Last fall, Andrea Pascual (W’17) walked out of Harrison high–rise to head to class for the day. All along Locust Walk were chalked pro–life messages. “Human equality starts in the womb,” one read outside Van Pelt in big block letters.
Andrea recalled one in particular that included a phone number, publicizing pro–life resources available in Philadelphia. The next day when she emerged from her dorm, the writing had been crossed out, partially washed away, illegible across the red bricks. Now it was covered with new pro–choice messages promoting Planned Parenthood.
“That was so heartbreaking for me because it was just this total lack of dialogue,” Andrea said. “This was just completely trying to invalidate a stance different from your own.”
With the November election of Donald Trump, who has threatened to defund Planned Parenthood, and the establishment of the student group Quakers for Life, divisions of pro–life versus pro–choice have reemerged as a point of contention on campus.
On a liberal campus like Penn’s, the vocal majority identify as pro–choice. And while some pro–life students feel comfortable voicing their convictions, others are hesitant, fearing the reactions of their peers and professors. In this atmosphere, it can be difficult to foster constructive dialogue––evidence of a bigger problem in how we characterize, treat and communicate with our peers.
“I have spent four years on this campus and I’ve never talked about something like this with someone,” Andrea confessed.
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In her time at Penn, Andrea served as the President of the Newman Center, a community for Catholic students on campus. And while pro–life students call on different reasons to support their beliefs, Andrea’s faith has undoubtedly influenced her position.
“What I first think about is pro–life in regards to not aborting babies and defending the lives of the innocent and the defenseless in that sense, and giving them the chance to live that they were afforded by God,” Andrea explained.
Michael Moroz (C’20, W’20) also cited his religious beliefs as a foundation of his pro–life stance. “In Judaism there’s definitely an aversion to abortion except in certain circumstances like the life of the mother for example,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say that the argument for life is at all dependent on the religious arguments, there are a lot of secular arguments to be made.”
These secular arguments can vary greatly from person to person. “I recognize not everyone believes that the Bible is true, not everyone believes in Christianity. My belief that abortion is immoral comes from really two things. Number one, a belief in human equality, and number two the scientific evidence,” said Quakers for Life founder Eric Hoover (W’19), who believes a fertilized embryo fulfills the basic biological criteria for life. “As far as my faith goes, yeah, I am a Christian, but even if I weren’t Christian, I would still be pro–life just because of the wealth of evidence that I believe to be on that side.”
Andrea also strikes a balance between her conviction in Catholic pro–life philosophy and secularism, which for her resembles certain tenets more commonly associated with contemporary feminism.
“I plan on working for a long time. I don’t plan on getting married in two months and staying at home and oh, I’m okay with accepting less than equal wage. No,” she emphasized. “That’s not me. I’m a strong educated woman as every woman here at Penn is.”
That said, she still shied from using the word feminist. Like other pro–life women, Andrea has found that today’s feminism is not wholly inclusive of those who don’t identify as pro–choice.
“Of course I’m for equal rights for men and women,” she said. “But, I think it’s a really interesting question to grapple with just because of the term and what it’s been distorted on so many sides to mean.”
Some of the disconnect might come from the framing of pro–life as being anti–woman—a point where Andrea sees room for reconciliation between the two sides. To her, being pro–life and pro–women are not mutually exclusive positions; rather, both pursue the same goal to serve and support women.
“If pro–choice really claims to be pro–women and pro–women’s rights, then they should be able to engage in that dialogue,” she said. “And I say that because at the end of the day, pro–life people believe that abortion is really harmful to women.”
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Around the time of the election, Stephanie Spinosa (N’18) was sitting in an Ethics course in the Nursing school when the professor opened up the floor to the class to discuss the recent election of Donald Trump.
“In my experience, if you’re pro–life people assumed, ‘Oh you’re voting for Trump and you stand for all of these ideologies.’ It’s almost like the stereotyping that we [combat] on this campus,” Stephanie said.
She recalled her professor finishing off the class by saying something to the effect of, “‘Of course, if anyone has any other different opinions, you’re more than welcome to share, but I’m assuming because you’re all nursing students at a progressive university that you won’t have views different than these.’”
