WFL’s Life Week and jeans? Leave the pants out of it, say many on campus

Few settings in society are as uniformly liberal as academia. Politically, culturally and socially, most universities slant more towards the left than the right by several degrees of magnitude; some would say to a fault. Given this, Williams for Life (WFL), the campus pro-life group that this week engaged in several days of annually-scheduled life-themed events, has traditionally faced a number of obstacles to public acceptance. In this politically charged arena of debate, resistance is expected, but even acknowledgement can be a problem. “Plenty of people prefer not to see us,” said Scott Faley ’05. “Or they pretend we don’t exist.”

Yet if outward antagonism is considered par for the course, then this April’s edition of Life Week seems to have escaped the type of vociferous condemnation that has popped up in the past. With the calendar of events scaled back from years past and scheduling mishaps derailing some of those already in place, there was literally less to complain about for those ideologically opposed to the message being propagated.

But even much of the criticism levied against Life Week has not been message-specific, but centers around broader campus issues involving the labeling of advertising and the appropriateness of the use of public conveniences (i.e. chalkings). Considering the group’s stated purpose in organizing the events has traditionally been the fomenting of new thinking and debate, the question is raised of whether the campus is failing to focus on the issues as WFL would prefer – or is even listening at all.

For its part, the group admits that this year’s Life Week is less intense than it has been in the past. For one thing, more than several WFL members are currently studying abroad. This, combined with the present roster’s obligations to other organizations has left the group starved for manpower. “It’s nearly impossible to get faculty or administrative support for these things,” Faley said, “and with most of us really committed elsewhere, there’s only so much you can do.”

With a lecture from anti-abortion activist Theresa Bonaparte already in the pipeline for early May, funds and motivation were at lower levels than would be required to find another guest of sufficient quality. “We decided not to shoot for a huge speaker,” said Olesia Biskupska ’03. “This was more about just getting out and letting people know that we’re out there and to keep people’s interest up.”

Additionally, participation at a student forum originally scheduled for Monday was extremely low after inclement weather forced a postponement and little was done to publicize the switch.

WFL’s service at the North Adams Crisis Pregnancy Center – seasonal assistance performed by the group at the small Main St. office – went off without a hitch, however, and Saturday night’s Life Party, held in Dodd Living Room, went similarly smoothly. Although the promised viewing of the Roberto Begnini vehicle “Life is Beautiful” fell through, WFL members enjoyed an evening of good company.

Controversy, when it did arise, often came in the form of criticism of method. The casting of Friday as “Wear jeans if you’re for Life” Day – a tongue-in-cheek tactic popularized by the American Collegians for Life – stirred campus sentiment to some degree, and prompted the development of several imitators. (Wear underwear if you support assault weapons” among them.) The promotion was successful according to Biskupska, who expressed surprise that “one line on a poster would cause so much discussion.”

Another part of WFL’s effort involved campus-wide chalking of sidewalks with pro-life sentiments. Again, the actual message drew little censure from most – this was not entirely surprising, as the comments underfoot tended to be either tangentially tied into the week’s theme (“I love my grandpa”) or curiously recognizable to Baxter familiars. (“Aren’t you glad your mother chose life?”). Insofar as the chalkings were questioned, the context was in a very similar vein to that surrounding the more controversial Queer Pride messages, regarding the appropriateness of the targeting of the general population with controversial messages in an extremely public forum. The implications of the chalkings seemed to be lost.

Somewhat more consternation resulted from a campus-wide mailing distributed as part of Life Week. Entitled “The Silent Epidemic” and distributed primarily as a youth-oriented pamphlet by Humanlife.org, the 12-page publication draws parallels to the Holocaust and slavery amidst anti-abortion and some scientific-based information. In offering arguments against emergency contraception and pre-marital sex, its stated aim is to dispel “the ‘Choice’ virus [that] has infected American culture and cunningly masked the reality of abortion.”

As could be expected, opposition to the pamphlet on its merits did materialize. “Much of the information contained in the pamphlets is medically unsupportable,” Hannah Fried ’04 said. “The ‘information’ that all contraceptives except condoms are abortifacients is untrue, and the claim that abortion causes breast cancer has been studied and rejected by the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and World Health Organization, among others.” Nora Kenworthy ’04 expressed the “worry that students would think this was objective and accurate information.”

Yet even these criticisms were placed in the context of identification. WFL’s failure to mark the publication as stemming from their group was called “invasive” by Kenworthy and “manipulative and coercive” by Fried. Their solution was to secure a promise from the Dean’s Office that “future mailings like this one will have to be clearly labeled.” An implication of the maneuver is their belief that should students be aware that such publications were distributed by WFL, they would be less willing to trust them.

With few debates as polarized as this one, it’s a claim that holds water. Faley, who believes that “students are uninformed to the real issues at play,” expressed doubt that many students would open themselves up to the ideas and beliefs that WFL continues to try to convey. “We try to present a vision of human dignity and a consistent ethic of life,” he said. “It’s not a political stance. But students are apathetic on tough things, things that don’t immediately affect their worldview and it’s hard to break through.”

Meanwhile, life after Life Week moves quickly. This Wednesday brings Frances Kissling, the head of Catholics for a Free Choice,to campus for a major pro-choice lecture. The debate continues without pause, and for now, WFL must again look forward in the hope that their message might one day be accepted at Williams.