Activists for and against Planned Parenthood fight to be heard on Berkeley’s campus

Photo inspired by “La Femme Fetal,” a sculpture created by former UC Berkeley student, Claire Astrow.
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
Photo inspired by “La Femme Fetal,” a sculpture created by former UC Berkeley student, Claire Astrow.

Planned Parenthood has made national headlines and filled everyday conversation in recent months as threats to defund the national nonprofit have sparked debate on abortion, women’s reproductive rights and the American public’s role in the approximately 700 health centers nationwide.

The Berkeley campus proved a compelling, albeit liberal, microcosm of this battle, where activists on both sides took to Sproul Plaza and elsewhere to make their causes known. Supporters rallied for Pink-Out Day in late September, a Planned Parenthood event that gathered supporters worldwide at local rallies for the organization. Pro-lifers tabled in the same area throughout the month, taking a more one-on-one approach to their activism.

There was a significant difference between the two sides’ approaches to activism in the face of an uncertain future for Planned Parenthood. Pro-choice activists became more vocal on a campus where their side seemed to be accepted, drawing crowds together to make their opinion known. The experiences of pro-life activists, meanwhile, focused much more on individual interactions. Anti-Planned Parenthood students seeking to change the opinions of their peers had to learn how to deal with angry responses and push a message that many times wasn’t well-received.

Their opinions aren’t just relevant to the national political climate. They’re pertinent to this campus and the rest of California. Paula Flamm, who works on the Tang Center’s Social Services team, said the Planned Parenthood in El Cerrito, California, is one of the places the Tang Center directs patients for abortions. Furthermore, many Planned Parenthoods in the Bay Area and around California had their first experiences with protests at their health centers in light of the recent controversy.

“We are seeing an upkick of protests,” said Guadalupe Rodriguez, the director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. “Patients have told us about being confronted with protests at our health centers, which can make them feel intimidated or that they’re doing something wrong for thinking about health care.”

The media craze around Planned Parenthood inspired this spike in protesting and also forced many Americans to reconsider their stance on Planned Parenthood. But for serious activists on both sides, discussing the merits of Planned Parenthood is not simply a fad. UC Berkeley’s pro-choicers and pro-lifers are constantly at work campaigning and meeting for their causes, creating at UC Berkeley a case study of the very issues that plague the national scene.

UC Berkeley activists on both sides recognize the emotionally charged nature of their missions. Issues of women’s health — specifically abortion — are laden with religious, political and personal controversy that makes substantive discussion often impossible. Because of this, the experience of activism becomes as much about their approaches as their causes.

Freshman Phoebe Abramowitz, an advocate for Planned Parenthood, emphasized the importance of being vocal and pushing discussion on women’s health into the limelight, whether it’s in the news or not.

“I believe the majority of people are in support of reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood, but it’s a silent majority, and I think that’s what needs to change,” Abramowitz said. “The people who are attacking women’s rights are empowered when we don’t vocally stand up for organizations like Planned Parenthood.”

Abramowitz attended a photo campaign event for Planned Parenthood, which was jointly organized by Cal Berkeley Democrats and Students of Reproductive Health, Choice and Justice, or SRJ. During the event, the two clubs gave out buttons and took photos of students holding up a whiteboard, on which the students  wrote why they supported Planned Parenthood.

SRJ is a new club on campus created as a part of this push to greater publicize the pro-choice cause. It was founded by senior Meghan Warner, who was shocked to find that there was not a pro-choice club on campus already. She was inspired to change this when anti-choice postcards were passed around during her Reproduction in Modern Society DeCal last year.

“A lot of us assumed that there was a pro-choice club because it’s Berkeley. So when I saw the pro-life postcards, I thought that maybe the pro-choice club should know about this, but I looked into it, and there were none,” Warner said. “There’s so much to know about reproductive rights, so it’s crazy that we weren’t talking about it at all.”

As the club grows, Warner plans to collaborate with other groups on campus, create pamphlets with information about places nearby for birth control and abortions, and even sell IUD-shaped earrings with facts about IUDs on them.

On the other end of the spectrum, the pro-life club on campus — Berkeley Students for Life, or BSL — has also amped up its engagement. BSL insists that all life needs to be protected, including babies and the elderly, but its chief cause is advocating that women should not have abortions.

Unlike many within UC Berkeley’s pro-choice contingency, BSL members prefer to approach students individually.

“I don’t think rallies are as effective as one-on-one conversations,” said senior Mia Antonio, the secretary for BSL. “Rallies tend to get a lot of attention, but attention isn’t the best way to spread the word about something we really care about. I don’t want people to feel like they’re being judged for what we stand for.”

Despite this approach, the pro-life activists have experienced incidents where the people they engaged in conversation reacted poorly.

“When we have an attention-grabbing display at our table, we run into conversations where people get angry, and we prepare for that. We have trainings that teach us to make our primary goal to listen to them,” Antonio said. “We don’t know what they know, and we don’t know where they’re coming from, especially because they’re so angry.”

Despite this, substantive conversation does occur, according to sophomore Ariana Rutledge, the president of BSL.

“A lot of people come and show support since they’re surprised that we’re out there, given that it is such a liberal campus,” Rutledge said. “But then we get more liberal people who talk to us and really want to have genuine conversations with us. It’s always a good conversation, whether or not they end up becoming pro-life or stay pro-choice.”

It seems unlikely that the many passers-by on Sproul Plaza and throughout Berkeley are going to change their minds based on one chance encounter with an activist on either side of this issue. More importantly, perhaps, is the way these activists are learning to refine their ways of speaking to and engaging with the community and one another. Their differences of opinion still appear insurmountable, but their different approaches and what they learn from them provide an interesting portrait of a nationally entrenched political issue that will outlast the craze of fury surrounding Planned Parenthood as of late.