On Monday, May 2, the St. Olaf student organization, Oles for Life, hosted atheist pro-life activist Monica Snyder for a talk entitled “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths.” Snyder, who has given the same talk for other organizations in the past, argued that three claims frequently heard in the abortion debate are factually incorrect: that there is no consensus on when in pregnancy human life begins, that most or all late-term abortions are medical emergencies, and that abortion restrictions are not effective in reducing the frequency of abortions.
In an interview with the Messenger, Oles for Life leadership member Addie Jo Lambrecht ‘23 said, “[Snyder] wasn’t making a philosophical argument for why you should be pro-life. It’s just filtering out what we see as less good pro-choice arguments stances – or, in fact, untrue pro-choice beliefs – that can undergird some opinions, so that we can get past that together, and move into what I think are the better pro-choice arguments and stronger pro-choice positions and we can talk about those.”
The event was billed as a neutral talk on the abortion debate, which establishes objective factual bases acceptable to pro-choice and pro-life thinkers alike. However, Snyder’s position as executive director of a pro-life advocacy group and invitation by a pro-life student group led to a general reception on campus that the event was less than neutral.
Student groups Olaf Leftists and Students for Reproductive Rights (SRR) co-hosted a simultaneous event on the same floor of Rølvaag Memorial Library. Entitled “Celebrate Abortion Rights,” the event featured a brief presentation from SRR leadership outlining Snyder’s positions and counterarguments. It also included personal accounts from those who had received abortions about the impact that abortion access had on their lives.
Olaf Leftists president Will Asinger ‘24 said in an interview with the Messenger that “We really just wanted to impress on the larger campus community, and anybody out there who’s watching what’s going on at St. Olaf, that what [Oles for Life] are saying is just not what the majority of students think. Rather than go protest them, you know hold up signs, whatever it is, [give them] the soundbytes that they want; we could do all that, but really what’s more productive is to go and have our own conversation, a conversation that does reflect what the student body thinks. Oles by and large support reproductive rights.”
The counter-event comes amidst a history of strong student reactions to Oles for Life’s on-campus activism and a concerted effort to turn towards a strategy of non-engagement with pro-choice groups on campus. Olaf Leftists has produced materials instructing students not to engage with Oles for Life, largely because of the organization’s controversial affiliation with the Equal Rights Institute (ERI). The institute is a pro-life non-profit that “trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly, and argue persuasively” through research gleaned by students’ engagement with pro-life activists on college campuses. Former Oles for Life leadership member Emily Albrecht ‘21 currently serves as the Equal Rights Institute’s Director of Education and Outreach. Oles for Life officially became an affiliated group of the ERI this year.
“My main problem with Oles for Life is that they’re affiliated with the Equal Rights Institute[…]they’re not generally honest with the ways that they use engagement with pro-choice people on campus. It makes me really hesitant, and makes us not want to do any sort of engagement with them because it’s not a fair playing ground,” said India Bock ‘23, a member of Olaf Leftists leadership, in an interview with the Messenger. Asinger added that “[Oles for Life’s] goal [. . .] is not really to change hearts and minds. Because they know, and we know, that they’re not going to be able to do that. They want to understand the structure of the pro-choice argument on campus so that they can construct their counter-argument to those counter-arguments. When you go out to Oles for Life about why you personally support choice, they’re going to send that back to the lab.”
Oles for Life leadership expressed mixed feelings towards the strategy of non-engagement. “It was so calm. And I think part of it was the animosity that we face when they don’t see us. Our posters always get taken down – I printed out 25 of the posters you put up on bulletin boards on campus, and within 2 days at least 15 of them were taken down[. . .] It all feels rather aggressive to me. And then to have the event come, and have not even a peep, it’s almost disorienting to me,” said Lambrecht.
When asked about objections to engagement with the group due to its ERI affiliation, Oles for Life leadership said some student complaints about research had been a “fair critique” but claimed that the organization had addressed them. One of their changes includes no longer conducting collected conversations while tabling, and instead asking students to complete polls on their abortion views. “We don’t try to hide that we’re an ERI affiliate. [. . .] When push comes to shove I think it’s kind of a reasonable thing that you want to have good arguments. And that if there is an argument somewhere [. . .] that you wrestle with it and you think about it. I think that that’s a good thing for pro-life and for pro-choice to do. Wrestle with your beliefs!” said Lambrecht.
Lambrecht believed pro-choice leaders’ strategy of non-engagement was “smart,” but added, “for them, I think that it comes at the expense of maybe hearing a position you are unfamiliar with, articulated in what we think is an intelligent way. And I think that it’s good to believe true things. It’s good to believe something that can withstand scrutiny. So if you’re hiding from scrutiny, I think that you’re worse off. But people don’t have to engage with us.”
Olaf Leftists members found it difficult to decide on their strategy to counter Oles for Life.
“It’s difficult to figure out what the best strategy is. Because I do think a lot of people’s first instinct is ‘well, we’re going to debate them’ [. . .] if you give them [Oles for Life] the best pro-choice argument ever, they’re going to take that, they’re going to report it back to the Equal Rights Institute, and a bunch of people at the Equal Rights Institute are going to spend a bunch of time constructing the perfect refutation to that argument and then feed it back to their partners. They have kits and study lessons and courses about how to be the best pro-life arguer possible. And we don’t have that,” said Bock.
These concurrent events revealed several major developments in the campus debate surrounding abortion access. Oles for Life continues to attempt to promote their vision of initiating respectful and productive dialogue about abortion, and has partnered with a larger nonprofit group to further its goals. Olaf Leftists and SRR continue to promote the abortion access that exists within the Northfield community, limiting their engagement with pro-life groups and promoting alternative events.