It felt like there was a storm coming to Kresge Auditorium, in the form of anti-abortion activist Olivia Gans.
Pro-choice students hung coat hangers around school in opposition to her message. Before the show one supporter asked Gans if he could pose with her for a picture. The College Republicans were poised for confrontation, sending an email to all students asking "Is Abortion Murder?" One person settling into her seat said, "This is going to be interesting," as another said how there were more pro-choice than pro-life students around. Organizers said 175 people were in attendance.
After Monday's event, however, which included a speech, a question-and-answer section, and a post-presentation informal debate in the lobby, Gans's supporters and dissenters felt that students participated with remarkable respect. Passionate students on both sides of the issue, along with those stuck in the middle, listened to and debated with Gans for more than two hours.
Gans is the director of American Victims of Abortion. Throughout her talk, she combined her own experience with statistics and graphic descriptions of the surgical process of abortion in order to try to present what she called "a very pro-woman, pro-child program."
Gans had an abortion as a college student in 1981. She says that when she became pregnant, those who knew about her pregnancy-her boyfriend, physicians, and Planned Parenthood advocates-made her feel like a failure. All encouraged abortion.
"I wasn't stupid, but I was frightened," she said. No one respected her enough, she said, to say, "You can do this."
She took their advice, and had the abortion. She was awake during the procedure, and for months, she experienced anxiety attacks and was unable to sleep.
Today, she regrets the choice.
"My own child should have graduated about a year ago," she said. "I know I took one away from you."
Her message now is that unexpected pregnancies should not make women feel badly, and should not require abortions.
"Being pregnant doesn't mean failure, ladies," she said.
However, Gans feels that women who have abortions do so because they feel like they have failed. "No woman has an abortion unless something is wrong in her life," she said.
Gans said that society needs to change the way it looks at pregnant women, especially young pregnant women. "The fact that you happen to be pregnant only challenges us more as a society," she said.
She noted that other groups have said, "This is what color I am. Deal with it." She said that pregnant women should say the same.
Gans indicated that society needs to reform the way it deals with pregnant women, including employment and healthcare opportunities. She added that women should be provided with complete information about their pregnancies and options, and treated with care. Some doctors, she said, perform 40 abortions per day. "You tell me where the doctor-patient relationship is," she asked rhetorically.
Some students involved in the question-and-answer period found a paradox in this line of thought.
Lydia Hawkins '07 asked why women shouldn't be given complete information and choices-including abortion.
Gans responded by asking Hawkins if she supports bills that require doctors to discuss the dangers of abortion with their patients (Gans encourages states to adapt such bills. Pro-choice advocates see it as a step towards a total abortion ban).
Hawkins felt that Gans had entered the spin zone. "I feel mildly frustrated because I feel she kind of danced around the issue," she said after the presentation. "I don't think she saw my point."
Mara Gandal '04 also spoke during the Q&A session. She pointed out that both the pro-life and pro-choice sides are trying to reach in mutual goal: fewer abortions in the United States. Gans agreed, and said that she does not necessarily oppose contraception, including the so-called "morning after" pill.
Gandal felt that this acceptance of the pill conflicted with Gans' support of the Bush administration. Gandal later told the Orient, "It was somewhat disheartening, although not surprising, to hear her continued support for the Bush administration's policies, despite its complete opposition to things like EC and sex ed, which would undoubtedly reduce the number of abortions in this country."
As for Gans's desire to empower women, Gandal said, "Ms. Gans seems to have aligned herself with the Republican Party in order to reach her goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, but hasn't thought of what will really happen to women if this happens and the Republicans are in power."
Both the College Republicans and Democrats were pleased with the respectful nature of the questioning session.
"I was thrilled with the tone of the debate," said Maine College Republicans State Chairman Dan Schuberth '06 in the auditorium lobby as students continued to argue with Gans. "I love that people are questioning her now."
The College Democrats concurred. "We are encouraged to see that the Republicans brought a speaker who advocates education and support for women facing this difficult choice, in contrast to the Bush administration which favors abstinence-only education and cuts funding for women's programs," Alex Cornell du Houx '06 and Charlie Ticotsky '07 said in a joint statement. "However, we disagree with Olivia Gans on one fundamental point: a woman's right to choose should never be taken away."
Both sides are now ready for action. Colin LeCroy '04 helped organize the event, and said he was encouraged by the talk. "I heard Ms. Gans persuasively argue that abortion is not a legitimate solution, that we as a society should work to ensure that women don't feel it's the best way to deal with a pregnancy," he said.
Meanwhile, pro-choice supporters are also prepared for battle. Some students are heading to the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. on Sunday to protest anti-abortion policies. Numerous times throughout her speech, Gans criticized the march as a slogan-fest.
Gandal, who will be part of the March, doesn't see it that way.
"The march is about a real threat to Roe v. Wade as well as issues beyond the right to terminate a pregnancy," she said.