On Monday, October 3rd 2011, I walked out of my Spanish class and through the diag to the UGLI. Just feet away from this huge display encircling the entire center of the diag, was a sign that read: “WARNING Disturbing Images Ahead.” Seeing the life-sized pictures of baby fetuses and mass genocides directly behind the sign as I read it, this warning came a little too late.
In case you cannot read the writing from this picture, the sign in front of the anti-abortion display reads:
“Genocide Awareness Project- Genocide: The deliberate and systematic destruction of a national, racial, religious, political, cultural, ethnic, or other group defined by the exterminators as undesirable (emphasis added). (Webster’s New Encyclopedia, 1992). With abortion, the ‘other group’ being exterminated is unwanted, unborn babies.”
The girl sitting to the right of the display is a student holding a sign which reads “.”
And in chalk, on the ground in front of this display is written “PRO-CHOICE AND PROUD.” Similar messages are written around the entire display.
My initial reaction, which may be different from yours, was shock and disgust. I have peacefully walked through the diag every day since coming to the University of Michigan and though I have seen many demonstrations none have affected me like this one. How could these people have the right to display such gruesome pictures with such offensive claims? How does this not cause harm to someone such as myself, or the various other students walking through the diag?
John Stuart Mill argues that an already unpopular opinion, such as an anti-abortion group on Michigan’s generally liberal campus, tends to have “studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate….” in order for their expression of opinion to be tolerated among society. Therefore, Mill concludes that the harm principle is not a reason to silence the expression of opinion. I disagree with this; if I had any weaker of a stomach I could have easily lost my breakfast at the sight of those pictures. If I had had an abortion or was close to someone who has had an abortion I would be angry at the claims these people were making and offended that they could declare abortion a form of genocide. It would be hurtful for me to have to walk past those disturbing images; it would bring back painful memories and definitely make it hard to concentrate throughout my day. Is this not harmful? Are the huge disturbing images of genocides and aborted babies really a form of “moderated language and cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence”? I do not think that they are. Did this demonstration not prove harmful to the innocent people walking by, naïve to what they will soon encounter? I believe it did.
As I went back to take pictures and study the display to write this post my opinions on the topic began to alter. Regardless of your opinion, consider how your response to this display would be different if you grew up in a family who held the opposite view. I am pro-choice, however, after asking myself this question I realized that it would be hard for me to understand the pro-choice side if I had grown up taught that pro-choice results in genocide and the loss of innocent lives. This made me wonder, do we immediately attack demonstrations when the opinions being expressed are different from our own? Would I be in support of an equally disturbing demonstration if I were in agreement with the opinion being expressed? I think that perhaps I would. Was it not the effect those images had that actually conveyed the severity of their beliefs? I argue that it was.
Seeing the demonstration in the diag reminded me of why I was pro-choice and reaffirmed my beliefs. This is exactly why Mill argues the expression of a potentially wrong opinion can be a good thing. Mill says, “even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is… vigorously and earnestly contested, it will… be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” I have always been pro-choice but this belief is not part of my day-to-day life. Seeing a demonstration that questioned my beliefs brought the issue to the front of my attention. I still look at the pictures in this demonstration and think they’re horrible but I am confident in my belief that an abortion can be what is necessary for the mother, can be what is best for a family, and more importantly, that it is never the governments place to make a decision about your body regardless.
For me this demonstration brought up many questions, all of which I cannot address in this post. But to consider a few, do we immediately attack demonstrations when the opinions being expressed are different from our own? How do the arguments of John Stuart Mill change the way we discuss this situation? Lastly, is a display such as the one depicted above really considered a form of protected expression? Should it be?