The anti-abortion group Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) made its first appearance of the school year near the Compass Monday, putting up graphic displays depicting what the group considered images of genocide and mutilated fetuses.
The group — whose “Genocide Awareness Project” travels to college campuses across the country — previously came to VCU in fall 2016, sparking a similar debate between anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists.
VCU freshman Molly Bryant was frustrated by the images.
“This pisses me off, and I understand it’s freedom of speech, but to use those pictures is messed up,” Bryant said. “I’m very angry that they would put all those pictures up.”
CBR Southeast Regional Director Fletcher Armstrong said the pictures used for the display were legitimate, despite some claims from students that the images were fake.
“The pictures are from us and, depending on the statistic, we cite different sources,” Armstrong said. “We use the Guttmacher Institute, which uses Planned Parenthood statistics.”
When the demonstrators first set up, a few Planned Parenthood advocates gathered to protest the scene.
“I think it’s disrespectful and shameful to produce this display,” said Planned Parenthood Generation Action at VCU Historian Delaney Joras. “I think it’s just to shame people and to make them uncomfortable.”
After the demonstration, the Young Democratic Socialists at VCU held a meeting Monday night to plan a counterprotest. They were joined near the Compass Tuesday morning by Planned Parenthood at VCU and Queer and Trans People of Color Collective.
YDSA member Eli Nachison said the timing of this demonstration was poor, considering the Brett Kavanaugh hearing that took place last week, sparking debate surrounding women’s rights.
“I think it especially stings coming off of a week where the integrity of women was definitely under the spotlight and was a very difficult time for a lot of people,” Nachison said. “I’m very displeased that people seek to spread that information on campus, and I extend my condolences to people that had their days ruined by those people.”
Returning Tuesday, Planned Parenthood at VCU members sported abortion-rights signs and attempted to form a barrier around the anti-abortion demonstration. Other individuals joined the crowd to voice their opinions.
“This is a space that allows any movement to gather and to express their views,” said Peter Jenkins, a Ph.D. student who participated in the counterprotest. “So, we wanted to express our views as well.”
CBR demonstrators reserved the space through the university. The Compass is a public space and can be used by any group, said Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Reuban Rodriguez.
“The university, because we are a public university, has to allocate a designated area on campus for expressive activity,” Rodriguez said. “This is primarily for groups that are not affiliated in any way with the university, meaning any staff or students.”
Rodriguez said using the space does not require payment, but groups must adhere to campus policy.
Political science professor John Aughenbaugh said, as long as no party was harmed, the university did what the constitution allows it to do — facilitate free speech according to 1989 Supreme Court case Ward v. Rock Against Racism.
“The government may regulate the time, place, and manner of speech if the government regulation is content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leaves open alternative channels of communication,” Aughenbaugh said.
In allowing the demonstration, VCU was merely adhering to federal policy based on Supreme Court precedent, he said.
“What VCU did was allow the demonstration [about] abortion, while giving a space for the counter-protesters and did so in a location [and] manner that minimized physical harm for either party,” Aughenbaugh said.
Maggie Eger, CBR project director, responded to the counter-protestors with enthusiasm, saying it shows students care about the issue.
“Seeing apathy among college students is very concerning to me,” Eger said. “So to see a lot of these people out here willing to sacrifice their time when they could be doing other things. So, that’s encouraging at least.”