A new breed of campus activists are trying to drag the pro-life cause away from the religious right.
By Jason Gay
NOVEMBER 30, 1998: Elizabeth Pavlides walks into a coffee shop in Kenmore Square on a late Friday afternoon. A 19-year-old sophomore at Boston University, Pavlides is tall and thin, and her face is framed by long auburn hair. Her clothing can be described as understated hip: a dark, simple sweater, pants slightly flared at the cuff, and chunky sneakers. Both of her ears are pierced several times, and around her neck is a black ribbon choker adorned with a Greek-coin pendant. She looks like a sales clerk at Urban Outfitters, or a publicist for a rock club.
But Pavlides is neither one of those things. She's here to talk to a reporter about her role as the president of Boston University Students for Life, the anti-abortion organization at her school. She actively supports pro-life events on campuses and attends rallies, including the annual National Right to Life march in Washington, DC. She's been to the Brookline headquarters of Planned Parenthood, where she's stood outside and handed out literature, trying to persuade women to consider alternatives to abortion.
"Killing a fetus for any reason," she says, "is atrocious."
Even when you hear this, it's hard to believe Pavlides is a pro-life activist. Maybe it's the chunky kicks, or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones pin on her book bag. Maybe it's the fact that she sings in an industrial-rock band called Meta Section with her musician boyfriend, Lane (they have a CD). Maybe it's the fact that apart from her stance on abortion, Pavlides is an unabashed social progressive on everything from gay marriage (cool) to contraceptives (fine) to the legalization of marijuana (not for me, but why not?).
"I think people should be able to do what they want, as long as they're not hurting anyone," she says.
Pavlides belongs to a new generation of pro-life activists on college campuses who are trying to throw the old stereotypes out the window. They have lived their entire lives in the age of legal abortion, and they believe the national pro-life leadership has been too religious, too aggressive, and generally out of touch with the American mainstream. Their ranks include small, grassroots groups such as Punks for Life, Feminists for Life, and the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGL), and they promote a pro-life position that is more scientific, less confrontational, and -- in Pavlides's words -- more "open minded."
"We're trying to put a new face on the pro-life movement, a hipper style," says Helen Zonenberg, a Wellesley College senior who is the president of American Collegians for Life, a national organization with more than 3000 members. "We want to weed out the religious stuff and give people philosophical, more humanistic reasons for being pro-life."
Still, this new pro-life strategy doesn't find a wide audience on campus. The activists the Phoenix spoke to at four Boston-area schools -- BU, Wellesley, MIT, and Northeastern -- say that their position on abortion continues to set them apart from their classmates, the majority of whom consider themselves pro-choice. Violent attacks such as last month's murder of Buffalo physician Barnett Slepian, and John Salvi's clinic massacre here in 1994, have only made the pro-life movement look worse, they say.
Indeed, pro-life student leaders sometimes feel like targets themselves. They tell stories of being mocked and harassed by pro-choice students. Some activists have had their groups' posters destroyed and offices vandalized. Worse, they sometimes feel that this harassment is tolerated institutionally -- a charge supported by Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and Phoenix contributor who is the coauthor (along with Alan Charles Kors) of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. Silverglate says that even though the vast majority of students are pro-choice, it "doesn't justify censorship of the other side -- which exactly what is going on."
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: being a pro-life activist in college in 1998 is a changing and challenging task.
"Growing up, I had this idea that I'd be fighting for a cause," says Israel Palmer, the president of Northeastern University Students for Life. "But I didn't realize I'd be on the defensive so much."
Catherine Bambenek is a 25-year-old graduate student studying material science at MIT. Like most of her techie classmates, Bambenek spends hours in class and working on lab assignments, and her schedule isn't loaded with spare time.
But nearly every week, Bambenek and her colleagues from MIT Students for Life set up a table in the school's "infinite corridor" -- a heavily traversed hallway in the center of campus -- where they pass out brochures explaining adoption services and mothers' assistance programs.
"It's just a time to give out information," says Bambenek. "It's not a time to preach or to cram opinions down everyone's throats."
College pro-lifers are drawn to the movement for a variety of reasons. Many were raised in religious households, where they were taught from an early age that abortion was wrong. Others are pro-life for science-related reasons. Sometimes the decision is simply personal. Elizabeth Pavlides, whose parents are both pro-choice, concluded she was pro-life after her seventh-grade class in a Connecticut suburb did a study unit on abortion. "When it was explained to me what it was, I knew the second I heard it that it was wrong," she recalls.
