders for Berkeley Students for Life, found that people were willing to dialogue on the information presented in the display on Oct. 4.
“What I especially liked was the fact that we had a lot of good conversations, and that was our goal,” said Antonio, who mentioned that she would gladly “go head first into it” in regards to another outreach campaign.
Antonio said there was some hostile feedback at times, but she felt the group was breaking new ground with students who might not have thought about these issues before. She said she would rather have students be more vocal with their opinions and be engaged with the display than just walk by.
“I’d rather get that response than apathy,” said Antonio.
More Hostile Reactions
The outreach’s reception was more hostile on some other occasions. After a day of outreach with the PPP, Theresa McHugh, president of Students for Life at Indiana University, said the group felt “extremely overwhelmed and depressed at the end of this.”
“Having anybody yell profanities straight at your face or seeing that happen to some of your close friends — it’s very, very hurtful,” said McHugh.
“I think we were all mentally and physically exhausted, just from feeling so much persecution on campus,” she added.
McHugh had an almost three-hour conversation with a male student whose mother worked for Planned Parenthood. The student identified himself as “pro-choice,” but disagreed with abortion in most situations. However, he said, he would not know what he would do if he was in a woman’s situation with an unwanted pregnancy.
McHugh witnessed another male student became very angry after reading some information on the signs. He picked up five of the pink crosses and placed them in the garbage, telling the volunteers that they should be ashamed of themselves. Another male student told a volunteer that the group was “in conflict with a world that I want, which is a world where all your churches burn,” in disturbing comments that were recorded on video.
Besides the lengthy conversation McHugh had with the son of a Planned Parenthood worker, she said there was not another open conversation with men that day.
“It was just directing hate speech at the women who were helping out,” McHugh said.
After the outreach, McHugh’s friend suggested some “Jesus time,” and they went to the Hoosier Catholic Center for Eucharistic adoration and Mass.
“I just felt like such a weight lifted — that I know I could not have received anywhere else,” said the graduate student, upon describing praying after receiving the Eucharist.
After the challenging day, the pro-life members felt like they had “accomplished a lot” and were excited to receive increased “likes” on their Facebook page and people contacting them on their group’s website. She said the event “really put the word out there that our group was on campus,” and, overall, it was encouraging to the group.
“If we’re receiving that much protest for us being there, than this is the exact place that we need to be,” said McHugh.
SFLA is in the process of translating Planned Parenthood Project materials into Spanish, realizing that the abortion provider operates near minority neighborhoods and many members of Latino communities “don’t understand or don’t know the full extent of what Planned Parenthood does,” said Whittington.
The PPP was the first of four campus campaigns of SFLA’s “Social Justice Project.” This coming spring, the next campaign will look at the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion in the United States.
According to Whittington, many students identify themselves as “pro-life,” but balk at to the idea of seeing abortion outlawed or the Roe v. Wade decision overturned. The spring project will focus on bridging the gap from a personal pro-life viewpoint to making abortion illegal.
She said that the “battlelines have been drawn on the abortion debate” on the university campus, noting that 79% of Planned Parenthood facilities are located within five miles of college campuses.
Said Whittington, “Anytime we can talk about Planned Parenthood on campus, anytime we can talk about the value of life and support women in crisis, who are facing a difficult decision, to show them there [are] resources of support and help, we’re winning.”
Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from the Boston area.