Editorial: Vile anti-abortion display harms many, benefits none

This week, the organization Mizzou Students for Life partnered with the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform to bring a large display called the “Genocide Awareness Project” to Lowry Mall for a second year. If you didn’t see it, you certainly heard about it. Just as it did last year, the demonstration featured horribly violent images of gore, including murder and genocide victims, as well as aborted, mutilated fetuses. Regardless of the point being made and regardless of the impassioned abortion debate taking place in this country, we are disappointed that our fellow students in Mizzou Students for Life did not consider the feelings and experiences of others when deciding to stage the display.

Central to our view is the principle that Mizzou Students for Life and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform have every right to express their opinions on campus. With controversial events and demonstrations such as this one, it is wholly comforting to us to know that the First Amendment protects their right to speech (including imagery) just as much as it does our right to publish, and we’re glad that our university’s treatment of this display was fair and in total accord with our supreme law. Mizzou Students for Life met every requirement to rent the space on Lowry Mall, and Monday, their protesters stayed peaceful and civil.

However, the display is fundamentally offensive and makes many uncomfortable. We realize this is the aim of the campaign, but there are certainly more constructive ways to educate the student body. To exhibit excruciatingly graphic pictures of massacred genocide victims, of lynched African-Americans and of aborted fetuses is alienating, polarizing and upsetting, and it causes people to dig further into their trenches. Since Mizzou Students for Life chose Lowry Mall as the best location to reach the most people, then the number of students, faculty, staff and visitors who reroute their way through campus to avoid the demonstration surely detracted from the organization’s goal. The backdrop of violent images and vitriol is no place to foster discussion and understanding.

We are not here to take a stance on abortion rights and laws, but we are outraged at how the protest labels abortion as genocide. It is not. Genocide involves a single, united aggressor intending to eradicate a specific group of people (usually based on race or ethnicity) to accomplish a specific cause, and none of those elements can be used to describe abortion. Mizzou Students for Life was perhaps unaware, but their protest began on Holocaust Remembrance Day, where the Jewish community and the world remembers fresh the horrors of that terrible genocide; it is certainly telling that the Hillel Center reached out with counselors to help anyone hurt by the display. It’s an affront to anyone who has been personally affected by the beyond-cruel reality of genocide — whether firsthand, through family, through ethnic identity, or otherwise — and misinforms everyone about what genocide truly is.

In the face of such hatred and bigotry, we applaud those who worked to provide resources and alternative information for those harmed or confused by yesterday’s demonstration and will continue to do so today. As we previously mentioned, the Hillel Center was proactive in notifying its members of the protest’s graphic nature and providing counseling for those who wanted it. We sympathize with the MU Jewish community. It's not every Holocaust Remembrance Day that you witness people using violent images of your ethnic group’s greatest tragedy for political and social gain, and we regret that our campus played host to such vitriol and insensitivity.

We also commend all who helped warn others about the graphic display, particularly the Feminist Student Union, who quickly organized a counter-protest. FSU president Nicole Silvestri got the word out early via social media, and the group’s counter-protest was very professional, avoiding conflict and simply providing support to those offended and hurt by the demonstration. Looking forward, those involved with counter-protesting should be sure to cover both ends of Lowry Mall, to provide a proper warning for all who walk through it. Everyone deserves to choose what they are exposed to, and we thank everyone who enabled their fellow students to make an informed decision on their route through campus yesterday.

Many have surely questioned the judgment of university administrators in allowing such a vile display to be staged so prominently in a main thoroughfare of campus. However, for them to reject this demonstration would open up questions on where exactly the line on graphic displays is drawn, and who can and cannot express their viewpoint on campus — that is dangerously close to censorship, and we are proud that our university upheld the constitutional right to expression of all students.

We would recommend, though, that the university’s event staff consider creating a calendar of all displays, protests and other uses of public space on campus. After all, it’s students who pay for the maintenance, the utilities and the security at our university. We deserve to know who is using our public space and when they are doing it. Besides, it wouldn’t just be helpful for those who wish to avoid certain demonstrations — those who’d like to attend or witness an event would be better informed as well.

In the end, it comes down to compassion and consideration for others. While we stand for the right of Mizzou Students for Life and all other groups who stage controversial events to gather and exercise their freedom of expression, no one benefits when a demonstration is so vile that it sparks a campus-wide effort to keep people away from it. It’s a spectacle, an act of aggression. We know this is not the last time images of aborted fetuses will show up on our campus, but we hope that next time, those responsible for such displays will consider who might see it and what they might have experienced in their life. Imagery can be immensely powerful, both for good and for bad, and Mizzou Students for Life should be ashamed of the lack of compassion it is displaying on Lowry Mall.

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