DISCLAIMER: This article contains coverage of an anti-abortion demonstration on campus and includes subject matter and graphic imagery that may be traumatic and triggering.
Students walking through the Portland State Park Blocks were greeted on Monday morning with bright orange signs that read, ‘Warning: Genocide photos ahead.’
— Alanna Madden (@alannamaddenpdx) October 16, 2017
Representatives from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, brought to campus by the PSU Pro-life student group, erected a two-story graphic display of aborted fetuses, piles of bodies from Nazi concentration camps, and lynchings in front of Smith Memorial Student Union.
The group, which has demonstrated on campus several times in past years, followed regulations for a Park Blocks event permit Oct. 16-17.
Anti-abortion advocates sequestered themselves inside a circle of steel barricades as students and passersby protested and engaged in conversation with the anti-abortion demonstrators.
Student: You don't know our background.
Pro-lifer: Not interested bc I know abt "liberal-BS women's studies" pic.twitter.com/ElwQOhXDch
— Colleen Leary (@mscolleenoleary) October 16, 2017
Protesters stayed on scene throughout the day, providing resources and information about women’s rights and reproductive justice. A bin for donations to Planned Parenthood stood alongside the protest.
Matt Onegin, a protester helping to collect donations, later posted on the Vanguard’s Facebook page, “Their display helped students raise over $850 for Planned Parenthood today. I’m glad they came to campus and helped remind people that women’s reproductive rights are still under attack.”
A collection for Planned Parenthood sits in front of the 2-story 'Abortion is Genocide' display in PSU Park Blocks. pic.twitter.com/aY67xBFEo2
— Colleen Leary (@mscolleenoleary) October 16, 2017
CO-OPTING GENOCIDE & THE ‘EUPHEMISM OF WOMEN’S HEALTHCARE’
The massive Park Blocks display equates abortion with genocide.
The circular scaffolding structure shows disturbing photos depicting aborted fetuses, claims of abortion statistics and graphic photos of people killed in acts of legitimate genocide documented throughout history.
While many of the display’s statistical claims include citations, most of these references could not be verified upon investigation.
Dissenters on Monday, along with many others in the week leading up to the event, took offense to the use of the word genocide in this context.
Helen Soultanian, a PSU student studying opera, said the comparison of abortion to genocide is painful.
“As someone who is Armenian and [whose] entire family went through a genocide, it’s really upsetting to see that,” Soultanian said. “When that extreme trauma is ingrained in your culture, it’s painful to see these people use it for their harmful agenda. It’s disgusting & insensitive. Are they really trying to tell me that my family dying & risking their lives to save others in a genocide is comparable to a woman’s right to choose?”
Director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs Aimee Shattuck said she and other faculty heard similar concerns. SALP oversees student groups on campus, including PSU Pro-Life.
“People felt very offended by the word genocide, specifically,” Shattuck said, “and complained that the word genocide was being co-opted by this group to mean something different, and they were upset. Lots of people asked if we could make them stop using that word.”
A hand-written sign in Associated students of PSU’s display case advocated the right to choose and criticized the “‘appropriation of the word ‘genocide.'”
An anti-abortion demonstrator offered an explanation for the use of harsh language and disturbing imagery as a forceful tactic to expose abortion as an ‘act of violence.’ Because this group defines life as beginning at conception, its proponents believe any termination of pregnancy takes a life. In their views, that’s genocide.
The beginning of life as a legal standard is long debated in discussions about abortion laws, but the consensus in the medical community is that fetuses are not viable until well into the third trimester, and some view the notion that life begins at conception as emotional manipulation. Many reject the term “pro-life” as misleading and manipulative. Reproductive Justice advocates from the PSU Women’s Resource Center addressed this distinction throughout the day.
“If you look back at how slavery was ended in the United Kingdom,” an anti-abortion advocate said, “[S]laves were brought from Africa to the British-owned West Indies, and so the average British citizen never saw a slave. All they thought was, ‘Oh, slavery means I have sugar, I have coffee. Basically I can have Starbucks because we have slaves.’”
“In order for them to change the laws in slavery, they had to start using graphic pictures like the slave ships,” he continued. “[T]hings that got people to see that the group they were dehumanizing was a group that was suffering.
“Yes…some people are going to get riled up by it,” he continued. “At least it’s forcing people to see that, instead of associating abortion with healthcare, women’s rights, reproductive justice—those are noble things that I agree with—but the problem is they’re using it as a euphemism for an act of [violence] against a tiny human being.”
