Chants of “My Body, My Choice” rang across the local university’s central park-space this week in response to Go Life’s (admittedly graphic) pro-life display. Go Life is, of course, the local campus pro-life group; and much-maligned they are! When I arrived to see what the fuss was about, I couldn’t help thinking that the protesters were missing the point of the argument. Go Life believes that abortion is a human rights violation against the “pre-born.” Love it or hate it, that’s a bold statement. In contrast, “my body, my choice” sounds eerily like an attempt to silence an abolitionist on the grounds that abolition is an infringement on property rights. The juxtaposition of the pro-choice argument against Go Life’s statement isn’t convincing. And both sides know it. And that’s why the pro-choice protesters don’t like the display. If abortion is just a question of what a woman chooses to do with her own body, then whose fingers and toes are displayed in those photographs?
After hearing descriptions of the event by faculty and students, I was under the impression that the display was huge, intrusive, and horrifying. While that last adjective is certainly correct, upon viewing the display for myself, I discovered that the entire footprint of the display would fit inside a large living room. And yet many were adamant that this display is utterly unavoidable and thus its graphic nature might “trigger” students for whom abortion is a sensitive issue. But the park in which the display was situated is larger than a football field. Indeed, it is possible to walk along paved pathways both East-West and North-South through the area without coming within a hundred feet of the display. The park’s length and breadth can even be transited without proceeding out-of-doors. It is simply not credible for anyone to argue that the public nature of Go Life’s display forced any student to view it against their will.
A professor this week wrote “Academic freedom means the freedom to exit the room” across a whiteboard, in support of his argument that Go Life should be compelled to display in an enclosed indoor space out of the public eye. Notwithstanding the fact that the display was easily avoidable, this statement is an inversion of the principle of academic freedom and betrays the most fundamental misunderstanding of what academic freedom means. Academic freedom cannot, indeed must not, be defined as the freedom to not hear, read, or see. Rather, it is the freedom to speak, publish, and display. To frame academic freedom any other way is perverse. Is there any other issue that this statement could be applied to? Go Life’s display happened to coincide with Pride Week on the campus and there was much concern that Go Life had infringed on Pride’s ability to get its message across. But could straight victims of same-sex sexual assault demand that the University’s Pride Parade be held out of sight on the grounds that public displays of homosexual affection might “trigger” them?
The very idea that students must be protected from psychological harm caused by a pro-life display is deeply troubling. Leave aside the matter of “safe spaces” to protect the delicate sensibilities of an aggressive crowd of chanting students: far deeper contradictions are at play here. Abortion is a common and widely-accepted practice. If graphic depictions of abortion are so controversial that they must be relegated out of sight, what are the pro-choice demonstrators really saying? Placards with slogans like “Pride Not Shame” and “Talk Don’t Shock” were being used to obscure Go Life’s images. The appalling contradiction of this was not lost on many students, although the protesters seem to have been blithely unaware: what does it mean to be proud of something that is, by the protesters’ own implicit admission, both shocking and shameful?
Although there were plenty of courageous and socially-dissident students on campus this week, none of them were among those protesting Go Life’s display. Indeed, the antics of the protesters should be a source of shame for both the protesters themselves and for the student body as a whole. That students, aided and abetted by a large numbers of professors, could actively try to deny their pro-life peers a public-space forum to express their views is disgusting. The protesters’ Uggs and hand-drawn kittens did nothing to lessen the impact of their jackbooted bullying. Pride Week didn’t have its advertising torn down. The Pride Parade generated no counter-protest. When it comes to being edgy and transgressive on campus, Go Life stands alone.