In the Eye of the Ivy League, Life

Yale University Professor Emeritus Boah-Teh Chu believes the first signs of the “new springtime” that Pope John Paul II predicted have arrived.

According to Chu, a new student pro-life group, Choose Life at Yale — Clay — is a sign of the emerging generation's desire to seek the truth about life and to change the culture.

“I do see the springtime of the Church coming, much faster than I thought,” says Chu. “Things in our culture can turn around in one generation. These kids are bright. They have access to information, and are quick to search out and grasp the truth about life. In less than a year, many become very firm and strong in their convictions.”

Chu, who began his career at Yale as a professor of field mechanics in 1963, has remained a steadfast supporter of student pro-life groups since the first one emerged shortly after Roe v. Wade in 1973. Since that time, Chu says, numerous groups have come and gone. But pro-life leadership inevitably fails as students graduate and organized efforts to support life dissolve.

But the professor is optimistic about Clay. The student members of Clay, he points out, are impressive. They are sharp, dedicated, creative and dynamic. Each has come to a conviction about life through careful reflection and with remarkable integrity. All agree that abortion is an issue of justice. Together they are crafting a change in the prevailing culture by their openness to dialogue and firm conviction that life is precious and that “choice” oversteps its bounds when it infringes upon the rights of others.

Although Clay itself is nonsectarian, some of its members are Catholic.

Against the Grain

Clay was founded in 2002 by two women in response to a prayer service hosted by a pro-abortion group honoring the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Dismayed by the absence of any pro-life voice on campus, Sarah Hyman, a 2004 graduate, and Mary Hollis, now a senior religious-studies major, formed Clay. Hollis says that Clay's presence on campus challenges the prevailing notion that abortion is implicitly accepted as part of a widely celebrated “open-minded” mentality.

“When I first wore a T-shirt saying ‘Abortion is homicide,’ my suite-mates seemed shocked,” recalls Hollis. “It was well established that abortion was the only view on campus. It's taken for granted that everyone is pro-abortion.”

Clay's first public activity, a candlelight vigil with one flame for each child aborted hourly across the United States, drew a mild protest on the part of ardent pro-abortion students who sought to disrupt the event by playing loud, vulgar music.

Junior Debbie Bedolla, president of Clay, says that protests by a handful of pro-abortion activists continue. Posters depicting the development of a child in utero, Clay's “Baby Lucy” campaign, are torn down repeatedly. “The posters last for a few minutes before someone comes and tears them down,” Bedolla says.

But this has not hindered Clay's growing membership, which now numbers about 50 and has a mailing list of 200. Clay members believe that the group's non-confrontational, nonpartisan and nonsectarian approach to all life issues, including euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and the death penalty, is slowly gaining acceptance and attracting people by raising awareness about the moral dimensions of abortion.

Last year when Clay members protested death row prisoner Michael Ross's execution, other student groups expressed surprise at Clay's willingness to work with groups who were pro-abortion.

“This opened dialogue,” Bedolla says. “Many people believe that if you are pro-life, you are also a religious zealot or aligned with conservative politics. But when we spoke out against the execution, people began to see that we are pro-life in every respect and are concerned with justice. We don't adopt a political stance but we welcome dialogue.”

While Clay's official policy is not to engage in political debate or to align itself with political parties or religious bodies, members do seek to find common ground in addressing issues, especially problems that pregnant students might face.

Clay members believe that pregnant women on campus lack the resources they need to choose life. For instance, while student health services allow women at Yale to have an unlimited number of abortions, there are no resources for women who might want to carry a child to term.

“We know people are having sex,” Bedolla says. “But you never see a pregnant woman on campus.” One of Clay's goals is to raise awareness and resources so that students consider choosing life.

Junior Geoffrey Ellis, Clay's secretary, says he never thought much about abortion prior to arriving at Yale. But the culture of “choice” on campus, coupled with a growing sensitivity to the life issues, made him keenly aware of the problem.

“I always had a gut instinct that abortion was wrong, but I never thought much about it,” says Ellis. “But I began to see how important the problem of abortion is.”

Ellis, who experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith during his freshman year, says he felt very alone when his deepening convictions about life issues placed him at odds with the culture on campus.

He found support in Clay, where others in the pro-life community shared both his conviction about life and his view that abortion is a flawed solution to real issues that women and society face.

The newest member of Clay, Helen Danilenko, is a native of Russia and a junior with a double major in politics and international studies. Danilenko, who says she is surprised by the tone of debate about abortion in this country, believes abortion is an issue of fairness and equality, and above all, of causing no harm. Clay's philosophy, she said, is similar to her own: Be a force for good and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“In a culture where we value innocence and life,” she says, “abortion is just too big a risk.”

Irene Lagan writes from Washington, D.C.