When asked about safety concerns for those who seek abortions despite legal restrictions, another anti-abortion advocate said, “I’d rather have it be illegal…The very few casualties that would suffer with women is nothing compared to the millions and millions of babies that would be murdered.”
Jane, a volunteer with the anti-abortion Genocide Awareness Project said, “We aren’t protesting, we’re showing the pictures, it’s not a protest…the pictures protest abortion.” She said this demonstration is meant to educate, not protest.
RALLY & UPSET IN PRECEDING DAYS
Before the house-sized anti-abortion display descended upon campus, members of PSU Pro-Life used an SMSU display case to advertise an Oct. 14 Genocide Awareness Project training for volunteers planning to participate in the two-day Park Blocks anti-abortion demonstration.
A pink poster just outside the SMSU first floor elevator read in bold letters, “Abortion is Genocide. Find out why.”
The poster quickly sparked controversy among fellow students and student groups. Various dissenting signs were posted on the outside of the case throughout the week, and eventually a group of students successfully ripped the poster in half despite the locked case meant to protect student displays.
Because both the promotional material and Park Blocks event meet university policy standards, the vandalism of the poster violates PSU Student Code of Conduct rules. Faculty cannot disclose if disciplinary action will be pursued due to privacy laws.
Students updated an adjacent ASPSU display case to ‘Nope’ in response to the pro-life event’s message.
After the poster appeared, PSU International Socialist Organization swiftly organized a counter-rally to be held in the Park Blocks, just outside the pro-life event space. The rally was scheduled to begin an hour before the pro-life event. When demonstrators gathered, they found a sign showing the event had moved to an unlisted location off-campus.
Members of PSU Pro-life and event organizers did not respond to requests for information on the evening of the event, but later said they were concerned for their safety.
PSU ISO members moved forward with the rally as planned. Member and organizer Jamie Partridge said it would become a ‘victory rally’ after apparently prompting the event’s departure from campus.
Between 35-50 people demonstrated between 5-6:30 p.m. They held signs, chanted, shared personal stories, and spoke about various issues related to reproductive rights and women’s issues.
Some participants in the rally said they wished the overall movement in question, including this rally, offered more opportunities for intersectionality. They said the women’s movement can be isolating for members of the trans community who do not identify as female or are non-binary, who have a uteruses and can become pregnant.
Reproductive rights rhetoric often focuses on cisgendered women’s rights, as much of the rally’s imagery reflected, with most signs that evening featuring slogans “Trust Women” and “Defend Women’s Rights.”
Posted at SMSU 101, where a 6pm pro-life event was scheduled. New location yet to be confirmed. Counter-rally still on. pic.twitter.com/1fnwXB312b
— Colleen Leary (@mscolleenoleary) October 14, 2017
— Portland State Vanguard (@psuvanguard) October 15, 2017
While the Saturday night ‘Abortion is not genocide’ counter-rally carried on as planned, a student who did not identify herself posted in front of the original event space in Parkway North, letting people know the event was moved. When questioned, the student said she was “just a student volunteer who knew nothing,” had no association with PSU Pro-life, and was there to let people know the event had moved and the rally was still happening.
That same student participated as an anti-abortion advocate in the Park Blocks demonstration on Monday alongside other PSU Pro-life members.
‘WHO APPROVED THIS?’
PSU Pro-life’s SMSU poster prompted questions from the PSU community about rules and oversight for content posted in university spaces.
SALP’s policies outline rules for for where, how long, and how content is displayed. The faculty does not review content for its posted. Student groups with access to these displays meet pre-existing requirements to be recognized, and this qualifies their access to advertise and display in SMSU.
PSU Pro-Life is a SALP-recognized student group that receives student incidental fee-funds, under the jurisdiction of the PSU Organization Budget Council. This group has been funded since the 2013-14 fiscal year. While the group receives student fee funding, it did not request any funding for this event.
Taylor, the group’s president, referred questions to the group’s profile page through OrgSync.
The group calls itself as, “a student advocacy group founded on the belief abortion is a savage act of violence that destroys an innocent human life.”
After the display surfaced, a group of students penned an open letter to the PSU community expressing concern regarding the poster’s content.
“We are asking for acknowledgement that the word ‘genocide’ is triggering, oppressive, and inappropriate,” the students wrote.
“Many students, offended and angered by this display, have begun to take action and are finding ways to organize and take it down,” the letter read. “We look forward to engaging in conversation with other members of Portland State, and we thank you in advance for your support and allyship to the student voices of PSU.”
