Warning: The following article contains content regarding abortions and miscarriages.
While most students were in their Wednesday morning classes or on their way to lunch, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), an anti-abortion and pro-life activist group, set up a demonstration with signs displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses alongside scripture on the corners of Parker and 11th Street.
CBR members stood behind their signs and at the corners of the four-way stop, handing out brochures and speaking to students who were passing by.
The brochures were titled “Why this? Why Here?” and included several of the same graphic images used on the signs the members had set up on campus. The brochure lays out the organization's mission, which is a “plea for help” for the lives of pre-born children, and addressed frequently asked questions surrounding their presence on college campuses.
Many students who saw the display were shocked and confused as to why this organization chose to set up such a disturbing demonstration on a Christian university's campus.
Maggie Ferrara is a member of the CBR and handles the organization's press. Ferrara disclosed that CBR is not affiliated with any specific church, but each member of the organization is a Christian.
Ferrara said that CBR sent a letter to Lee President Dr. Paul Conn on Feb. 22, stating what CBR wanted to do and how they wanted to work with the university in developing “pro-life activities” and pro-life training for students, but did not receive a response back.
The Lee Clarion received a copy of the original letter addressed to Conn, which detailed similar rhetoric as the messages displayed on their signs.
“To effectively educate and motivate the Body of Christ, your on-campus programming must include opportunities for all students to see abortion in all its horror,” a portion of the letter reads.
The letter outlined CBR's alternative plan—standing on the campus's public sidewalks equipped with signs and brochures—to reach Lee University students if the university did not comply with their proposal.
“Whether we do this in collaboration with you or we do it unilaterally will be your choice,” the letter reads. “If the unilateral deployment is necessary, abortion imagery will be displayed in three ways. First, we will drive on nearby public streets with box trucks bearing billboard size photos of abortion on their sides and back. Second, our staff and volunteers will stand on the sidewalks and public spaces near campus holding large signs bearing abortion photos. Third, at our discretion, we will fly abortion photos over the campus.”
Vice President for Student Development Dr. Mike Hayes confirmed the university received CBR's letter.
“The President's office did receive the letter, and given the tone of it, the university did not feel like we should respond to it because, again, it was threatening,” Hayes said.
In an email to faculty, staff and students Wednesday afternoon, Hayes pointed out the group was demonstrating on the public right of way.
Lee Students for Life also issued a statement, clarifying the campus organization is not affiliated in any way with the CBR demonstration and “do not condone the dehumanizing tactics used” by CBR, while also sharing their hope that the events of the day “will spark a healthy dialogue about the correct way to represent the Pro-life movement.”
Ferrara explained that the organization typically holds its demonstrations on secular college campuses but, in the past few years, has shifted its focus to Christian colleges.
“We've been trying to get more of the church involved in the fight against abortion,” Ferrara said. “Our ideal would be to be able to work with either the administration or a pro-life club on campus to be able to come on to campus and be able to reach the students that way.”
According to Ferrara, the alternative plan was not the ideal plan, but she acknowledged it was the university's right to deny the proposal or choose not to respond.
A crucial aspect to CBR's message is the need for everyone, Christian or non-Christian, to see the graphic images of aborted fetuses under the premise that one does not understand how evil abortion really is until they have seen it with their own eyes.
“We've looked at the history of social reformers who were successful and found that all of them used images of the injustices that they were trying to end, even though they knew it was going to upset people,” Ferrara said. “But still, it is the most effective way to communicate what abortion is.”
Project Director at CBR Jane Bullington explained she hopes these images convey evil in a way that motivates Christians to act from a pro-life stance.
“I truly want to, in essence, offend all of us because evil should be offensive to us, and we should act against it,” Bullington said. “But we’re not here as a condemning group of people. We’re just asking for help.”
Despite CBR's stance that displaying the graphic images on large signs is the most effective way to share its message, the organization was met by multiple students who disagreed with the demonstration's methods.
Junior biochemistry major Chastin Kim said images that may trigger anxiety or shock concerning such a sensitive subject should not be publicly exhibited in this way.
“I think the images are a little forward. I think some people think that people are getting soft, and everyone’s worried about triggers and things, but that’s serious,” Kim said.
