Second in a three-part series on the promotion of contraception and abortion on college campuses—and how some Catholic and pro-life groups are fighting pro-abortion initiatives.
WASHINGTON—Chances are a woman in college who takes a pregnancy test at a student health clinic won't be offered very many choices.
“They say,‘I'm so sorry you're pregnant.' No congratulations. Just‘here's the number for the abortion clinic. They take Visa and Master-Card,’” said Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life of America, a nondenominational organization that promotes basic human rights and helps student pro-life groups organize and lobby in support of pregnant and parenting students on campus.
Foster points out that far from representing a truly “pro-choice” viewpoint, this approach gives the pregnant woman no choice at all.
The result is that pregnant women in college are faced with the almost inevitable decision of dropping out of school or having an abortion. Out of every five abortions, one is performed on a college woman. A 1996 Gallup poll reported that while after high school only 37% of women considered themselves “pro-choice,” that percentage rose to 73% after college. The trend is mirrored on the campuses of Catholic colleges.
Eva St. Clair, a student at Stanford University, said 75% of students on her campus are “pro-choice.” St. Clair's Stanford Students for Life group has hosted speakers, organized conferences and distributed pro-life materials to campus health centers, but she can recall only one major event sponsored by Stanford Students for Choice. “I have seen them surface only two or three times at events they were not sponsoring,” she said.
However, pro-choice groups are highly visible on other campuses. A “Student Organizer” sent via e-mail to students from the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League gives instructions on effective campus organizing. One section of the e-newsletter tells readers “too few women know about and use emergency contraception.”
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America includes on its Web site student-written accounts of activities on various campuses. One student described a recent “celebration” at Tulane University as providing “an educational sex-trivia contest,” “music by local rock goddesses” and “of course, free condoms!”
A “human sexuality event” at the University of Florida at Gainesville was even more explicit. A panel of “sexperts” answered questions from the audience about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and “sex toys,” and giveaways included “male and female condoms, dental dams, a variety of lubricants.”
The pro-life side is fighting back. The Cardinal Newman Society, a group that works to restore Catholic identity to Catholic colleges and universities, has teamed with the Catholic bishops, the Nurturing Network and other pro-life groups to launch the Campus Culture of Life Project, which will help establish programs and services on Catholic campuses for pregnant students.
“We want to push college campuses to build a culture of life,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. To do so they will work with college administrators to develop education and counseling programs, facilitate student transfers to other colleges during pregnancy, develop and promote student pro-life clubs and institute policies to forbid referrals to pro-abortion health and counseling facilities, invitations to pro-abortion campus speakers, distribution of contraceptives and distribution of pro-contraceptive and pro-abortion literature on campus.
Signs of Hope
Some colleges are already permitting, if not embracing, the activities of pro-life groups who want to present students with alternatives to abortion. Foster of Feminists for Life said she has seen changes in the attitudes of some college administrators. Several universities have added accommodations such as parking spaces for pregnant women and recorders for taping class lectures. Some have even designated special housing for pregnant students or single parents. With guidance from Feminists for Life, Georgetown University instituted the Hoyas for Kids Child Care Center.
Those instances, however, are far from the norm. Many pro-life groups encounter difficulty with the simplest tasks, such as placing advertisements in student newspapers or persuading the health clinics to distribute pro-life information to pregnant students.
The main focus of the Human Life Alliance is to place more pro-life advertisements in college newspapers. As paying customers, this should be easy. Not so, said Director of Campus Outreach Jenni Speltz. “At least half don't accept our ads,” she said. Among them is Loyola University of Chicago, a Jesuit Catholic college.
Regardless, Human Life Alliance manages to place ads in about 240 college and high school papers per year, and Speltz said students' reaction to the 8-12 page supplement of pro-life resources and information is highly positive. “It gives them hope,” she said.
Feminists for Life encounters similar problems. Some schools refuse its ads—although they are free of political or religious content—therefore violating the First Amendment right to free speech.
Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life voiced the same concern about the Genocide Awareness Project, which juxtaposes photos of aborted babies with graphic images of victims of genocide and violence, such as lynchings and the Holocaust.
“The First Amendment forbids content-based restrictions on free speech,” he said. “It is ironic that this project has more success getting into secular universities ... than it has getting into Catholic universities which, as private institutions, have more leeway to control who comes in and who doesn't.”
He also recounts a more physical form of silencing. At pro-life demonstrations or vigils, abortion promoters will often hold up large sheets to obstruct the view of pictures of aborted babies.
“They try other kinds of demonstrations also,” said Father Pavone, “but it does not stop crowds of students from coming and being impacted.”
Mary Cunningham Agee, founder of the Nurturing Network, doesn't encounter the same amount of resistance as other pro-life groups on college campuses, and she attributes this to her “Mother Teresa approach.”
“We're compassionate and practical,” she said of the organization she started in 1985 to provide practical, lifesaving support to women facing pregnancies. The group has helped more than 15,000 women.
The secret to her success, she said, is to refrain from mixing political activism with the organization's main intent of providing help. “The minute that I do, the more trouble I'll have,” she said. To that end, she keeps her ads free of politically charged language. They offer support, compassion and a toll-free phone number for women in need.
Agee also aims to get student health clinics to distribute her information, which has proved a greater challenge than placing ads. “It runs the gamut,” she said of colleges' attitudes toward her brochures. “It goes all the way from certain colleges that only give [students] information from Planned Parenthood to the authentically Catholic colleges that only give out our information.”
The pressure on college women to abort babies is strong, Agee said. She named four “pressure points” that influence decisions: the attitudes of the boyfriend, the peer group, the parents and the employer, who may decide that the woman is no longer credible to customers.
“A quick escape hatch when someone is panicky is very attractive,” Agee said.
Feminists for Life also shows alternatives to the “escape hatch” of abortion and, like the Nurturing Network, it focuses on supporting the woman.
Foster said that specific focus is what makes the organization a safe haven for so many women.
“[A woman] can see that we love her,” Foster said. “Even if she had an abortion, we love her unconditionally.”
Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Next week: Can medical schools require abortion procedure training for their students?