Anti-choice messaging tactics need to be examined, not ignored

The following op-ed was written by Sarah Hogg, Fall 2014 Choice Out Loud Campus Representative at James Madison University. Feel free to email Sarah or connect with her on Twitter @SarahLovely.

Last Monday, I was enjoying a sleepy morning relaxing with a book and a cup of tea. It was beautiful outside, and the sun was shining through the windows of my bedroom—always an indicator of a good day in what has been a fairly gloomy November. Just as I was getting ready to head to campus, feeling prepared and excited for the day, social media exploded. The Genocide Awareness Project was back on campus for the first time in three years.

I’m a senior at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where I’ve been NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s campus representative intern for the past four semesters. JMU could be seen as a somewhat liberal campus—our town typically goes blue in elections, which is largely influenced by college students—but access to safe and affordable abortions is still a controversial topic, as it is most everywhere.

Three years ago, during my very first semester at JMU in fall 2011, an awful campaign called the Genocide Awareness Project (or GAP for short) came to JMU and set up on the Commons, our central point of campus where many groups table and pass out fliers everyday. The Genocide Awareness Project displays massive, sprawling photo-murals of aborted fetuses and compares abortion to genocide—an absolutely abhorrent anti-choice tactic. GAP’s display is extremely triggering and demonizes and terrorizes people who have had abortions. They are blatantly anti-woman and anti-choice.

The Genocide Awareness Project is not innocent. Their intense photo display cannot be cast off as an irrelevant thing that a bunch of extremists put together. This kind of anti-choice tactic cannot, and should not, be ignored. The fact is that their campaign is deeply harmful, and possibly even triggering, to a huge number of people. It is violent anti-choice messaging, and has severe effects on those who see it. I know for a fact that at least one person had a panic attack upon seeing the images GAP displayed, and I am sure she was not the only one. Here’s the bottom line: if your campaign is putting people’s mental (and/or physical) health in danger, it needs to stop. While it’s easy to write GAP off as ignorant, or just something awful that came through campus and left two days later, that’s not all it is. It hurts people. It shames them. And herein lies the problem.

The choice to have an abortion can be a difficult one. Even so, research shows that the majority of people who have had abortions do not regret them and do not feel shame surrounding their choice. However, when they are confronted by individuals or groups telling them that they contributed to genocide, or murdered a child, or are awful people who are going to Hell, they may begin to feel like those allegations are true. They may begin to feel shame not because of their own choice, but because of the despicable messaging that is being thrown in their face because of that choice. It has to stop.

I recognize that the kind of anti-choice messaging the Genocide Awareness Project practices may only be promoted or accepted by extreme pro-life folks, but the overall theme is the same: abortion is inherently wrong, and therefore, people who seek abortions should feel ashamed for their choices and those who advocate for safe, legal, and affordable abortion access must be stopped. This kind of dangerous rhetoric is seen all over the place in the anti-choice movement, but, as we’ve seen, it isn’t innocent. It has the ability to push people who have had abortions to a place of shame and silence.

My hope is that JMU students and students on other campuses who have been unlucky enough to experience GAP are now motivated to take action. The conversation surrounding GAP and anti-choice messaging was one of the things that inspired me to jump into the pro-choice, feminist worlds my freshman year. If we can’t get them off our campus, we can at least think critically about projects like GAP and become more involved in reproductive justice. We can no longer allow people who seek abortions to be shamed into silence by loud, extreme voices. We have to be louder.

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