Planned Parenthood New Haven is a low brick building on Whitney Avenue and Edwards Street, just north of Science Hill and east of the Observatory. Its parking lot opens onto a quiet, tree-lined street. I walked by at least 10 times over the summer, and only once was the driveway flanked by a few unusually sedate protesters. As I passed by early on a Saturday, a middle-aged woman informed me that abortion was murder.
Evy Behling ’17 would agree. “I don’t see a meaningful difference that justifies ending a life between a child inside of the womb and outside of the womb,” says Behling, the Spring 2016 president of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), Yale’s eight-member undergraduate pro-life organization. Their annual pro-life conference, Vita et Veritas, begins on Sept. 30.
Behling repeatedly emphasizes the feminist aspects of pro-life activism, including CLAY’s calls for enhanced support for pregnant students and her desire for better comprehensive women’s health care. Behling’s platform for her term as president was, according to her biography on the CLAY website, “focused on improving Yale’s enactment of Title IX as [it] regards pregnancy.”
Based on my conversation with Behling, CLAY seemed like an activist group focused far more on making pregnancy a viable option than on restricting abortion access. So I was shocked to hear that they had been rejected once from membership in Dwight Hall, and multiple times from membership in the Women’s Center.
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In April 2014, CLAY tried to become a full member of Dwight Hall as part of its Social Justice Network.
The Social Justice Network was founded in 1997, and Dwight Hall describes it on its website as “a coalition of organizations and individuals working for social justice and social change at Yale, in New Haven and beyond.” Members of the SJN encouraged CLAY to become a provisional member in 2013, on the basis of CLAY’s volunteer work at the crisis pregnancy center St. Gianna Center.
After its required year as a provisional member, CLAY’s candidacy was addressed at a Dwight Hall Cabinet meeting, where a group of around 90 executive committee members and organization leaders debated CLAY’s admission. Dwight Hall’s then co-coordinator, Sterling Johnson ’15, told the News that the vote on whether to grant CLAY membership had an unusually high proportion of abstentions. CLAY, unlike the other two groups being considered at that meeting, was denied membership.
After the vote, Courtney McEachon ’15, a former CLAY president, criticized Johnson’s co-coordinator, Teresa Logue ’15, for her decision to wear a “Yale Feminist” T-shirt to the meeting. These are sold by the Women’s Center, whose 2014 political action coordinator Laura Kellman ’15 slammed CLAY in an email to the News, saying, “I do not see working to strip people of their rights to control their own bodies as service.” The Women’s Center had previously rejected CLAY’s membership application twice before, on the grounds that their mission did not align with the Center’s stated goal to “ensure every woman’s right to reproductive freedom.”
When asked whether it was still the Women’s Center’s policy to reject membership applications on this basis, the Women’s Center’s public relations coordinator, Vicki Beizer ’18, replied, “I don’t think we’re going to respond to that question.”
After CLAY’s first rejection, in 2010, Isabel Marin ’12 wrote an impassioned column for the News that accused the Women’s Center of “hindering the feminist effort” by refusing to welcome CLAY “into the fold of the feminist movement,” identifying CLAY as a group of “unlikely feminists.” Odd, though, is the incongruity between CLAY’s claim that a “Yale Feminist” T-shirt is prejudicial against them and their self-identification as a feminist, or at least pro-woman, organization.
But Behling still claims that CLAY is pro-woman, saying, “It is at the very heart of being pro-woman to be pro-life.” She added, “It would be to the benefit of Women’s Center to be open to groups like CLAY because it would make [it] a more welcoming place for women across the ideological spectrum … As it stands, some women are more welcome than others at the Women’s Center due to their beliefs.”
Cassie Lignelli ’18 was last year’s head coordinator of the Women’s Center. Though she emphasizes that her thoughts might not reflect those of the Center’s current leadership, in response to Behling’s statement she wrote,“It certainly does not ‘benefit’ the Women’s Center to welcome groups who advocate against its core values.”
Beizer would agree that the Women’s Center is a pro-choice space. But that doesn’t mean abortion is the only choice it recognizes. She says that the Center strives to be welcoming to all viewpoints, though she emphasized the importance of “a woman’s autonomy over her own body.”
While CLAY’s rejection from the Women’s Center was a matter of ideology, Dwight Hall coordinator Anthony D’Ambrosio ’18 insists that CLAY’s rejection from Dwight Hall was not.
Admission as a full member of Dwight Hall is based solely on a democratic vote by the Cabinet, whose membership changes every year.