Bambenek, a soft-spoken, blond Minnesota native, has always considered herself pro-life. Raised Catholic, she never considered her stance to be particularly controversial, not even when she was an undergraduate at South Dakota State. In the Midwest, most people have a "pro-life attitude," she says, even if that attitude doesn't translate into activism. "People are generally mellow about the issue," she says.
But the abortion debate isn't always mellow on the East Coast, Bambenek says,
so she doesn't push it. This is true for her colleagues at other schools as
well. College pro-lifers may be dedicated to their cause, but they don't
normally practice the hard sell. Around Boston, especially, you are not likely
to find students marching around campus with graphic photos of aborted
Here, the pro-life approach tends to be low key -- information tables, bake-sale fundraisers, and the like. Occasionally, pro-life students organize baby showers for women who might have considered abortion, but opted to have the child instead. And there are campus speeches here and there -- Pavlides, for example, glows about a speech she recently attended by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College who has written several books on the pro-life movement.
But pro-life activists at Boston schools aren't about to become rabble-rousers. The main reason, of course, is numbers -- pro-life organizations tend to be quite small compared to other campus groups. Bambenek says that MIT Students for Life has 100 members, but its core group totals only 10 to 15 people. The Wellesley Alliance for Life has a mailing list of roughly 20 people, says Zonenberg, but its active group is just five students -- out of a total school enrollment of 2500, most of whom consider themselves pro-choice.
Indeed, the pro-choice majority on campus can be so overwhelming that it's possible to believe there aren't any pro-lifers around. Zonenberg says she sometimes encounters this misperception when she's chatting with fellow Wellesley students about politics and national affairs. "It's just assumed [at Wellesley] that you are pro-choice," she says. "When friends of mine find out that I am pro-life, they are shocked."
Because their numbers at individual schools are so small, college pro-lifers find comfort by keeping in close contact with colleagues at other schools. This past October, Northeastern Students for Life hosted the annual assembly of the Ivy League Coalition for Life -- a two-day pro-life seminar attended by representatives of BU, MIT, Harvard, Simmons, Holy Cross, Princeton, Yale, Swarthmore, Boston College, and Brandeis. (Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn gave the welcoming speech on the seminar's opening night.)
Zonenberg says events like the Ivy League Coalition for Life serve to remind individual activists that they are not alone -- and to show them how they can state their case more effectively. "A lot of us tend not to be confrontational or into debating," she says.
This year's Ivy League event was organized largely by Israel Palmer, who has been active in pro-life politics ever since she was a 16-year-old performing "sidewalk counseling" outside the Planned Parenthood in her Fort Myers, Florida, neighborhood.
Palmer thinks that college pro-lifers need to be more vocal. "We are too silent," she says. "We don't speak out. We allow ourselves to be trampled upon by the media -- we don't defend ourselves."
But speaking up has its hazards, too, Palmer acknowledges. If you speak up, she says, chances are that someone will try to shout you down.
Late on the afternoon of October 24, Helen Zonenberg returned to her dorm room at Wellesley to find a piece of paper thumbtacked to her door. It was a photocopy of a news story about Barnett Slepian, the abortion doctor who was murdered when a sniper fired a shot through the kitchen window of his Buffalo home. Over the article, someone had written in red ink: YOU AND YOUR FELLOW PRO-LIFERS MUST BE PLEASED.
"I had a flood of different emotions," Zonenberg recalls. "One, of course, was shock."
Zonenberg says it was the first time in her three-plus years at Wellesley that she had felt directly threatened because of her pro-life position. But other pro-life activists at Boston-area colleges haven't been as fortunate.
Northeastern's Palmer, for example, says her tenure has been marred by a pattern of incidents ranging from mild confrontations to outright harassment. Certain groups refuse to sit next to Northeastern Students for Life's table in the student center, she says, and one university administrator even refuses to ride the elevator with her. Several times, she says, the group's posters have been torn down or defaced, and its office desk has been vandalized more than once.
"I think people feel that because we have an opinion about something, it impinges upon their freedom," Palmer says. "But it's really just an opinion."
Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere. Catherine Bambenek says that an MIT Students for Life banner promoting a local pro-life rally was stolen from a school building. And she also says she's been on the receiving end of some rather pointed verbal attacks from students.
"I've had people come up to me and ask me how, as a well-educated person, I can possibly be pro-life," she says.
