Juxtaposing detailed photographs of aborted fetuses with images of victims of lynchings, the holocaust and other atrocities, the photo display organized by an anti-abortion group had the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus buzzing with emotion Wednesday and Thursday.
Organized by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, the Genocide Awareness Project is a traveling display that sets up a series of large signs used to incite reactions from onlookers on college campuses around the country.
Meanwhile, students opposed to the group’s presence on campus organized the “Carnival of Coincidence” next to the Woodbury Campus Center, down the hill from the display’s location, on the other side of Luther Bonney Hall. The carnival featured face paintings, snacks and a bouncy castle meant to draw students away from the photo display.
“We want to give people something else to do,” said Timothy Zabihaylo, a senior history major and an organizer of the carnival. “They want us to get riled up, break the law, so they can sue the college. But we’re not going to rise to their bait.”
Detractors of the campaign like Zabihaylo said the images are meant for little more than shock value and have no place in the perennial abortion debate.
But volunteers with the project argued the graphic images are essential to their message.
Frank Diorio, 76, a volunteer from New Jersey, drew parallels between the intended effect of the images of fetuses and the role that shocking images of police brutality at civil rights marches played in sparking outrage about racism in the Jim Crow-era South.
“Every injustice can only be corrected after people see graphic images of those injustices,” said Diorio, who estimated he spends three to four months out of the year traveling to college campuses with the Genocide Awareness Project. Diorio, who is retired, said he has been volunteering with the group for about 12 years.
Many students were unhappy to have the images on campus. Krystal Summers, a junior media studies major, said that as an African-American student from the South, she was offended by the comparison of abortion to lynchings.
“I’m not for or against abortion,” she said. “That’s for a woman to decide what’s right for her. But it’s unnecessary to put the issue up there with other issues that are completely unrelated. That has nothing to do with women.”
Standing next to Summers, Fatima Al-Freihy, a pre-med student, shared in her friend’s distaste.
“This is completely inappropriate,” she said.
As the morning wore on, classes ended and sent students pouring out of Luther Bonney and Payson Smith halls, directly past the display.
One volunteer wearing a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses spoke to passersby from atop a small step-ladder as some walked by averting their gaze, while others stopped to argue with him. The majority of people walking by or talking to the volunteers seemed to disagree with their tactics and message. While most of the arguments remained civil, several passersby muttered curses and one student swore several times directly at a volunteer.
One woman challenged the man on the step ladder, asking if her previous decision to have an abortion made her “a terrible mother.”
When the man appeared to begin to answer in the affirmative, she cut him off.
“No,” she interrupted, her voice cracking with emotion.
Not everyone walking by was opposed to the group. Sophomore political science major Conan Marchi, who self-identified as pro-life, said he agreed with the message, but not its presentation.
“They have the right to do it, but they won’t win their argument,” said Marchi. “I don’t think it’s gonna change people’s hearts.”
There were no significant incidents Wednesday or Thursday involving the display, according to USM police officer Jeffrey Soper. Soper said the public safety dispatcher received a call about people raising their voices to each other around noon, but things had calmed down by the time he arrived. Soper and other officers could be seen throughout the day keeping an eye from afar.
The controversy wasn’t limited to campus. On both days the group parked their truck, which features a large image of an aborted fetus on either side and which they use to haul their equipment,on the Deering Ave. bridge over Interstate 295, and less than 500 yards from King Middle School.
King Middle School Principle Mike McCarthy said some parents called and were upset about their children’s exposure to the images, but there was little school officials could do other than make sure no group members spoke to children.
“We may not like what people do but we respect their right to do it, so it’s kind of a conundrum,” McCarthey said.
When asked about the incident, the group’s Northeast Coordinator Leslie Sneddon, 52 of Richmond said she could understand why parents were upset and the truck was not intentionally parked by the school, although she said she did not regret having done so both days. Sneddon said the school, which made national news several years ago for providing contraception to students, was a perfect target for the groups message.
“If they’re old enough for contraception and sex, they’re old enough to understand the consequences,” she said. “Now is the time to have that discussion. It’s a teachable moment.”
But McCarthy said the school stands by the decision to provide contraception to students who ask for it. He said the healthcare providers at the school are primary care physicians for many of the students there, and they would have difficulty accessing contraception elsewhere.
“All we did was make it so doctors could be doctors, and we’re very proud of that,” he said.