The tension on the Diag was so palpable it seemed to tighten the slack lines tied to trees surrounding the horrifying display. Pictures of supposedly aborted fetuses were juxtaposed next to the graphic, blown-up pictures of Holocaust victims, the body of a dead African child and a bolded textbook definition of genocide.
Are you pro-choice or pro-life?
As a proud pro-choicer, I went home to change into my stylishly cut “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” American Apparel t-shirt, crafting a scathing opinion piece in my head to write for The Michigan Daily. I loudly ridiculed the pro-lifers, whom I characterized as having “crazy eyes,” with my friends and huffed and puffed and worst of all I dismissed the students huddled around tables on the edge of the Diag, so frustrated they weren’t being heard that they enlisted full color graphics that screamed.
At the time it seemed like the pro-lifers were seriously screwing themselves over.
But I do remember seeing one young woman, a student, standing nervously behind the display, pro-life pamphlets in hand. I wish I had talked to her instead of openly laughing at what I perceived at the time to be really poor activism.
So months after the inflammatory display, just in time for the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I visited the group behind the Genocide Awareness Project — the University of Michigan Students for Life.
To some extent I got what I expected. Some of the students I talked to described abortion as murder, genocide or killing babies, and they referred to the clinics as “abortion mills.”
But on the other hand, the students were rational and passionate, quick with statistics. These were students accustomed to defending their position.
LSA junior Carmen Allen, the articulate president of Students for Life, gained notoriety after she helped bring the Genocide Awareness Project to campus. When her classmates realized she was the fiercely pro-life Carmen who helped organize the controversial display, she said she felt huge walls go up in classes.
“When you do something like that, it’s one easy step to become a name instead of a number,” Allen said.
Wearing a controversial belief on your sleeve isn’t always going to win you friends. Allen recalled one time when she was standing in Liberty Plaza with a piece of duct tape over her mouth to represent the voices of “the unborn” and a pro-choice man told her she didn’t have a right to talk about women’s rights.
I know what it’s like to be screamed at for your beliefs. Standing behind a pro-choice booth in the sweltering July heat, I bit my tongue while one old man screamed, “How can you as a young woman support killing children?” I reached for one of my statistics, for one of those talking points to refute him. But it’s not easy to think clearly when someone is personally attacking you, using your own identity to silence you.
Allen says she grew up vaguely pro-life in line with her Christian beliefs, but when she came to college, she finally understood where her beliefs originated after someone close to her had an abortion.
“It became more personal — it’s not textbook anymore,” she said. “It’s not even a debate or an argument anymore. It’s ‘Oh my gosh, I know what this is.’ ”
I found this to be a trend among most of the Students for Life members — they had come to these political decisions on their own. Allen said her family warned her that being too involved in the pro-life movement could mar her chances for employment.
As Allen recalled her father telling her to get back to “real stuff,” I could hear my own father sighing in exasperation when he looked at my lefty, activist-heavy résumé. The same condescending tone, the same dismissiveness of youthful engagement. Watching people trash flyers for a cause that keeps you awake at night.
I was surprised by how relaxed the atmosphere at the meeting was. I’d pictured the students behind the Genocide Awareness Project display as fervent and self-righteous – almost foaming at the mouth. But everyone was casual, breaking into committees to discuss an upcoming fundraising gala.
LSA sophomore and Students for Life public relations chair Joe Lipa said the reason he’s pro-life is because he wants to “save lives.”
When Lipa described how Students for Life held vigils outside of a local Planned Parenthood buildings and handed out pamphlets containing information on the “truth about abortion,” I had to stifle an instinctual groan. But it was impossible not be taken in by an engrossing story Lipa told about witnessing one woman forgo an abortion.
The way he told the story was more important than its content.
“It took place in the dead of winter,” Lipa started with a flourish.
Breathlessly, he explained how he and another student saw the anxious young man whose girlfriend was planning on having an abortion smoking outside the Planned Parenthood facility. How after talking to the two representatives, the young man resolved to change his girlfriend’s mind. How the girl knelt to pray in the snow. How the girlfriend, as Lipa told it, changed her mind.
And though I don’t think a woman should be talked into or out of what I view as a private choice, I was taken in. My instincts told me to question the story. I thought that it was too perfect, but the cynic in me was quieted by Lipa’s smile. This was the story that he probably drew on when people were telling him again and again to shut up.
Which brings me back to the Genocide Awareness Project situation.
It got us angry, but it also got us talking (albeit in raised voices) about a topic that for a lot of people is just another item on the political agenda. The abortion issue periodically garners national attention, like when pro-lifers attempted to defund Planned Parenthoods across the country last year.
But in an era when people are constantly bemoaning the lack of student activism, look no further than the intense, ongoing pro-life/pro-choice debate, which is less about politics and more about deciding what we value as a society.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I became pro-choice, but it was probably around the time I was peer pressured to sign a virginity pledge in my eighth grade health class, when I realized my body was public property and my sister’s, my friends’ and my choices were fodder for national debate.
It’s pretty easy to be pro-choice at the University. I may have been raised in the religious west side of the state, but I grew up in East Quad, where being pro-choice is as ubiquitous as the Bob Marley posters pasted on dorm room walls.
It’s easy to get trapped in an echo chamber when you think the Truth belongs to your side. But even if we can’t agree, we can occasionally step across the protest line, stop the chanting, and listen.