Junior Kyle Shook chalked out his thoughts about abortion twice in the last two weeks — once on the sidewalk and once in a Willingham classroom.
The first time came two Thursdays ago after Shook and a group of friends noticed a flurry of pro-life messages etched in sidewalk chalk across campus, then responded hours later with a counter-chalking demonstration from a pro-choice viewpoint.
The second time came last Thursday when Shook and a group of 23 other Mercer students formally gathered together over bean dip and brownies to discuss their interest in forming a new pro-choice student organization on campus called the Mercer Alliance for Reproductive Freedom, or MARF.
The chalking and formation of MARF during the last two weeks reflect a growing point of controversy on Mercer’s campus regarding the issue of abortion and reproductive rights, with each side making its voice heard loudly.
Mercer Students for Life, a secular pro-life student organization, set in motion a chalking war over abortion on Thursday, March 18, when its members took to the sidewalks to draw 3,500 hearts representing the number of abortions it says take place each day across the nation.
Junior Megan Hamrick, president of Mercer Students for Life, said her organization was responsible for drawing the initial hearts along with messages such as “A person is a person no matter how small” and “Women need love not abortion.” [pullquote] “I encourage open dialogue and a diversity of opinions, and have no problem with the chalking in and of itself. But when things begin to become offensive and appear discriminatory as they did in this situation, that’s when we need to be careful." -Carrie Ingoldsby, Office of Campus Life [/pullquote]
But the chalking quickly devolved into more inflammatory messages from unaffiliated students on both sides of the debate, igniting a firestorm of controversy across campus.
In one instance, pro-choice students drew a picture of a crossed-out coat-hanger with a caption reading “Mercerians against wire hangers,” accompanied by a declaration that “College parties = unwanted babies.” Pro-life chalkers fired back at the sketch with comments such as "A human life is nothing to party with" and "Save a life. Save yourself for when you're ready."
Carrie Ingoldsby with the Office of Campus Life was alerted to the potentially offensive chalkings Thursday afternoon, then poured water on the markings after deciding that they violated Mercer’s community of respect.
Ingoldsby said the decision to wash away the offensive chalking was not intended as a form of censorship, but rather as way to ensure that offensive messages aren’t encouraged on campus.
“I encourage open dialogue and a diversity of opinions, and have no problem with the chalking in and of itself. But when things begin to become offensive and appear discriminatory as they did in this situation, that’s when we need to be careful,” Ingoldsby said.
Ingoldsby added that she does not believe Mercer Students for Life officially took part in the offensive chalkings after having looked into the incident.
Shook said he and his fellow pro-choice counter-chalkers also had nothing to do with the offensive comments, as they only wrote rational responses to what they felt were misleading pro-life arguments.
“I personally don’t regret counter-chalking, since I was merely responding to inaccurate information about abortion, feminism and Planned Parenthood that the other side had presented. It was already out there, so I felt like I had a duty to respond,” Shook said.
Shook called the wire hanger comment an “outdated slogan” for the pro-choice movement that should not be used.
Hamrick added that Mercer Students for Life will continue to chalk hearts for the next 24 days as part of the group’s 35-day campaign to raise awareness about pro-life options.
THE DEEPER ISSUES
Beyond the chalking incident lie deeper divisions between the two camps about whether contraceptives and abortions should be available to Mercer students, as well as the types of educational resources that should be offered by the university.
Suzanne Stroup, a sophomore journalism and theatre major who attended the MARF interest meeting last Thursday, said she got involved with the new group because she felt like women’s issues and the pro-choice viewpoint wasn’t being adequately represented on campus.
“I feel like, on our campus, the pro-choice voice is missing. The other side has spoken up loudly, but we haven’t gotten our voice out there,” Stroup said.
But Hamrick from the Mercer Students for Life said she thinks the problem is exactly the opposite, and that the pro-life argument has been misunderstood.
“I feel like most of campus is pro-choice, and that the ones who are pro-life are apathetic about the issue,” Hamrick said.
The major point of contention between the two groups concerns the availability of contraceptives, especially emergency ones such as “Plan B.”
Hamrick said Mercer Students for Life takes no official stance on contraceptives, but that she believes oral contraceptives can often act as a front for abortion.
“Anyone looking to be sexually active on campus should rely mainly on condoms and spermicide. If you’d just have safe sex, you’d be okay,” Hamrick said.
Senior Mary-Kathryn Wiley said she disagrees with the notion that safe sex alone can protect women from having unplanned pregnancies.
“It concerns me that we don’t have more resources for women’s health at Mercer and in Macon. It’s almost impossible to get emergency contraceptives in this town. It’s a basic health issue that’s being neglected,” Wiley said.
Wiley said she’s also concerned that Mercer’s student insurance policy doesn’t cover abortion.
“I know some students are morally opposed to abortion, but there should at least be some sort of opt-in policy for students to have abortion coverage under Mercer’s policies,” Wiley said.
Hamrick said she’s not necessarily opposed to an opt-in policy for abortion coverage, which would allow students who are interested in having abortion added to their default plans to do so out-of-pocket while still retaining the school's discounted group rate.
A spokeswoman for Pearce and Pearce, the third-party company that handles student insurance coverage, said the company could add abortion coverage to Mercer’s default plan if the university wanted it and that it could offer an opt-in policy beginning as soon next year.
Dean of students Doug Pearson said he’s open to making changes to the university’s insurance policies regarding abortion coverage as long as doing so doesn’t unnecessarily complicate the plan or drive up costs for everyone.
“If students feel there’s something lacking from the policy, we’d certainly entertain it, but our overriding goal is to keep the price low for all students,” Pearson said.
But for both groups, the crux of the issue comes in providing better access to educational resources and promoting an open dialogue concerning reproductive options.
"We're not out to compete against Mercer Students for Life," Shook said. "We need to work together with them and hopefully even sponsor a forum to discuss the issue in a mature, intelligent manner instead of just in chalk."