As a nursing student, Stephanie has found that the majority of peers and professors she interacts with assume that to be a good nurse, one has to be pro–choice. The fear is that pro–life nurses, when faced with a woman potentially seeking resources for an abortion, will experience a crisis of conscience, a conflict fellow Nursing student Hannah Victor (N’17, L’18) has also encountered.
“You have a typical scenario: you have a patient who wants an abortion, you’re personally against abortion. In the United States, abortion is legal, right? So they are in a sense entitled to that. So, then what do you do? Where does your conscience hit up against your responsibilities to your patients, your duties to them and their health care?” Hannah questioned. “I haven’t really practically figured out how to navigate that. Maybe that would mean not putting myself in that sort of situation.”
Despite these potential conflicts, both Stephanie and Hannah have found their pro–life beliefs actually intertwine seamlessly with the vocation of nursing.
“I picture my pro–life views as perfectly aligned with the nursing profession because one of the main ideologies in the nursing profession is we’re here to respect and care for the human person and their health through all stages of life,” Stephanie said. “So, for me, why aren’t we caring for the child in utero as they’re developing? I just consider that part of the spectrum.”
“I believe nursing is fundamentally a pro–life field. So in that sense it ties very well to my ethic, my worldview of valuing human beings,” Hannah concurred. “Being a nurse affirms my commitment to being pro–life.”
For Hannah, being pro–life is not just a single stance on a single political issue, but a core part of her personal morality. “Being pro–life is kind of like a world view,” she explained. “When we love people we’re affirming some part of their core identity and their inherent value. And so if that’s what it means to be pro–life, it’s something that affects every single part of your life and the way you deal with every single person, not just the unborn.”
Stephanie and Hannah’s expanded interpretations of pro–life ideology responds to how it is sometimes pigeonholed to concentrate solely on abortion. “I’ve often heard fellow nursing students say, ‘If you’re pro–life then you need to respect life throughout the stages,’ and I totally agree with that,” Stephanie said. “My whole pro–life stance isn’t just about the baby in the womb, but it’s making sure that the baby and the toddler get the care they need...and caring for the elderly toward the end of their life. The pro–life stance and perspective goes across the whole lifespan.”
“I’ve seen pro–life people who don’t appear to care about the mom, not care about her life, her situation and that’s distressing to me,” Hannah said.
However, catering to this broader pro–life conception is not the aim of Quakers for Life. While Eric agreed many of the different causes addressed by a pro–life morality are “noble and just,” he explained that the limited resources of the group are focused on their most urgent goal: “protecting human life from being intentionally killed.”
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Several months after Quakers for Life was established, another organization, Penn for Reproductive Justice (PFRJ), was created with the goal of advocating for reproductive rights.
When asked to be interviewed for this story, PFRJ co–Chair Esther Cohen (C’18) declined comment, writing in an email, “I would prefer not to be interviewed for any article that gives voice to the anti–choice movement.”
Haley Weiss (C’18), who works for 34th Street as a staff writer and is the other co–Chair of PFRJ said, “We know that Penn is a mostly liberal campus, at least socially, and I personally at least would never have seen the need to create a group that would support values or views that are shared by most of the people at Penn until there’s a counter–group.”
The focus on reproductive rights is a rhetorical change from the branding of ‘pro–choice.’ In not explicitly labelling the group as pro–choice, Haley believes that those who may not personally identify as pro–choice should still be able to work towards the goal of reproductive justice.
“I know plenty of people who are looking forward to getting actively involved with the things that we are going to get moving on that have said to me like, ‘Look I don’t ever think I could have an abortion if I got pregnant,’ and like that’s totally fine. I don’t even know if I could,” she confessed.
Like any other political movement or position, there is diversity in thought amongst those who engage with the pro–life belief, and it isn’t confined to members of a particular political party.
For instance, Jennifer Hu (W’20) joined Penn Republicans this year but identifies as pro–choice. “Personally, I might not want to engage in [abortion], but I still want to have the choice if I need to,” she said.
Vice President of Penn Democrats Ari Goldfine (C’19) similarly noted the range of opinions that exist in the organization. “We do have some kind of Bob Casey–type Democrats, you know like personally pro–life, maybe Catholic Democrats but who politically support reproductive justice,” she said.
