Being Pro-Life on Campus Post-Roe

Students and recent graduates reflect on outreach to their peers.

Clockwise from top: Katie Yarborough attends, alongside fellow pro-life students at the University of Florida, the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Cherilyn Halloway (Pro-Black, Pro-Life), Ashley Gilliam (Louisiana Right to Life) and Trinity Wicker (Louisiana Right to Life and Louisiana Black Advocates for Life) speak to students at Southern University in front of the college exhibit at the kickoff of the Pro-Black, Pro-Life HBCU tour. Austin Cader and Abby Rose Bradshaw are shown with the college exhibit at Louisiana Christian University in 2022.
Clockwise from top: Katie Yarborough attends, alongside fellow pro-life students at the University of Florida, the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Cherilyn Halloway (Pro-Black, Pro-Life), Ashley Gilliam (Louisiana Right to Life) and Trinity Wicker (Louisiana Right to Life and Louisiana Black Advocates for Life) speak to students at Southern University in front of the college exhibit at the kickoff of the Pro-Black, Pro-Life HBCU tour. Austin Cader and Abby Rose Bradshaw are shown with the college exhibit at Louisiana Christian University in 2022. (photo: Courtesy photos)

Amid the usual challenges of trying to reach their peers on the issue of abortion, pro-life college students on secular campuses have seen Roe v. Wade overturned and the resulting shifts in the political landscape over the past year.

Despite the uncertainties and occasional hostility they’ve faced, pro-life student leaders and recent graduates told the Register that the keys to reaching their generation on the issue continue to be respectful engagement, an invitation to look at scientific information about life in the womb, and hearing the personal stories behind pro-life choices.

Katie Yarborough, a senior at the University of Florida who started a Students for Life chapter on the Gainesville campus last year, began the process to start the group before Roe was overturned on June 24, 2022. She said seeing its downfall “was definitely inspiring, but it was also a little bit scary coming back to campus with a brand-new group when the climate around the abortion issue was so divided and hostile.”

She saw a little more hostility right after the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling, but she said she never felt unsafe on campus and “definitely did have some interesting conversations.”

Yarborough, who is also a national spokeswoman for Students for Life of America, said that something she has found to be effective is to find “even just a little bit of common ground” when discussing the issue with her peers where “maybe they don’t support abortion up until birth” or “they only support first- and second-trimester abortion.” She said starting at a point of agreement is helpful and then following up by “asking them questions to help them really understand what they do believe about abortion.”

Educating on the Issue

Yarborough told the Register she often finds her fellow students don’t know what basic abortion procedures involve so “explaining to them what happens in an abortion procedure is also really helpful and educational for them.”

A focus on facts about fetal development has been productive, as well. She recalled a conversation where initially a young man was in favor of abortion and came up to the Students for Life’s display table to talk. He later came back, after doing research following their conversation, and had modified his stance from saying that life began at birth to saying it started at brain activity, which begins at around six-weeks gestation.

“That was a really cool thing to see: how we planted a seed, and he started to do his own research,” Yarborough said, “then he came to this conclusion.”

In her year of setting up tables with pro-life information and starting conversations with her peers, she has seen that the discussion has a very emotional component for those who are in favor of abortion and that they have confusion and misinformation about the pro-life movement.

“They think that it’s people who are just trying to force women to give birth,” she said, “but, in reality, we stand for supporting those women who are in crisis pregnancies.”

Yarborough, who is majoring in political science and public relations at Florida, said an important part of their work is “letting the students on campus know that we are here for them if they find themselves in a situation where they feel their only option is to abort.”

Her group works with the nearby Community Pregnancy Clinics’ Gainesville location; the group held a diaper drive and baby shower to gather supplies for the pregnancy center last year. And Yarborough has heard from the pro-life center’s employees that “girls who were students at the school come in being abortion-minded and then leave with their minds changed and wanting to have the baby.”

Louisiana Right to Life

Ashley Gilliam, youth programs director at Louisiana Right to Life, graduated from Tulane University in 2021. She told the Register about the organization’s traveling exhibit that goes to colleges in the Bayou State to educate students about abortion.

The exhibit, which began in 2020, is made up of panels that address various pro-life topics, including depictions of stages of fetal development, a non-graphic, medical explanation of abortion procedures, and information about local resources for women facing crisis pregnancies.

Gilliam experienced the exhibit both as a student when she headed the pro-life group at the New Orleans university and now in her role as youth programs director. She said it is a good visual aid that also helps “people to start the conversation on campuses about why we’re pro-life.”

Pro-Life Students Tulane
Renee Trepagnier, Kayla Roesner, Ashley Gilliam and Serin Park are pictured with the college exhibit at Tulane University during the Tulane University Right To Life (TURTL) pro-life event in 2021.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

She has found it helpful to focus on the science behind the pro-life stance.

“People associate a lot of times being pro-life as just a religious ideal,” so “relying on that biology that is backing up that that’s a human being is a huge thing,” she said. The exhibit’s emphasis on the science has led to moments where students have been amazed to discover that babies have unique DNA at conception or that the human heart starts beating at around 22 days.

