As another school year comes to an end, debates over displaying graphic abortion photos on Christian college campuses continue. The latest flashpoint is Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where two students set up a sign on March 5, against school officials’ wishes, to educate students walking out of convocation about what aborted babies really look like.
The poster depicted the severed hand of a 10-week-old aborted baby juxtaposed with Christ’s bloodied hand on the cross. A caption above the photos asked, “Would Jesus use bloody images to make a point? He already did. Luke 23:26-33.”
Senior Bethany Fox, involved in Students For Life since her freshman year, said she at first wasn’t sure about the graphic images, but “after years of ministering without them, I realized it was really a necessity.” When administrators denied the pro-life group’s request to put up the sign—claiming that if they allowed the graphic images, they would have to let other groups use them as well—Fox and Eli McGowan decided to use them anyway.
Officials didn’t disturb the students as they stood with their sign for half an hour by the entrance of Vine Center. Fox said a couple of students approached them in support of what they were doing. Afterward, the school didn’t punish the students. Liberty declined to comment on the matter.
The pro-life group Center for Bioethical Reform (CBR) is recruiting and training students to display their signs on campus, waiting to see how administrators will respond. Last year, controversy swirled around two California schools, Biola University and Westmont College. At Biola, campus security officers forced then-nursing student Diana Jimenez to leave, and the dean of nursing barred faculty from writing letters of recommendation for her. After a firestorm in the pro-life blogosphere, Biola President Barry Corey apologized for how the school responded to the situation and promised to create a more comprehensive pro-life policy.
School officials argue that pro-life education can be done compassionately without showing graphic images in a setting where children and those who have repented of past abortions could walk by and see them. But CBR Director Gregg Cunningham believes it’s only by facing the stark realities of abortion that the pro-life movement can really take off.
In October 2012, Seth Gruber held a similar unauthorized protest after Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., denied his request to bring in a graphic pro-life display three years in a row. Then a junior, Gruber stood outside the dining hall with a sign. Officials argued with him, but didn’t force him to leave. He returned to hold up his sign a few more times during that school year.
Since Gruber’s one-man demonstration, Westmont officials have written a new freedom of speech policy into the student handbook, limiting demonstrations to two hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. at specific locations on campus. Large signboards and amplified sound are prohibited, and students must submit a form 24 hours prior to the planned assembly. Gruber said he had not seen any demonstrations on campus except for his abortion signs that would cause the policy change.
“This is an academic atmosphere that’s supposed to be a marketplace of ideas,” Gruber said. “To create a rule to prevent freedom of speech from being exercised—it’s antithetical to the academy.”
Pro-life groups at secular universities face similar fights with administrators attempting to limit free speech on campus. But the U.S. Constitution protects demonstrations on public property, and free speech advocates consistently have won court battles with public colleges. But private Christian universities are not required to uphold the Constitution’s free speech guarantees, which often makes it more difficult for pro-life groups that want to demonstrate using graphic images.
Westmont currently doesn’t have a policy position of the sanctity of life, and Gruber said attempts to get faculty to sign petitions to add a pro-life statement didn’t gain much traction. But Gruber is hopeful: Even as he graduates next month, he’s confident pro-life work at Westmont will continue. While he had been fighting for the cause by himself for much of his time at school, his pro-life club now has six members who plan to carry on the work after he’s gone.