Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 30, 2024

VFL demonstrations are confrontational

October 31, 2013

For the past two days, Hopkins’ controversial pro-life advocacy group Voice for Life (VFL) has staged a “Cemetery of the Innocents” demonstration near the freshman quad. The group placed rows of white cross grave markers in a makeshift cemetery, symbolizing the deaths of fetuses resulting from abortions, and posted group members at a booth to engage with interested passersby. VFL has drawn significant controversy in the past, particularly last spring during the debate over its recognition as an official student group on campus. It was no surprise, therefore, that this week’s display garnered significant attention, debate and consternation.

Editorial Board members have diverse views on the subject of abortion, and thus cannot opine on VFL’s message itself. The Editorial Board does, however, have a long-standing commitment to the protection of free speech on campus — another issue that has arisen in the wake of the VFL controversy. As we have written in the past, free speech includes the right to challenge one’s peers with beliefs they find unsettling. The board believes VFL’s protest falls within free speech protections and that the university was correct to permit the demonstration.

With that said, just because speech should be permitted does not mean it was conveyed in the most effective, respectful, polite or academic way possible. On a campus that is largely pro-choice, representing abortion by a cemetery is a very confrontational method of getting one’s point across. And on a campus full of perceptive and insightful students with well-thought-out opinions, the graveyard graphic strikes us as an overly simplistic reduction of a complex issue. We suspect VFL’s message would be more kindly received if they presented it less aggressively.

Nevertheless, the students we saw manning the booth were polite and respectful, and we commend the restraint necessary to discuss the issue in a civil manner. Abortion is a sensitive topic on which informed, intelligent and well-intentioned people can and do disagree. It is also an issue that stokes fierce passions and deep personal connections, which creates an intense and polarizing atmosphere whenever either side presents their views in public. For this reason, abortion is rarely brought up in normal day-to-day conversation, but that has certainly changed this week. If nothing else, Hopkins was abuzz with discussion that otherwise would not have taken place, and perhaps from that standpoint the protest was a success.

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