However, D’Ambrosio adds one crucial point of clarification: “We do expect that our groups follow certain guidelines in terms of respectability … And there are certain pro-life groups at Yale that have gotten in trouble for harassment in the past,” he said. “There is a reputation that some groups go to Planned Parenthood, and what they call activism, some people would call harassment.”
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Abortions are free at Yale, covered entirely by the Yale Health Basic plan that is automatically provided for every Yale student. Despite pervasive rumors that the number of abortions available is capped at three or four per student, no such limit exists.
Aryssa Damron ’18 wrote in a 2015 post on The Odyssey Online that if this coverage is “utilized even once, that is one too many times,” and in 2004, CLAY’S former vice president Jacqueline Costrini ’06 told the News that those who object to abortion should be given a $2 refund in order to guarantee their money would not be spent on something against their beliefs.
Abortions are not performed at the Yale Health facility on Lock Street. Rather, they are referred elsewhere, usually to Planned Parenthood’s New Haven center.
Helen Price ’18, a Planned Parenthood welcome crew volunteer, said that she has never seen a Yale student protesting at Planned Parenthood New Haven, adding that she hopes “no Yale students would ever intimidate women exercising their right to reproductive health care like that.” Jake Colavolpe ’18, a Campus Action intern at Planned Parenthood, says that protesters often attempt to prevent people from accessing the clinic’s services.
Though CLAY advertises on their website that it engages in “advocacy at Planned Parenthood,” Behling says they are not currently doing so.
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Unlike CLAY, the Planned Parenthood Campus Action interns comprise a residence group at the Women’s Center. The Center serves as an umbrella group for organizations on campus that address issues of gender and sexuality, and they assert that “while the Center is traditionally inhabited by feminists and can be a site for feminist activism, you do not have to identify as a feminist” to work with them. If CLAY were what it claimed to be — a pro-pregnancy group whose primary focus is pro-pregnancy, rather than anti-abortion, activism — the Women’s Center would be guilty of ideological discrimination.
But CLAY is not what it claims to be. In statements to and interviews with the News, they de-emphasize their political anti-choice activism and focus instead on their pro-woman credentials, positioning themselves primarily as a group that seeks to support pregnant Yale students rather than a group that seeks to prevent women nationwide from exercising their right to reproductive freedom.
CLAY might position itself as a feminist group, at least when it’s advantageous for them to do so from a public relations perspective. But their volunteer work takes place at St. Gianna Center, which misleadingly claims in one of its brochures that “women who had abortions were almost twice as likely to die in the following two years.” The same brochure says that over the eight-year period after an abortion, a woman has an “82 percent higher risk of death from accidents.” The brochure fails to specify the kind of “accidents” to which it refers, nor does it seek to explain any link between abortion procedures and accidental death.
In fact, almost all of the resources CLAY links to on their site, on a page prominently labeled “Pregnant?”, seek to guilt, shame or emotionally manipulate women into continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
Some centers try to trick women out of preventing pregnancy. The ABC Women’s Center, another resource suggested by CLAY, discourages women from taking emergency contraception by claiming that “taking the morning-after pill during a time when you cannot become pregnant needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones.” Interestingly enough, an unwanted pregnancy also needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones: According to the UK’s National Conception Trust, pregnancy exposes you to significant amounts of at least six hormones.
A third resource, Carolyn’s Place, extensively describes the symptoms of “post-abortion trauma,” a completely fictitious syndrome that they claim can cause a veritable laundry list of problems: “guilt, anger, abortion flashbacks, eating disorders, bonding issues with children, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, alcohol and drug abuse, self-punishing/degrading behaviors, suicidal thoughts, anniversary grief, relationship problems and psychological reactions.” A New York Times article that asked whether there was such thing as post-abortion syndrome concluded that “the scientific evidence strongly shows that abortion does not increase the risk of depression, drug abuse or any other psychological problem any more than having an unwanted pregnancy or giving birth.” According to an article in the Washington Monthly, “the notion that abortion regularly causes severe or clinical mental problems has been rejected by, among others, a group of experts convened by the American Psychological Association and Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop.”
The tactic of positioning anti-abortion as a pro-woman cause dates all the way back to anti-abortion activist David Reardon’s 1996 book, “Making Abortion Rare.” In it, he wrote “We must change the abortion debate so that we are arguing with our opponents on their own turf, on the issue of defending the interests of women.”