To Eric, one can’t condone pro–choice ideology politically and self–identify as pro–life. “In that case, we would consider you pro–choice,” he said.
Still, finding students on campus who are willing to speak out as either personally or politically pro–life is difficult.
Penn College Republicans Communications Chair Rich Murphy wrote in an emailed statement, “Often members can feel uncomfortable expressing their views because of the stigma affixed to being pro–life on campus.”
This ‘stigma’ manifests outside of the pro–choice, pro–life debate as well. Ashton Pollard (C’18), a political science major, is also pro–life and considers herself conservative when it comes to other areas of politics.
In her various political science classes, she often finds the conservative viewpoint to be underrepresented. She’s grown used to being assigned readings that denounce Republicans without offering any counter–opinion.
“It’s actually made me more conservative because the liberal ideology has just been shoved down my throat so much that it’s just made me mad,” she said. “I’ve had professors that are like, ‘Well, I can assume you all think this,’ and I’m just like, ‘No, you can’t assume that.’”
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Dakota Jones (C '19) remembers when Eric first posted about his new anti–abortion organization in the Class of 2019 Facebook group. Within 40 minutes, “it was a tire fire,” he said.
“I think 20 different people were jumping down his throat saying how awful it is to be pro–life without ever really actually engaging the issue,” Dakota detailed.
Dakota also serves as the Consul for the Polybian Society, a division of Penn’s Government and Politics Association which serves to create an open, non–partisan forum for political discussion on campus. On February 2, the Polybian Society partnered with Quakers for Life and Penn for Reproductive Justice to host a symposium on abortion.
“It’s really important to sort of have that discussion where everyone is presenting their ideas and presenting their views so, that way, we can understand what the other side is saying,” Dakota said.
Prior to Polybian’s Symposium, it’s unclear when the last formalized discussion or debate took place on campus. It may have been as many as seven years ago, according to Dr. Felicity Paxton, Director of the Penn Women’s Center. “That’s the last one I remember students coming to me and saying, 'Can you help us envision this event,'” she said. “Unfortunately, I think all of those students are long gone.”
In spite of these efforts to foster dialogue, even Dr. Paxton recognizes the difficulty of integrating women who identify as pro–life into the Center’s community. “I think it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that a student who got involved with our student groups here would encounter lots and lots of pro–life voices,” Dr. Paxton said. “I mean there’s nothing preventing those kinds of dialogues except reluctance on both sides, which is something that is, as staff, we can’t solve that.”
The lack of publicized dialogue taking place on a campus might also point to a lack of private dialogue on this issue. “I personally, before this year, don’t know how comfortable I would’ve felt discussing these things with someone I didn’t know that well,” Haley said.
There’s a chance having opposing groups on campus like Quakers for Life and PFRJ may change that. “We want to create more dialogue, we want to get people talking on the issue, we want to argue for the pro–life cause in a respectful, yet logical and coherent manner,” Eric said.
Change may also come by re–framing the debate. “I know the pro–choice movement doesn’t like to be characterized as the pro–abortion movement but I think a lot of their dialogue, especially on campus is kind of gearing towards that. And I think if the dialogue were to change, it would allow for more open conversation,” Andrea said.
In re–examining the dialogue, there comes a hope that more common ground between the two sides might be found. “We all want to preserve life, we all want people to be fulfilling, it’s just pro–choice and pro–life people have different ideas about how to bring those two things together,” Jennifer said.
Alternatively, the deep ideological entrenchment surrounding the debate on abortion can hinder discussion even if people do seek conflicting dialogues.
“If you fundamentally and truly belief that abortion is murder, you are not here to compromise. If you believe that attacks on abortion are attacks on women’s independence and our agency over our bodies and ourselves, you’re not looking to compromise either,” Ari said.
“I think it’s just unfortunately a Penn epidemic that we don’t value open dialogue or we say we do but then you never see it,” Andrea said. “If you were just willing to sit down and listen to people’s testimony and listen to people explain why it is they believe what they believe, then you’re going to get somewhere.”
“But right now,” she said, “no one’s getting anywhere.”