Others, like sophomore English major and Peacemakers member Shawn Enright, disapprove of the images because they feel they are meant to frighten students into joining a cause.
“I think that providing graphic images, such as mutilated babies, is a shock tactic, and it instigates more fear than understanding,” Enright said.
Ferrara acknowledged that the images were disturbing and can cause a negative, even hurtful reaction but argued that it is the most effective way to get CBR's message across, especially to people who are not going to be convinced only by words.
Enright added that, because even many Christian students on campus disagree with CBR’s method of protest, this presents a false portrayal of Christianity to students on secular campuses as well.
“They’re going to get grilled by secularists. They think Christianity is inconsistent enough. So yeah, it’s doing a lot of harm,” Enright said.
Junior information systems major Logan Harvey was one of many students who held discussions at length regarding the organization's tactics with some of CBR's members.
Harvey explained that, although the organization's pro-life message was not something he necessarily disagreed with, he believed CBR's approach was poorly done.
“[It] just does not allow any type of conversation to happen in a positive manner because, for very hard topics, you have to have good, positive conversation,” Harvey said. “Otherwise, you're just going to breed hate and ignorance.”
Similarly, senior biochemistry major Elizabeth Landry expressed her disappointment for the way CBR portrayed its message.
“It's sad for a lot of reasons,” Landry said. “I know there are people here on campus who have personal relations to this, and I feel like it's really shameful. … It is really fear- and shame-focused, and that's never the way of Christ.”
Shortly after CBR's setup on campus, a student-led counterprotest took place, with students lining up along the sidewalks to block the graphic images on the organization's signs.
Senior double major in advertising and public relations and member of Peacemakers Mercedes Harris was one of the students who organized the counterprotest.
Harris explained the reason behind counterprotesting was to combat the hurtful messages being portrayed by CBR with a message of love and hope.
“It's public property, so [CBR] has a right to be here,” Harris said. “Since that's the case, I'm going to also be out here spreading a different message—one of love, one of courage, one that is not shaming women for hard choices.”
Harris explained that shaming women who have had an abortion is the opposite of what the love of God is supposed to be like.
“For the women who are out there who have been silenced and shamed for years, there is still grace. There is mercy, and no one should judge anyone for something as hard as this,” Harris said. “It's not our place to judge anyways.”
Several students in the counterprotest explained they were protesting to showcase support for women who are personally impacted by this topic.
Sophomore political science major Maddie Benedickt explained that she chose to counterprotest due to the inappropriate and harmful nature of CBR's message.
According to Benedickt, she shared images of CBR's demonstration on social media, and a miscarriage therapist responded to her post, explaining the harmful effects the images could have not only on someone who had an abortion but also on someone who has had a miscarriage.
Along with the images, Benedickt expressed her disappointment with the rhetoric used by the organization on their signs, particularly a sign that read, “Abortion is child sacrifice.”
“I have a really big problem with making the term 'abortion' synonymous with 'child sacrifice' because that has an intent behind it that is not accurate,” Benedickt said. “That's not why people do this. It's just fundamentally wrong on a lot of levels. It's hurting people.”
Though CBR's presence on campus had a negative impact for some, a unifying aspect that came from the demonstration was that, in spite of differing beliefs on abortion, students came together to stand against intolerance and express love and acceptance to those impacted by this topic.
Sophomore theater and history double major Anna Lasley emphasized that, though Tennessee is a red state, the community holds a myriad of differing views that should be recognized.
“It can be very confusing to see protests like this on Lee’s campus because Lee does not officially stand with them,” Lasley said. “I want students to know they’re not alone and that this is not how everyone at Lee feels. This is not how everyone in Cleveland feels. This is not how everyone in Tennessee feels.”
Hayes encouraged students to open a dialogue about their beliefs in a respectful but passionate way.
“We understand that people have different opinions on different things, and people have different opinions about how to express those opinions, so I would encourage those students to view this in a way that is reasonable but also passionately held in terms of what they believe and to really articulate what it means to be Christians dealing with abortion and life issues in our complex society,” Hayes said.
CBR plans to be back on campus today.
Matthew Taylor, News Editor, contributed to this article.