Rival forces try to heat up abortion debate on college campuses

Saturday, April 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

At the rate of a campus a day, the president of the National Organization for Women has been touring colleges for weeks, spreading the message that abortion rights are under siege.

Over the same span, abortion foes have displayed graphic 6-foot-by-13-foot signs at four state universities in the Carolinas, depicting aborted fetuses and Holocaust victims. To organizers of the Genocide Awareness Project, abortion is systematic mass murder.

As rival forces in the abortion debate weigh the impact of the Bush presidency and prepare for expected battles over Supreme Court nominations, college students have become a prime target of mobilization efforts.

Abortion-rights advocates believe that many college-age women _ born after the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortion nationwide _ need to be jarred out of complacency. Several major groups are cosponsoring an ``Emergency Action for Women's Lives'' rally Sunday in Washington, and hope to draw many students.

``Men and women in my generation have largely taken reproductive rights for granted,'' said Victoria Steinberg, 21, a Harvard senior who has co-chaired a campus abortion-rights group.

``With a second Bush in office, students my age are afraid for the very first time that they will lose these rights if they don't raise their voices,'' she said.

NOW's president, Patricia Ireland, has met with students on about 30 campuses in the past month, warning of actual and possible moves by the Bush administration and Congress to limit access to abortion and birth control.

``They are so shocked when they learn some of the details,'' Ireland said. ``I want them to think of these as fundamental rights that, when threatened, need to be defended.''

Gregg Cunningham also wants to shock students. He hopes their jaws drop when they see Genocide Awareness Project photographs showing bloody, aborted fetuses.

``Once these pictures are in your head, you can't get them out,'' said Cunningham, who oversees the project as executive director of the anti-abortion Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.

The display _ which also depicts victims of the Holocaust, racist lynchings and Rwanda's genocide _ has toured more than 30 state university campuses since 1998, including the recent swing through North and South Carolina.

Private colleges can ban the exhibit, but Cunningham's group has been allowed access to state universities, in part by threatening to sue for infringement of freedom of speech.

Cunningham said he cannot gauge nationwide campus sentiment on abortion, but believes many students read his group's literature.

``This is an opportunity for us to have some influence as these kids are deciding what they think about important issues,'' he said.

A like-minded organization, Missionaries for the Preborn, also has been exhibiting pictures of aborted fetuses on campuses. One anti-abortion activist was sprayed with red paint by a University of Iowa student during a confrontation April 6.

Some campuses are more receptive to anti-abortion messages than others. Liz Dahl, news editor of the University of Eastern Michigan's student newspaper, said there is an assumed abortion-rights consensus on campus that inhibits students with different views.

``There's a silent minority of people who are pro-life who don't feel comfortable voicing their opinion,'' she said.

Women aged 16-25 are the target of an ad campaign launched this month by the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, a coalition backed by many abortion rights groups. Several student newspapers, including those at Columbia University and New York University, rejected the ads because of policies that prohibit political advertising.

Teresa Wagner, a legal expert with the conservative Family Research Council, guessed a majority of American college students remain supportive of abortion rights, but less zealously than in the past.

``The current crop is more ambivalent,'' said Wagner, who often airs her anti-abortion views at college forums. ``They're not sure that abortion is a good thing, and even if they do, it's not the kind of thing they want to take to the streets about.''

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, agreed that abortion has been a relatively low-profile campus issue in recent years. She hopes that will soon change.

``Students have been hepped up over many issues, like sweatshops, and this one has been tucked away in their consciousness,'' she said. ``But now there is a mushrooming sense of alarm.''