Speaking Out: Being Pro-Life at Dartmouth
By Myrel Iturrey, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, February 15, 2013
The pro-life coalition formally constituted as Vita Clamantis is best known on campus for its controversial anti-abortion display last spring.
The 546 American flags that peppered the Gold Coast lawn each commemorated the 100,000 abortions in the United States since the monumental Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and were met with a significant outcry regarding both the display and the issue of abortion in general.
When the display went up demonstrators were stunned to see a car bearing a “Coexist” bumper sticker bulldozing across the line in defiance of their their pro-life statement. The demonstrators said they regarded the driver’s actions and other negative reactions as a misinterpretation of the demonstration, as well as of the organization’s purpose.
“We have to accept that at a liberal school like Dartmouth we’re going to get somewhat of a heated response,” member Bridget Shaia ’15 said. “But the goal isn’t to upset people. The goal is to get a discussion going.”
While pro-life organizations existed at Dartmouth in the last 20 years, they eventually died out when their membership waned. Vita, in its current form, is relatively new. Founded four years ago by Peter Blair ’12, Vita describes itself as the leading advocate for the pro-life cause on campus that aims to “boldly” speak out against abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia and capital punishment. The group’s name is inspired by the College motto “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” or “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
President Robert Smith ’14 said that the “Cemetery of the Innocents” exhibit was “never a protest [against abortion]. The way in which the event was advertised and the way in which we acted was misconstrued.”
Smith, along with other members of Vita, said they hoped that the public demonstration would spark productive dialogue about the creation of safe environments in which pregnant women would not feel pressured to get abortions.
In this regard the event succeeded, Callista Womick ’13 said.
Womick organized a pro-choice demonstration the same day to counter the Vita display. Students hung white flags across the street from the Gold Coast lawn in an attempt to highlight a woman’s right to choose. The evening of the protest, however, Womick said she was inspired by the moderated discussion hosted by the organization to pursue an independent project that would create more resources for Dartmouth students with children.
“Dartmouth got rid of [College] housing for married students, there’s no DDS policy for bringing children into the dining halls, and there aren’t child-care services available at the College for students’ children,” Womick said. “They’re little things I wouldn’t have thought about unless Vita had done what they did.”
Nevertheless, the overwhelming negative reactions to the “Cemetery of the Innocents” display prompted Vita to rethink executing similar large-scale demonstrations in the future.
“We still stand by our event last year,” Smith said. “That being said, we’re looking for ways in which we can possibly be more productive in engaging with campus.”
Smith said Vita views its role on campus as primarily educational, serving to inform its own members as well as the larger student body about pro-life issues while providing forums in which matters can be discussed openly and constructively.
“We’re confident that the rationality behind a pro-life position is in many respects unimpeachable,” member Chris Hauser ’14 said. “If we can create the right environment, we’re confident that we can have productive discussions.”
Along these lines, Vita organizes a variety of events throughout the term to promote healthy dialogue and debate regarding all pro-life issues. The group hopes to continue to branch out from solely discussing abortion by taking stands against the death penalty, euthanasia and stem cell research.
In the past, the coalition has coordinated events such as a dinner with Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-life legal advocacy group as well as a constitutional law debate on whether Roe v. Wade should survive another 40 years. Vita also hosted a lecture by bioethicist William Hurlbut, the main advocate of a scientific process known as altered nuclear transfer that derives pluripotent stem cells without the creation and destruction of human embryos.
Looking forward, the group has already scheduled two film screenings by Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network in the spring. As a non-partisan, non-religious affiliated group, Vita plans to coordinate with Chi Heorot fraternity and the Knights of Columbus to hold a fundraiser for local mothers in March, Smith said.
“We have been active,” said Smith. “There is just a lot going on in campus so it’s easy for these [events] to get lost between everything students have going on.”
As Hauser explained, the fact that so few students are openly committed to the pro-life cause prevents the group from holding regular meetings.
“I know we are a small organization and aren’t able to do much,” Hauser said, “but I think that nonetheless what we do is important. The fact is that one conversation can save an innocent life. “
Hauser, like many other Vita members, first heard about the organization through his affiliation with the Aquinas House.
Due to the sensitivity of the topic, however, the organization runs into trouble when trying to outwardly recruit new members.
“We’re not scared to set up a booth at the activities fair in plain view,” Shaia said, “but campus blitzes are just not very effective.”
Instead, the group aims to educate individuals in the middle ground who do not hold particularly strong views on abortion through personal outreach and conversation. Hauser believes there are many more students who support the pro-life cause, “even if they themselves are either too busy, too non-confrontational or even too frightened to publicly advertise their pro-life sentiments,” he said.
Smith agreed that part of the problem is an atmosphere at the College where “fringe” viewpoints are not frequently encouraged.
“Even if you do hold these beliefs, you might not feel particularly willing to be the on-campus voice for it,” he said.
Regardless, the organization still feels a personal responsibility to engage campus in an immensely difficult debate that perhaps, as Hauser notes, “involves the lives of over 50 million innocent children, countless mothers and even forgotten fathers.”
“It’s not an easy question to ask, and at times it can seem distant,” Hauser continued. “Nonetheless, we have to ask it.”
Staff reporter Iris Liu contributed reporting to this article.
The original article stated that the 546 American flags on the Gold Coast lawn represented a total of 100,000 abortions in the U.S. when in fact each flag represented 100,000 abortions that have taken place since Roe v. Wade. Additionally, the legal group is Alliance Defending Freedom, not Law Defending Freedom and Jennifer Lahl, not Jennifer Law is the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.