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Pro-Life Posters Spark Debate

Students rip down controversial pro-life posters in protest

Posters depicting in utero fetuses raised eyebrows and a small uproar last week. One of the posters, the second in a series created by Harvard Right to Life (HRL), featured the picture of a fetus named Elena with the words, “I’m 25 days old...and my heart already BEATS!!”

“The posters from this semester are getting torn down left and right,” said HRL President Meghan E. Grizzle ’07. “Apparently people find the picture of a fetus gruesome and I don’t understand why, because we’re not showing pictures of an aborted fetus or a dead baby,” Grizzle said. She added that HRL had to constantly replace the posters that were removed from displays across campus.

A debate concerning the abortion posters raged over the Cabot-open e-mail list after Ndidi N. Menkiti ’06 requested in an e-mail that people stop defacing the posters.

“I had seen some posters ripped up and thrown on the ground on the first floor of Cabot,” said Menkiti. “I felt it was an immature way to react when you disagree with someone.”

The request triggered a long series of responses—finally halted by an injunction from Cabot House Master and Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris.

But not all students who opposed the posters agreed with those who tore them down.

“I personally find the image disgusting and don’t want to walk past it everyday,” said Nichele M. McClendon ’06, who said she did not tear down any posters. “It doesn’t have to do with abortion as an issue or free speech; it’s about being decent and not being disgusting.”

Jamie R. Smith ’08, who participated in the e-mail exchange, said in a phone interview that she felt the combination of a shocking picture and controversial message made the posters disagreeable to students. However, she felt that groups have the freedom to poster about causes that are important to them.

“That’s one thing I admire about HRL, because they’re out there actively trying to change people’s opinions...which is what I think activist groups should do,” said Smith.

Grizzle said that posters from previous semesters had been torn down in far fewer numbers. Last semester HRL’s posters featured different facts and quotes, including posters saying that abortion is the number one cause of African American deaths surpassing AIDS and heart disease.

The controversial posters came at a heated time during the abortion debate. Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in the case Scheidler v. National Organization for Women (NOW) that abortion clinics could not block anti-abortion protests based on the argument that the protesters were using extortion or racketeering.

The case originated in a lawsuit filed in 1986 by NOW against Joseph Scheidler, the national director of the Pro-Life Action League.

The case drew public scrutiny because of its larger implications for freedom of speech issues.

“The courts, in dealing with demonstrators at clinics, have obviously been trying to walk a fine line between impermissible intimidation and permissible demonstrations,” said Frederick Schauer, Stanton professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School of Government. “I think it would be inconceivable in the US that people could be totally prohibited from demonstrating near an abortion clinic.”

Also in late February, South Dakota passed a bill in both houses of legislature defying Roe v. Wade. The bill bans all abortions, except in cases where the abortion would save the mother’s life. It does not make any exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or non-lethal maternal health concerns. Doctors who perform abortions in the state could be fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. The bill now awaits ratification by Republican governor Mike Rounds, who is expected to sign it. If the bill becomes law the Supreme Court would likely hear the case.

When asked about the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, Schauer was skeptical.

“Precedent is not easily overturned,” he said. “We don’t yet have any particular indication that there are five justices on the court that would overturn Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood v. Casey.”

—Staff writer Joyce Y. Zhang can be reached at jyzhang@fas.harvard.edu.