*Some Vanderbilt students interviewed for this article have asked to remain anonymous. As a result, the pronouns used do not necessarily reflect the gender of the student.
“My mother seriously considered [an abortion]” due to medical conditions, says Faith, a pro-life Vanderbilt student. But instead, her mother chose life. Faith says that “it would be so easy to abort someone like me. It’s the easy option. But because my mom chose life, I’m here.”
Faith represents a small but fervent portion of the Vanderbilt undergraduate population that subscribes to the pro-life movement. “On this campus, it’s not a common or popular movement, and it seems like you’re only person who believes in [the pro-life movement].” After attending the March for Life in Washington D.C. this January, Faith was happy to witness “how many young people were present . . . and women especially.” It was important for her to know “that there are people who are dedicated to this cause.” She is particularly interested in the biology and philosophical aspects of life and how that applies to abortion, which are often forgotten or overlooked because of the religious ties in the pro-life movement.
Faith expressed her desire to “enter into dialogue, whether that’s on a national scale or on campus” because she believes all her “peers have an argument worth listening to,” even if they aren’t her own. She says that there are more than just religious arguments against abortion. Feminist arguments for the pro-life movement point out that if abortion is the only option left for a mother, then society has already failed in not offering support for that woman.
But whatever those arguments might be, Vanderbilt students probably are not hearing them because of their rarity on campus. In a new VPR survey of 156 students (with a plurality of first-year responses), barely a quarter of students said that they were pro-life. Just 23% said they would favor more restrictions on abortion.
Of course, pro-choice believers greatly outnumber pro-lifers and the undecided; more than two thirds of the respondents said they belong in the former camp. One of these pro-choice advocates is Reagan, who subscribes to the movement because she does not believe “someone should be able to tell me what to do and not do.” While Reagan wants a focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies, she believes the government should fund abortion-providing organizations. “You should always have options because being trapped in a corner leads to people doing bad things. Just because you have an abortion doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or killing babies. There are times where it doesn’t make sense, or it would be horrible to go through with it.” Reagan does believe, however, that late-term abortions, such as third-trimester abortions, should be illegal.
Abortion is not the only conflicting issue on Vanderbilt’s campus (see Rebranding the Elephant in the Room, Hazing Has No Place at Vanderbilt, etc). Even if ideologies or opinions are in the minority, it is important that those ideas are presented and debated. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU, argued in a lecture at Duke University that universities should advocate for more debate and a diverse set of opinions. Because universities were created to find “veritas,” the truth, all types of ideas should be welcomed on a college campus both to discover truths and to sharpen the arguments in favor of those ideas. A university that does not represent differing opinions, he says, might miss the discovery of a truth or will not formulate solid justification for beliefs because those beliefs are never challenged. He warns that allowing business, which is concerned with money, or even social justice, which is concerned with law and protest, to have too strong an influence on a university can affect the ability of students to learn, teachers to teach, and the world to discover the truths. This is why it is important to protect speech about various ideas by ensuring students feel comfortable with stating their opinions, including those on politics, abortions, or other topics.
It is not surprising that the 24% of pro-life students often do not speak out on campus due to a fear of association with negative advocates. Well-known campus anti-abortionists like Matt Colleran are aggressive in their beliefs, presenting a war to be fought instead of a discussion to be had. Calling out pro-choice democrats for the “murders” of the unborn places the pro-life arguments and those that are against abortion in an extremely negative light, despite many pro-life students being kind and reasonably-minded.
An anonymous Vanderbilt student wishes more people would approach the topic of abortion “with empathy and understanding.” She references an incident two years ago on Vanderbilt’s campus when the pro-life organization Vanderbilt Students for Life (since renamed For All Life) placed large signs outside of Rand “exposing Planned Parenthood, and the feminist organizations on campus came and yelled at the signs for an hour or so.” She said that the signs “weren’t encouraging dialogue. [The pro-life group] was shocked that [the feminists] came up and yelled. I wouldn’t be shocked. This is an organization that a lot of Vanderbilt students are familiar with or frequent.” For All Life has since changed leadership and tactics.
Instances like these polarize the student body and make issues like abortion a taboo topic between students at Vanderbilt who worry their beliefs will lead them to be associated with aggressive actors and lose friends. “You don’t necessarily want to have those conversations with your friends all the time. You don’t want to be judged for one belief,” one student said.
Instead of polarizing the topic, what this anonymous pro-life student suggests is having a pro-life voice at women’s reproductive health talks or conducting joint events with other organizations on campus that would foster mature discussions. She advocates that the College Republicans promote peaceful discussions as well.
To be open to diverse discussions without damaging friendships, this student suggests allowing those polarizing topics to come up in natural and comfortable conversation. “If there’s an opportunity for a longer conversation . . . if they have that time, you choose that moment to have a conversation with people. I had a couple conversations with a friend who decided she just didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and that’s okay.” What is important for her is that a respectful conversation is possible: “I just want to get people to talk about it.”
And discussion needs to continue because this debate is not going away. President Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, removed Title X funding of Planned Parenthood, and denied U.S. aid money to any international group that funds or promotes abortions. While these policies have favored the pro-life movement, the issue is far from over. Many more decisions concerning abortions are upcoming, such as the recent Senate vote on January 29th concerning the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that would have banned abortion after twenty weeks. The 51-46 vote that generally aligned with party loyalty did not pass the 60 vote threshold necessary to prevent the Democratic filibuster. A similar measure was voted on by the Senate in 2015 and resulted in the same outcome, suggesting anti-abortion legislators will continue to propose the ban even if the results are repeatedly unsuccessful.
There is hope for more discussion as seen in Vanderbilt’s history. In 2005 Chancellor Gordon Gee applauded the Vanderbilt Students for Life and Vanderbilt Feminists for collaborating in educating students on reproductive options. It is possible for us to work together, even through issues students disagree on.
Faith recalls encountering counter-protestors at the pro-life March, a couple of which were willing to converse. “We just kinda said, ‘Why do you feel passionate about this?’ And we weren’t saying ‘you need to change your mind.’ It was just nice to talk to them. I think we need more of that. Just asking, ‘why do you care about this?’ and finding any common ground you can.”
By encouraging respectful debates among students on campus, Vanderbilt can become a place where beliefs do not cause disruption or ruin friendships. Instead, we can develop our arguments for or against certain ideas and learn from one another, which is a benefit of the college experience. Abortion is a polarizing political topic, but that does not mean we should avoid it as Vanderbilt students if we want all that an education like ours has to offer.