This quest to remove the display, however, clashes with federal free speech policies for public universities and their student groups.
The open letter includes a line stating SALP endorsed PSU Pro-Life’s sign. Based on existing laws and policies, however, SALP faculty is not at liberty to endorse nor denounce student content in these cases.
The students’ open letter continued, “It is not our intention to prevent this student group from exercising their right to freedom of speech, however we demand that leaders and administration alike reconsider how their language is problematic, and creates an unsafe environment for students of a multitude of identities.”
SALP’s display policy outlines rules for where, how long, and the manner in which content is displayed. Manner refers to how poster and other items hang in display cases, which basically means they’re allowed to you push-pins.
SALP does not have any guidelines regarding content because it legally cannot. Shattuck said content in displays like the one used by PSU Pro-life this week is protected by law, so SALP does not approve, restrict or enforce any stipulations in this regard. SALP faculty did not see this poster before it was posted.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court Case ‘The Board of Regents of U. of Wisconsin v. Southworth‘ ruled that all public university student fee bodies must fund all eligible student groups with a neutral lens.
Funding through a neutral lens includes the stipulation that student fee committees are not permitted to allot funding based on content or popularity.
“The student government in Wisconsin didn’t want fund the queer student group and the feminist student group because they didn’t agree with the content and felt it was against their values,” Shattuck said.
“Just because it’s a group that holds a viewpoint of the minority at the university, doesn’t mean that they can’t have the same chance for funding,” Shattuck continued. “Because [popular opinion] depends on the region of the country. Here at PSU we have a very a left-leaning student body, but many campuses are more conservative and feel offended by a feminist speaker or queer rights student group.”
PSU and other state institutions are bound to specific governing standards.
“Because we’re a public institution, the people who work for the university are government officials,” Shattuck explained. “And as the government, I can’t censor speech. We only set up time, place and manner restrictions, not content restrictions. Especially because it’s a student organization, it gives even more rights.”
Student groups with access to these displays like the one PSU Pro-Life used must meet pre-existing requirements to be SALP-recognized. This recognition qualifies their access to advertising and display spaces in SMSU and other buildings.
“[PSU Pro-Life] went through the SALP process like every other student group did in the spring,” SALP Associate Director Brian Janssen said. “From an institutional perspective, the organization has followed everything we’ve asked them to do to be in compliance with us.”
“[Students] can’t impede other people’s right to speak in a public place if that group has followed all of the procedures and followed all of the time place manner policies,” Shattuck said. “However, any group of students also has the same rights to have their own speech in their own way.”
Janssen said PSU faculty members are agents under state government, which means following federal policies, including very specific free speech policies related to student groups.
“That’s why it’s challenging, on a university campus, to shut down events or tell people their content is inappropriate is because once you start doing that…it oversteps those boundaries.”
“That would be a total disregard for free speech rights of the press and it’s the same with our student groups,” Janssen continued. “If they’re doing things that violate policy, that’s a very, very different situation. If the group just showed up out there without any prior warning and [didn’t] get the Park Blocks permits…we’d be talking about something very different. But again, they followed regulations.”
On Monday morning, the PSU Office of University Communications released a statement reflecting similar laws and protections for all groups who meet university and governmental standards.
SPACE FOR DIVERGENT VIEWS ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
Janssen expressed appreciation for the way students and protesters engaged with the controversial demonstration.
“Based on today, I’m pretty proud of the way that people or students responded,” he said. “People were expressing themselves and alternative views civilly. That’s good. It was peaceful, for the most part. Part of being on a college university campus is exploration, or the ability to express diverse perspectives.
“That’s what this group and their community partners are doing and other groups are out there expressing their views and perspectives and, that’s a good situation,” he continued.
The Women’s Resource Center was present near the Park Blocks anti-abortion display throughout the event, offering support and information.
Anti-abortion display shadowing park blocks since 8am comes down, crowd cheers. pic.twitter.com/PLTf6pwsbD
— Colleen Leary (@mscolleenoleary) October 16, 2017
For more, listen to Joe Michael Riedl’s Vanguard podcast, “(Podcast Ep. 2:) Shut it down: Anti-abortion display holds space on campus”:
Additional reporting by Alex-Jon Earl & Alanna Madden
If these events are troubling, resources are available to you. Some of these include the Student Health and Counseling Center at 1880 SW 6th Ave in the University Center Building. Their number is 503.725.2800.
For questions on clubs and organizations on campus and how permissions are given for events like those discussed in this week’s issue, SALP is located in the SMSU in room 119. 503.725.4452 or [email protected].