One of Harvard’s greatest strengths is the diversity of opinion that exists within its student body. Anyone who walks onto our campus can appreciate this diversity simply by observing the variety of posters that adorn kiosks, bulletin boards, and other public spaces. With such a range of passionate opinions, it’s almost inevitable that some poster campaigns will offend students with different views. However, although we value freedom of expression, even when that expression offends others, there must be limits: activists have a responsibility to express their opinions without creating a hostile or pernicious environment for other students. Unfortunately, Harvard Right to Life (HRL) has acted irresponsibly by running a poster campaign that harms the mental health of rape victims.
Abortion rights are a divisive and emotionally-charged issue. But HRL’s posters, which charging rape victims who have had abortions with murder, go beyond the pale of civilized debate. By stating that these women sentence their fetuses to “the death penalty,” HRL displays a total disregard for the emotional state of rape victims—both those who have had abortions and those who have not—on Harvard’s campus. Many rape victims, even years after their ordeal, experience Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), which can cause them to feel socially isolated and psychologically unstable. To confront victims with daily reminders of their pain hurts their attempts to cope with the outside world. But to tell a rape victim who has had an abortion that she has committed a “crime” is positively cruel. Sarah Rankin, the director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response agrees, saying “regardless of the abortion debate, any media that promotes guilt for the choices rape survivors make is potentially traumatizing and damaging.”
Imagine a student who has been raped and impregnated. While she has every right to give birth to a child, she may not want to. She likely has dreamed about mothering a child with someone she loves. She wants to give her child the best life possible. But she did not dream of being raped, and she did not dream of having a child as an undergraduate. She likely does not know if she can provide the amount of time and money that a child needs. She probably thinks that she will have to sacrifice her dreams and leave school. She simply does not feel ready to love and support a child.
Ultimately, this student will either choose to go through with the pregnancy or to abort the fetus. Regardless of what others may believe about the morality of her decision, she does not deserve to be attacked by her fellow students. Her mental health, already unstable as a result of sexual violence, can only be further damaged after she reads posters which accuse her of murder. These posters make her feel more isolated from other students during the time when she most needs social support.
Harvard is a campus that prides itself on tolerance of others, regardless of their backgrounds, personal beliefs, and moral decisions. Unfortunately, HRL’s posters violate this tolerance by attacking rape victims on a very personal level, prioritizing an ethical stand over the health of fellow students. These assaults, moreover, are not beneficial to the campus discourse. Certainly, HRL’s posters incite debate. But because they do so at the expense of rape victims, they turn what ought to be a healthy, educational discussion into a vicious polemic of name-calling, in which the attacked individuals likely cannot defend themselves. Societal stigma is such that women do not regularly publicize their rape or their decision to have an abortion, especially not in a hostile environment.
We understand that once students leave Harvard’s walls, they may encounter hostile environments. However, Harvard is different from the public sphere. The college’s purpose is to educate its student body, and in doing so, administration, professors and advisors seek to create a tolerant and comfortable environment for all students. The real world, as many of us will soon find out, is not always so tolerant or comfortable. But just because rape victims may encounter hostility outside of campus does not mean that campus organizations should compromise their mental health while they are at Harvard.
We call on HRL to educate without endangering students’ mental health. Only then will the abortion debate become the rational, respectful discussion which all abortion-related organizations should seek to create.
Melissa S. Ader ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House. Sean P. Mascali ’08 is a government concentrator in Lowell House,. The writers are co-directors of Harvard Students for Choice.