To be sure, some spirited debate is expected on an issue as divisive as abortion. But pro-lifers take exception to these challenges when they become personal or threatening. And activists are especially angered by what they perceive as a lack of response by university administrators when such incidents occur.
Silverglate, the Shadow University coauthor, says this experience is typical for college students whose opinions deviate from the "prevailing orthodoxy" on campus. It's not just pro-life activists, he says -- students with deeply held Christian or orthodox Catholic views often find themselves challenged for beliefs that are considered un-P.C.
"They are really an endangered group on campus, because their religiously held views are considered on many campuses to be some form of sexual harassment," Silverglate says.
Indeed, Palmer says she was drawn to feminism when she entered college but has found it nearly impossible to explore that path, given the way her pro-life activism is received. Asked what her biggest disappointment in college has been, Palmer says it's "not being accepted by your sisters, being totally disconnected, and having vocally violent disagreements with campus feminists."
"I can't consider myself a feminist because the feminists won't accept me," Palmer says. "I'm pro-life, so there is no sisterhood for me."
No matter what the advocate's intentions, the pro-life position comes with serious baggage. Here in Boston, the debate is amplified by memories of John Salvi's murderous rampage through Brookline four years ago -- the worst episode of abortion-related violence in the state's history.
"I was devastated [by the Salvi killings], because I knew what it would do to the movement -- it set us back years," says Palmer.
The violence has been disastrous for pro-lifers, no doubt. But college pro-lifers in this area say their movement's biggest hindrance may be religion -- specifically, the fundamentalist-tinged Christian rhetoric that continues to be a major part of the national movement.
"In order for the pro-life movement to be successful, it has to be actively reaching out to a number of groups," says MIT's Bambenek. "And it has to stay focused on being pro-life, and not branch back out into religion, if it wants the kind of unity it needs to be successful."
Indeed, the impression created by traditional pro-lifers is that a constitutional repeal of Roe v. Wade is just one part of a broader Christian agenda that includes the reinstatement of school prayer and the rollback of gay rights. As a result, college-aged activists say, young people are often are scared away from the pro-life cause, afraid they'd be joining a religious-right crusade.
"The movement really seems to embrace Christianity as the way to be," says Zonenberg. "I love being Catholic, but I think the movement is incorrect to be focusing on [religion] so much. I think they're losing a lot of people."
In fact, these student leaders agree that religion is a loaded issue on college campuses -- particularly secular ones. Palmer says that Northeastern Students for Life members don't even try to discuss religion with students, for fear of alienating them. "The minute you use a religious argument to prove a point, it becomes irrelevant to the person who's belief system isn't in agreement with yours," she explains.
Instead, college activists promote arguments that are more philosophical than religious. Palmer suggests that the movement needs to focus on the "social and scientific aspects of abortion -- what it does to a woman, and what it does to society."
At some colleges, that shift is already taking place. Bambenek recalls a recent discussion with MIT friends about human genetic research, which may allow mothers in the future to know if their fetus shows a predisposition toward a particular characteristic or disease -- cancer, for example. Obviously, such research has "a lot of implications in the abortion debate," she says.
This is not something that people at MIT are thrilled to talk about, Bambenek admits. "Here, people don't think of embryos as being miniature babies," she says. "They think of embryos as potential cells for liver transplants, or who knows." But discussions like these help to separate the pro-life movement from its religious baggage, college activists say. Zonenberg, for example, is excited about the emergence of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGL), who worry that if a genetic link to homosexuality is established, parents may chose an abortion to prevent having a gay or lesbian child. BU's Pavlides touts Punks for Life, a coalition made up largely of don't drink/don't smoke/vegetarian "straight-edgers" from the hardcore-rock scene.
"Groups like that are great because they break the pro-life stereotype that we're all Bible thumpers," Pavlides says. "It shakes things up."
Of course, one of the challenges these activists must face is that there
are still plenty of Bible thumpers in the national pro-life movement.
Shaking her head, Helen Zonenberg recalls attending a pro-life conference
earlier this year where several PLAGL members, who were brought there to speak,
spent much of their time arguing with Christian conservatives in the
But to Boston's young pro-lifers, internal conflicts like these only hurt the cause. If the pro-life movement is to survive at all, they believe, it may need to rely on the new generation, which is already swimming against the tide on campus. "There are definitely people who think it's time for a change," Zonenberg says.
Pavlides agrees. "I hate to say that the older generation should be forgotten, because they still make up a large part of the movement," she says. "But people may be more inclined to talk to someone like me."
Jason Gay can be reached at email@example.com.
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