Spreading the pro-life message on campus

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By Mary Meehan

While most college students are spending their summers in more conventional pursuits, about two dozen are walking across the country in witness to their pro-life convictions. As they hike from California to Washington, D.C., they do educational work through radio and television appearances and talks to parish and youth groups. For lodging on the route, they camp out, stay with families or sleep in churches and Knights of Columbus halls.

“Everything is unbelievably smooth” so far, said Stephen Sanborn, president of the sponsoring group, shortly before the annual walk started in May. Later, though, he reported that a support vehicle had broken down, producing an “unexpected cost that’s nailing us to the wall,” but not stopping the walk.

Sanborn’s group, Crossroads, is affiliated with his employer, the American Life League of Stafford, Va. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, which is noted for its Catholic and pro-life identities and which provides most of the students for the annual walk.

The walk has two routes this year. About 13 students started from San Francisco and are walking through the center of the country toward the nation’s capital, and 11 started from near Los Angeles on a southern route to the same destination; others usually join along the way. Both groups are scheduled to arrive in Washington on Aug. 14, where they will hold a rally on the Capitol steps and take part in an American Life League conference.

The Crossroads witness is one of many pro-life initiatives by college students. Participants generally are Christians, often Catholics, and many combine a religious witness with a pro-life one, which can be a problem. “I love being Catholic,” Helen Zonenberg told the Boston Phoenix newspaper last year. But Zonenberg, then a Wellesley College senior and president of American Collegians for Life, added that the pro-life movement focuses on religion too much and “I think they’re losing a lot of people.”

In a January interview at her group’s annual conference in Washington, Zonenberg said that it has been hard to “defend the pro-life movement from a Catholic or a religious perspective” at Wellesley because the campus is “just so secular.” She favors presenting the case against abortion with “a more secular, more scientific or philosophical means — something that people who aren’t
religiously affiliated can relate to or
accept. . . . We have to be more versatile, and we have to come up with many different arguments.”

The chances of building support on campus seem to be improving, judging from a survey of college freshmen by a University of California at Los Angeles research institute reported recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nine years ago, the survey showed that 65 percent of college freshmen thought abortion should be legal. That percentage has declined steadily, and the most recent survey found that only 51 percent believe in legal abortion.

But surveys do not organize students. There are about 3,700 colleges and universities nationwide, and Zonenberg’s group claims contacts at only about 300. “We’re planning to expand,” she remarked. “We’re forming an outreach committee this year.” The group, which is known for its leadership-training work, is currently headed by Matthew Malek of Villanova University.

Some pro-life collegians have encountered hostility on campus, including destruction of their posters and vandalism of their offices. But Zonenberg said that the opposition she has encountered usually has been “very pleasant . . . very polite.” And Kathryn Getek, interviewed earlier this year when she was a Princeton University senior and president of the Ivy League Coalition for Life, said that hostility levels on campus are less damaging than “the levels of apathy which we encounter.”

The Princeton pro-lifers sail right into major controversy. Last year, Getek said, someone from Princeton’s Office of Population Research spoke to the freshman class, promoting “emergency contraception” in the form of the “morning-after pill.” Getek and a colleague wrote a response in the campus newspaper, saying that this “contraceptive” actually is an abortifacient and complaining that the speaker presented no alternatives. (There are pregnancy services at Princeton, Getek said, “but no one knows about them.”)

She and other students also fought the appointment of Australian scholar Peter Singer — who supports infanticide of handicapped babies at parental discretion — as a bioethics professor at Princeton. Getek said that Singer “has a right to his opinions, but we don’t think that guarantees him the right to teach ethics at our university.” The university administration has refused to back down from the Singer appointment.

Feminists for Life of America has a college-outreach program, which staff member Molly Pannell said is keeping her group’s director “quite busy” with campus speaking engagements. (Pannell wears another hat as head of the American Collegians for Life board.)

Feminists for Life urges its college contacts to focus on alternatives to abortion. It challenges U.S. campuses “to offer housing to pregnant and parenting students, provide on-site child care, include maternity coverage in student-insurance plans” and take other steps to help student parents. The group uses Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as a model of support for such students. Pannell also said that at least three other campuses have their own crisis-pregnancy centers.

The Washington-based National Right to Life Committee has an outreach unit called National College Students for Life. Press aide April Holley described it as a “support group” for students that is “available to help anyone.” Their help includes a “starter manual” of how-to advice, educational material, access to pro-life speakers and contact with nearby right-to-life groups. Such contact is especially important for college students, Holley said, so “they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every four years.”

Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, based in Madison, Wis., is another national student group. Explicitly Christian, the organization focuses on education and direct action, such as prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics. Network director Kneale Ewing said the group has contacts on more than 300 campuses, but he didn’t know how many of those overlap with contacts for the American Collegians for Life.

Ewing remarked that pro-life work on campuses “can be frustrating at times, because the numbers aren’t there as much as you’d like to see,” and that many campus pro-life groups “seem to be downsizing.” Yet Collegians Activated to Liberate Life also hears from many students who ask for help on setting up new pro-life groups, so “there’s a lot of encouragement, too.”

The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) of Washington, D.C., has a Campus Organizing Project that’s run in cooperation with the U.S. Student Association. In 1991, the pro-abortion group claimed contacts at 400 to 500 campuses; but a press aide said the group probably has no recent tally. Their Web site has encouraged students to put advertisements in college papers “to counter anti-choice ads.” The abortion-rights organization is especially concerned about advertising supplements that the Human Life Alliance of Minnesota places in campus papers.

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