The exhibit also features the stories of those who regret abortion or were born after their mothers considered aborting them because, she said, those stories “can really reach students and touch their hearts.” When a local woman named Amber, who was conceived in rape, came and spoke to the pro-life group at Tulane, it served as an important reminder that “this is a real life that we’re talking about.”

Peer Outreach

Prior to college, Gilliam considered herself pro-life, but admitted that she didn’t know a lot about the issue. At Tulane, fellow students invited her to join the campus pro-life group, and she learned about the reasoning behind the pro-life stance. Her passion for the pro-life movement started with that group “allowing me to have those conversations and to ask questions.”

She feels that peer outreach on campuses is a vital component to the pro-life movement, recalling that the student who got her involved in pro-life work initially at Tulane particularly made an impression as a fellow young person who understood what was happening on the campus.

Gilliam noted that since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, which overturned Roe, “the amount of conversation has increased,” and she has observed “a lot more confusion surrounding the topic.” In June, the group updated the panels of the exhibit to more fully address areas of confusion as well as to show “how we are supporting women and what resources there are.”

She has also seen “a lot more anger and hatred” towards pro-lifers on campus post-Dobbs, with an increase in incidents where “people get up in someone’s face or get up in my face or spit at me.” She emphasized the importance of meeting this hostility with calmness and love.

Pro-Life on Campus sign
Tara Wicker (Louisiana Right to Life and Louisiana Black Advocates for Life) and Trinity Wicker (Louisiana Right to Life and Louisiana Black Advocates for Life) are pictured with the college exhibit at Southern University this year.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Starting Conversations at Yale

Gilliam said that a common thing she has observed with students is a lack of willingness to have a conversation on the pro-life issue at all.

This unwillingness to participate in conversation is something that Evan Kwong, a senior at Yale University and president of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), told the Register his group has to contend with on the overwhelmingly pro-abortion campus where they set up tables with pro-life themes.

He said that “the goal of the table is to invite conversation about the pro-life issue” because it’s “a given on campus that you’re pro-choice or you’re pro-abortion, so we’re just trying to bring awareness to this movement that is really not talked about.”

Kwong, who is majoring in history, said that one thing he has found effective in discussing the issue with his peers has been appealing to their idea of justice and human rights while encouraging them “to apply that to the most marginalized group and the most unprotected group, which is the unborn.” He has spoken to students where “we follow a similar line of reasoning with human rights and protecting marginalized groups, but they just don’t feel comfortable making that logical jump, which is that abortion is very unjust.”

He said it was also important to show that pro-lifers offer support to women and children in need through “volunteering at pregnancy centers and supporting mothers who may not be able to support their own children.” CLAY partners with St. Gianna Pregnancy Resource Center, in New Haven, Connecticut, where students volunteer to provide resources to mothers in need.

He said he has not observed a change in how pro-lifers have been treated on campus since Roe was overturned, but said that at Yale so many students are like-minded in favor of abortion that the issue is typically ignored, with the occasional hostility to the pro-life position expressed in the campus newspaper.

He has seen how the Dobbs decision has “been a turning point in the pro-life movement” because there is the possibility now to advocate for pro-life protections in certain states. However, given the pro-abortion climate in Connecticut and at Yale, “our goal is to take incremental steps,” he said, adding that “making the abortion conversation a topic of genuine debate would be a great first achievement.”

Focusing on Fundamental Questions

Michael Samaritano, another senior at Yale and member of CLAY, told the Register that when engaging fellow students on the issue, the group has a very scientific approach, utilizing “pictures of the different stages of fetal development” as well as discussing “the scientific consensus about when” human life begins. He said that the best focus is “on the new human person that’s there in the womb.”

He responded in the Yale Daily News in April to a student who wrote a call to “abort the conversation” after she saw CLAY’s table on campus, saying that because the issue is about “bodily autonomy and reproductive rights” for women, “simply opening space for this ‘logical, respectful’ debate itself is a threat to human rights that should never be up for debate.”

Samaritano wrote in response that “by asking campus passersby to reflect on when human life begins, CLAY is asking the campus community to think seriously about one of the most fundamental and unavoidable questions that there is. Far from threatening human rights, initiating this conversation is a necessary part of a principled and thorough discussion of such rights. It makes little sense to talk of human rights if we are unwilling to address the question of to whom such a concept applies.”

He said that something he found “even more concerning than the very impassioned opposition from this woman who had written an op-ed is a lot of the apathy.” He said for a good number of students, the discussion of when human life and rights begin is “just not an important question,” and they see it as a controversial issue that they don’t want to think about because thinking about it might mean changing their opinion, which could bring negative consequences and disruption to their lives.

CLAY aims to break through both the antipathy and apathy on the issue. Samaritano said that “the campus is certainly not pro-life, and it won’t be for the foreseeable future, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people that were still willing to engage at the table.”