Students for Life reach new generation

By: OSV Newsweekly

During Respect Life Month in October, members of Students For Life at St. Louis University planted a patch of small crosses on campus to commemorate the deaths of children lost to abortion, those who were executed under the death penalty, and those who live in poverty and homelessness.

Within a couple of days, two people started taking them down because, they said, the crosses were offensive.

Their intent was to stifle the free speech rights of others that they did not agree with, an opposition that young pro-lifers are increasingly encountering.

“We filed a report with the campus Department of Public Safety, got together as a club and asked, ok, where do we go from this?” said freshman Brielle Heraty of Chicago, one of the Students For Life of America (SLA) leaders on campus. “How do we react in the most loving and compassionate way as possible and make sure that our pro-life stance is heard? We had more crosses and put them back up with another sign explaining our position.”

They posted information about contacting SLA in the hopes of having a dialogue with whoever stole the crosses. But within days, crosses were stolen again.

President Fred Pestello sent a mass email explaining that this was an infringement on SLA’s right to free speech.

A different movement

In the face of these increasing incidents, young pro-lifers have become the new army stepping up to defend the right to life, and campuses have become their boot camp. Their numbers are growing to the point where they’re now outnumbering the first and second generations of supporters. But the challenges they face are different from what they were more than 40 years ago.

“It’s not your grandma’s movement anymore,” SLA president Kristan Hawkins told OSV.

It was even different when at age 15 she volunteered at a pregnancy crisis center and started pro-life groups in high school (Class of 2002), then in college.

The movement then wasn’t as organized and widespread as it is now. The American Collegians For Life started in 1987 at Georgetown University and became Students For Life of America in 2005. The national organization now has more than 1,000 chapters.

Hawkins majored in political science and took time off from college to serve on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Her connections led her to be hired as SLA’s first executive director.

“We had legal battles,” she said, “but what we faced had more to do with universities not allowing SLA groups and denying funding.”

The pro-choice movement in the past, she added didn’t have an active grass roots hold and seldom came out to protest pro-life events. Then came the rise of legal challenges in high schools when, she said, “Principals didn’t feel that they had to fulfill the constitutional rights of students. A lot of our legal battles today are not on college campuses, but at high schools. Now since the election of President Trump, the other side is inflamed.”

Pro-abortion forces fear that Planned Parenthood will lose taxpayer dollars and that pro-life Supreme Court appointments will result in pro-life legislation and regulation being upheld, she added.

“They want to do anything they can to silence a growing pro-life majority and to stop any message that’s pro-Trump,” Hawkins said. “Ours isn’t even a pro-Trump message. It’s a pro-human reference, the same message we’ve had for decades. Now we’re facing more protests on campuses, more vandalizing where students feel that they can destroy our displays and banners and walk away.”

Opposition on display

Lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) take on many of the cases. According to SLA spokesman Matt Lamb, there have been about 50 incidents in the last 5 years. Although some displays witness to a constant life ethic — those who died from homicide, euthanasia, the death penalty or other violent deaths — most were about abortion.

“Water is poured over chalked messages, or swear words are added,” he said. “If there are displays like the Cemetery of the Innocents, the crosses or pink and blue flags are taken down. There are other kinds of issues, like clubs that are blocked, speakers blocked and pro-life activities don’t get the same amount of funding as other student activities.”

SLA members at California State University, San Marcos, were told that there was a $500 cap on their request for funding a display, but LGBT groups received thousands of dollars without a cap. At Colorado State University, SLA’s request for a diversity grant was denied because administrators said that a pro-life speaker could offend someone.

When pro-life students at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, had their chalk messages destroyed, Right-To-Life Club president Brian Istenes posted: “I am not mad people disagreed with what I wrote. I am mad they violated my free speech rights.” After the incident, someone posted a link to donate to Planned Parenthood and raised $200.

At Northern Kentucky University, vandals erased or defaced pro-life messages to turn them into pro-abortion statements. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, campus police told SLA members that pro-abortion protestors were exercising their rights to free speech when they vandalized SLA messages.

In another incident last spring, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of a student at Queens College in New York whose request to start an SLA group was denied. The administration backed down and allowed the club to form but, according to Hawkins, there are problems with receiving equal student activity funding.

“When I was in high school, they (pro-choice advocates) wanted to engage you in debate to try to change your mind,” she said. “Today, it’s about silence and it’s about claiming that anyone who disagrees with you is harming you.”

Opposition has served to energize SLA members, she added. “They know that a national movement has their back. They know they’re not alone in the fight. We have found that some of our top groups came out of adversity. Some of our top leaders have come from very liberal, very pro-abortion schools, and it only made them stronger. It only made them more convicted to speak out about this injustice.”

Commitment to dialogue

SLA focuses on staying positive with effective, respectful dialogue aimed at changing hearts as well as changing minds.

“It’s about having those hard conversations with love and compassion without it turning into a shouting match,” Heraty said. “It’s about being able to distinguish truth and learning how to take a stand for something you believe in.”

Hawkins believes that young people coming up through the ranks promise a bright future in the pro-life movement.

“They’ve seen their brothers and sisters in ultrasounds and know this is not a blob of tissue,” she said. “They understand that abortion is killing something of value. They understand that in the mother’s rights versus the baby’s rights, both deserve to be loved and one shouldn’t be chosen over the other. That argument has shifted.”

Hawkins wants young people to be better formed in apologetics so that they understand what they’re defending. She wants them to become engaged and to carry on beyond their time with SLA.

Heraty plans to shoulder that commitment. “SLA does a great job of laying the foundation and inspiring us,” she said. “One of the comments that I have always loved from the older people in pro-life is that we—the young people—are the reason they continue to fight. They have been fighting for so long and have to inspire the next generations to rise up and be the defenders of life.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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