This new tactic spurred an entire movement of right-wing pseudoscience: the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer, which has long been disproved but is still trumpeted by Carolyn’s Place, as well as so-called “post-abortion trauma” or “post-abortion syndrome.” This shift allowed, and still allows, anti-abortion activists to claim that the procedure harms women and that their intent is, therefore, to protect women from the dangers of abortion rather than to prevent them from exercising their bodily autonomy. In an article for The Atlantic, Emma Green writes that “some [abortion] opponents also identified as ‘pro-life feminists,’ believing abortion gave men an excuse to treat women as sexual objects.” Historian Daniel K. Williams wrote in his book “Defenders of the Unborn” that anti-abortion activists believed that “women’s rights would be respected only when their roles as life-givers and mothers were fully honored.”
Behling echoes this language extensively, saying, “Personally I think it’s better for society, for women and for men, to preserve sexual activity for a situation where they’re ready to support a child … abortion makes what the female body naturally does a thing that it’s not supposed to do.”
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It’s disingenuous for CLAY to position itself as a pro-woman service organization if its primary goal is to prevent women, at any cost, from getting abortions. Supporting organizations that mislead women, even if it’s for what you see as a good cause, does not make you pro-woman. Volunteering at a pregnancy center that provides inaccurate medical information does not make you a service organization.
Behling told me that she wants to “find common ground between pro-life and pro-choice students to facilitate a robust choice for women.” And if CLAY were what it claimed to be — an organization whose primary goal is to make pregnancy a viable choice for Yale students — it would be foolish and shortsighted of Dwight Hall and the Women’s Center to deny it membership and support. But the organizations that CLAY supports do not want to facilitate a robust choice. They want to make pregnancy the only choice.
CLAY’s anti-abortion activism and ties to crisis pregnancy centers lead the pro-choice community at Yale to see it as a group of misogynists crusading to restrict women’s reproductive freedom. But because of their deeply held ideological and religious convictions, CLAY members see pro-choice activists as baby-murder enablers. It seems impossible for these two groups to communicate, much less cooperate. But their shared inability to set aside politics means that pregnant Yale students are left without support from their campus community.
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If you choose to continue a pregnancy at Yale, prenatal and obstetrics care is available through Yale Health Hospitalization/Specialty Care coverage, but is not covered by the Basic plan.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, all educational institutions that receive federal funds, including Yale, are obliged to accommodate pregnant and parenting students under Title IX. According to Title IX, Yale must allow pregnant students to continue participating in classes and extracurricular activities, and make reasonable adjustments (such as elevator access) in order to allow them to participate. Yale must also excuse absences due to pregnancy or childbirth for as long as the student’s doctor says is necessary and allow pregnant students to return to the same academic status as before their medical leave, including granting them the opportunity to make up any work missed due to their absence. In addition, the Department of Education site adds that “if your teacher’s grading is based in part on class participation or attendance and you missed class because of pregnancy or childbirth, you should be allowed to make up the participation or attendance credits you didn’t have the chance to earn.”
The National Women’s Law Center also says professors and administrators should not encourage pregnant students to drop out or change their educational goals, and that schools are required to accommodate pregnant students as generously as they do students with other medical conditions.
University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler said her office meets individually with students in order to tailor accommodation and support to their needs, so that they can continue their studies at Yale while they are pregnant or parenting.
However, despite the Title IX office’s best efforts, it is almost unheard of to continue a pregnancy as a Yale undergraduate. Behling thinks this is due to a lack of information about the University’s obligation to pregnant and parenting students under Title IX. During her tenure as president of CLAY, Behling helped make incoming first-years more aware of their options by advocating for the inclusion of “a line about provisions for pregnancy in one of the freshman workshops.” Before, she said, the workshops were biased: She said, “[They] didn’t present carrying a child to term as a real option.”
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There is a real need for the support that organizations like ABC Women’s Center and St. Gianna Center claim to provide. No woman should ever feel pressured or coerced to have an abortion. No woman should ever feel like abortion is her only option. But there must be a way to support and encourage pregnant women to stay pregnant without guilting them, shaming them and lying to them.
Just as it is possible to be pro-choice without being anti-life, it is possible to be pro-life without being anti-choice. When an organization emerges at Yale with the goal of truly supporting pregnant women — of advocating for them regardless of the choices they make, of ensuring that pregnancy is a viable choice for them — then that organization will, I hope, have the full support of Dwight Hall, the Women’s Center and all other groups at Yale that claim to be pro-woman and feminist. But unless CLAY can put aside its legislative and moral crusade against abortion, with all its attendant underhanded tactics, then it will never be that organization, and it will not have the support of those on campus who identify themselves as pro-woman.