Tuesday, January 22 marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark court decision on abortion and women’s sexual health, but at DePaul University, that day will be remembered very differently.
In the university's quad, the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom erected a pro-life memorial to their cited 54 million fetuses aborted in the decades since Roe's passage. To do so, the students hung pink and blue flags in the quad as a form of public protest. To counterprotest, another group of pro-choice students took the flags down, distributing them in garbage cans across campus.
According to a source close to the pro-choice protestors, they thought it was the most peaceful way to respond. Some students planned on writing affirming messages on the flags and returning them to their previous positions, as a reminder that this issue isn’t just about babies, it’s about women’s rights. They hoped that doing so would send a message to pro-life students on campus and start a dialogue at a school that often ignores issues of sexual health. No one expected it would go as far as it did. No one thought it would mean they might not graduate.
The problem began when an article from Fox News, the Pied Piper of American conservatism, threw ideological gasoline all over the conflict, branding the pro-choice students as “vandals” and Young Americans for Freedom as heroes of the GOP and warriors of free speech. Fox writer Todd Starnes—who comes personally endorsed by Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity—used the conflict as a way to bash the pro-choice students as being bigots. Other articles continue to refer to the students as “leftists” and “radicals” (or sometimes both!) and the act as a “trashing” of students' rights.
To further this indictiment, Fox spoke to Kristopher Del Campo, the DePaul chairman for Young Americans for Freedom. Del Campo said, “It is a sad thing to see that liberal minded students aren’t more tolerant, and don’t respect the views of those who respect the lives of the unborn. It’s really discouraging and I’m saddened by that.”
In a follow-up article in the DePaulia, the university’s student-run newspaper, Del Campo went much further, referring to the flags’ removal as an “act of hate.” (He also says that liberals are more likely to be the perpetrators of hate crimes.)
Despite an apology from the university’s Dean of Students, Art Munin, Del Campo advocated that the university go further, calling for expulsion for all the students involved. Del Campo told the DePaulia that YAF has surveillance footage of the students responsible and that they will show that alleged footage to the police. In the meantime, Del Campo stated that he like to see DePaul take responsibility in hunting down those responsible: “If you really want to find these students, put out pictures…Let other students see it and identify students.”
Del Campo’s advocacy for a student witch hunt isn’t the first time that the school’s faced free speech issues at DePaul, as a “satirical” Affirmative Action Bake Sale in 2006 highlighted the extreme divisions between conservative and liberal students on the nation’s largest Catholic campus.
One of the pro-choice students involved in the incident, who asked not to be identified (and will be referred to as “X"), stated that incidents like these are endemic of a divided campus, an ongoing problem that the university has failed to holistically tackle. When X started at the university in 2009, students put up swastikas in Corcoran Hall, a residence building at DePaul, and in some of the other dorms. In 2011, another incident arose when a student began to shout out anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim slurs in the student center.
According to X, the pro-choice students involved didn’t mean to “fuel this fire” at DePaul. This isn't what anyone wanted. They didn't even know that Young Americans for Freedom existed.
Because pro-choice groups are informally banned on campus, X—like many students I spoke with—assumed that pro-life groups would not be allowed to operate either, due to the university’s strict procedures on sexually charged material and student organizations. Per school policy, student organizations aren’t allowed to distribute condoms, and sex ed is heavily censored.
Currently, the university offers a Sexual Health and Violence Prevention center (that many students don't even know exists) and a undergraduate group called the Student Health Advocates. However, it's hard for these groups to be effective on a campus that won't allow them to hold public demonstrations on Safe Sex 101—and give students the educational resources they need. Because of their strained relationship with sex, DePaul University claimed the title of “Most Sexually Unhealthy University” in 2011.
The DePaul administration claims that the university’s Catholic affiliation precludes amending these policies, even though other religious institutions (like Siena) allow for the distribution of condoms on campus.
However, X believes that the strict adherence to Catholic doctrine in the school’s sexual policies is a strange double standard, as the university allows LGBTQ groups to operate very publicly on campus and has been a champion of queer student visibility. In addition to an LGBTQ studies department, the school boasts three active queer student groups and allows them to throw yearly drag shows, which are a tentpole of the spring quarter. The 2011 show even took place in the DePaul Atrium, the common space of the school's student center.
Because the university's LGBTQ leadership has often been stereotyped as male (which was also an issue when I was a DePaul undergraduate), X remarked that queer visibility has been easier for DePaul administration to swallow.
As a student heavily involved in both LGBTQ and feminist organizing at DePaul, X stated that feminists on campus are "treated differently because they have vaginas." This creates a culture where some female students feel unsafe, which include those students involved in last Tuesday's incident. X put it bluntly: "When you step on this campus, it feels like you don't have a choice."
Because of this gender gap, the student worried that DePaul is going to use the flag removal to further marginalize the school's feminist and pro-choice communities. When X was initially questioned about the event, the student told me that administrators were already looking for links to feminist groups and leaders on campus. They were searching for a target. Currently, the university is seeking possible expulsion for anyone who was involved in the flag removal.
Tracey Harkins, a senior DePaul student in Women and Gender Studies, agreed that gender inequality on campus is a huge problem and said that DePaul should show the same progressive stance to sexuality that they have demonstrated on queer issues. Instead of further silencing women’s voices on campus and scapegoating them for the university's problems, the university should use this as an opportunity to start a conversation on sexual health, a dialogue that should have taken place a long time ago.
According to Harkins, the conflict “speaks to a real issue at DePaul,” causing her to “question how DePaul handles a range of women-related issues.” Harkins cited this incident as yet another failure from the university in regards to its female population, as the school has yet to take action against sexual assaults that occurred on campus last fall. For Harkins, this is representative an ongoing problem at “campuses across the country,” where women are “made to feel devalued” by administrations that don’t take their sexual health seriously. She argued that “women cannot feel safe at an institutional level if they are considered unequal.”
In response to DePaul's sex problems, Harkins is working with a team of student organizers on “Say Yes to Consent,” which hopes to change the culture of sex at DePaul and on Chicago’s campuses. With student members from universities across the city—including the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College and Northwestern University—the group hopes pressure university administrators to include policies educating students on sexual assault, consent and women's health, rather than sweeping these issues under the rug.
As statistics show that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted before graduating college, Harkins feels the best way to commemorate Roe v. Wade is to continue the fight for greater awareness: “We’ve come a long way in the past 40 years, but our work is far from over.”