When Harlan Drake murdered anti-abortion protester Jim Pouillon on September 11, 2009, Operation Save America dubbed their fallen comrade “America’s first Christian pro-life martyr.” What’s more, Pouillon’s death prompted OSA Director Flip Benham to pledge an all-out effort to carry on the longtime activist’s work: Bringing gory, billboard-sized pictures of allegedly aborted fetuses to public high schools throughout the country.
This wasn’t a new idea. Thirteen years ago, in 1997, Operation Rescue launched the God is Going Back to School Campaign, but aside from Pouillon’s ongoing presence at schools in Owosso, Michigan, the effort sputtered. Pouillon’s death changed this and, since November, students in 45 cities and towns across the U.S. have periodically had to walk through a gauntlet of picketers as they enter their schoolhouses for morning classes.
Lawyers agree that unless there are special restrictions against protesting near schools, OSA can set up shop. At the same time, activists—whether pro-choice or anti-abortion—have to comply with local restrictions, obtaining necessary permits, obeying noise ordinances and laws against trespassing, and keeping driveways and streets unblocked. Should school personnel feel that the picketers are creating a dangerous situation, they can call police and hope that law enforcement will be able to convince OSA to either desist or move.
And therein lies the rub, for anti-abortion zealots are quick to charge that such efforts violate the First Amendment and amount to an unconstitutional assault on freedom of speech.
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For their part, courts have ruled that the right to free expression is not absolute and may be limited to ensure respect for the rights and reputation of others, or to protect national security, public order, or public health, but Louise Melling, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, argues—convincingly—that restricting free speech should never be taken lightly. “Protests often aim to make people uncomfortable and force them to think about an issue, whether abortion, a labor conflict, or being a scab,” she says. That’s why the First Amendment suggests that we meet speech we find offensive or unsettling with more speech—that is, we can rebut anything, verbally or in writing, that we believe to be false or disturbing. “Do we want government picking and choosing what content can be out there?” Melling asks. “I understand that most prochoice people want the antis to go away, but that’s an emotional reaction. Even if we are disturbed or angered by what the antis say or by the images they show, do we want the government or the police silencing them, or do we want engagement with their ideas?”
The crux of the matter, of course, is whether OSA’s patently false assertions—that abortion is murder; that women who have abortions are mentally scarred; that women who abort are more likely to develop breast cancer—are challenged and whether the students who hear OSA’s dithering also get to participate in open-ended discussions of sex, sexuality, reproduction, and abortion. If they don’t—and all available evidence suggests that they don’t–we’re in trouble.
In fact, the New York-based Guttmacher Institute reports that only 14 percent of U.S. school districts offer comprehensive sex education classes. This dearth of information—not just about abortion, but about contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and healthy sexual behavior both in and outside of long-term relationships–is appalling. Coupled with the fact that today’s youth are coming of age in a political climate rife with anti-abortion violence and sentiment, the notion of meeting speech with speech seems both idealistically naïve and sound-the-alarms imperative.
So, what to do?
Clinics, thanks to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and court-issued buffer zone ordinances, have often succeeded in separating protesters from patients and staff, protecting the anti’s free speech rights while allowing people to enter and leave reproductive health facilities without having someone literally screaming in their faces. But even if high schools are able to move protesters a bit farther from their doorways, physical distance will do little-to-nothing to counter the ideas and graphic photos that OSA is gluing into the minds of thousands and thousands of impressionable adolescents.
That whopper of a job falls to us. The consequence of failure—in the worst-case scenario the overturning of Roe—seems terrifyingly clear. What’s murkier is what we should be doing to insure that teens learn what they need to know to protect their reproductive futures. Sure, the Internet is filled with information—much of it great–but we can’t assume a kid will find either a nuanced discussion of pro-choice politics or Our Bodies, Ourselves simply by surfing the Net.
Maybe it’s that we just celebrated Martin Luther King Day but I keep returning to an African proverb popularized by the civil rights movement: In the face of misinformation, each one must teach one. Given that at least one-third of us—ethical, productive, responsible, smart women—will have an abortion during our lifetimes, having each one teach one could be profoundly powerful. I know that this isn’t an innovative concept, but ramping up the dialogue seems essential if we are going to counter OSA’s poison and challenge the messages the antis continually put forth.
In the end, there’s no other way to ensure that young people carry the reproductive justice movement forward. As Audre Lorde reminded us, our silence will not protect us or our offspring.