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Hot on Campus | November 8, 2012

Inexpressibly horrific


Westmont College student protests evangelical school's refusal to allow a pro-life display on campus

Westmont College students Aaron Singer, Ryan Hall and Seth Gruber. (Courtesy photo)

Before class last Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, Seth Gruber stood outside his school's dining hall with a sign showing a tiny pair of red, severed hands. Some students who walked by him during the next four hours stared down at their feet as they passed. Others shot him dirty looks. Several told him the graphic pictures of aborted babies were inappropriate and disrespectful.

Gruber, a junior at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., knew his pro-life activism wouldn't make him the most popular guy on campus. But he didn't expect to meet with so much opposition.

Westmont is an evangelical Christian school, with a mission to serve "God's kingdom by cultivating thoughtful scholars, grateful servants and faithful leaders for global engagement with the academy, church and world." It requires trustees, administrators and faculty to confess the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. Its statement of faith affirms the trinity, the resurrection and the inerrancy of scripture.

But for three years in a row, Westmont's student government association denied Gruber's request to bring a pro-life display to campus. The display, known as the Genocide Awareness Project and sponsored by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), contains billboard-sized photos of aborted babies. Some are whole, others in pieces. Gruber admits the display is graphic and horrific, but he believes it's truth that students need to see.

"I have a professor who once said we should care more about the truth than our own reputations," he told me. "People who talk about an inconvenient truth will be hated. All cultural reformers have been. But we won't outlaw an injustice until we stop caring about what people say about us and care more about the lives of unborn children."

Jane Higa, Westmont's dean of students, said the school doesn't disagree with Gruber's pro-life position, but administrators don't agree with his methods of communication. Gruber accuses the school of refusing to take a stand against abortion, something Higa didn't deny. "Within our community, there is a range of perspectives on that," she said.

For Gruber, the school's unwillingness to show pictures of the reality of abortion amounts to intellectual dishonesty. He said too many people at Westmont claim to be personally pro-life but say they are unwilling to force that choice on someone else. If they really took a look at what abortion does to babies, Gruber believes they would find their neutrality on the issue impossible to maintain.

For the last three years, Gruber has worked as an intern at CBR, a controversial organization even within the pro-life movement. But CBR Executive Director Gregg Cunningham says graphic photos are necessary to the cause: "Abortion is inexpressibly horrific. No words can adequately describe it."

Cunningham said the fights against slavery, child labor and segregation all included vivid images, and they played a key role in influencing public opinion. CBR takes its traveling display of abortion images to colleges all over the country. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the activists the right to set up the billboards at public schools. But almost every private Christian college has turned them down.

Gruber, who embraces Cunningham's approach to cultural reform, started a pro-life student group when he enrolled at Westmont in 2010. The next semester, he applied to bring CBR's display to the school. When the student government turned him down, he hosted a debate about abortion. Higa said the debate, attended by about 300 students, did an excellent job of showing two different perspectives: "That's the kind of way we want to engage students, with thoughtful dialog around these topics."

The next year, Gruber applied again to bring the display to campus. The student government took a week to turn him down the previous year. Gruber got his second denial in less than 24 hours. Both times, council representatives told him the display was too graphic and might offend students or visiting parents. This year, he didn't even make it through his entire presentation before Director of Campus Life Angela D'Amour stopped him. She had heard his pitch the previous two years and assured him it would be denied again. The display didn't fit in with Westmont's ethos, Gruber recalled her telling him. Students need to feel safe at Westmont, she said. This just isn't the right venue.

"The whole thing boils down to them putting the feelings of born people ahead of the lives of unborn people," Gruber said.

Convinced he would never get permission to show the graphic images on campus, Gruber decided to do it anyway. At 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 23, Gruber and CBR activists Timothy Eaton and Todd Bullis took up their positions in front of the Dining Commons. Each held a sign showing parts of aborted babies. About an hour later, two administrators approached the trio and demanded they leave. Eaton and Bullis, who aren't Westmont students, complied. But Gruber held his ground. As a tuition-paying student, he had every right to be there, Gruber told them.

Eaton, a videographer who works in Santa Barbara, shot footage of the ensuing exchange between Gruber and the two administrators.

"I just have to say that I feel that it's really disrespectful for you to not respect our wishes," Associate Dean for Residence Life Stu Cleek tells him.

"It's disrespectful to hide the truth of abortion from the students at Westmont," Gruber shoots back.

Gruber spent hours that day arguing with administrators over his signs, but they didn't force him to leave. Gruber knew then he had won an important battle.

Two days later, Gruber returned to the same spot to hold up his sign again. This time, two friends stood with him. Five days later, on Tuesday of last week, two female students agreed to join him. He would have gone back again on Thursday, but he admitted the emotional strain had taken its toll. People have started to avoid him on campus. His cross country coach even gathered the team together to instruct them not to treat Gruber any differently. During his first outing with his sign, one of his teammates sat on the grass 10 feet away with a cardboard placard that read "I find this offensive."

But the response hasn't been all critical. Several people have stopped him to say they're praying for him. Gruber's had more conversations about abortion in the last 10 days than he had in the last two and a half years. And more people have offered to stand with him. Gruber plans to keep holding his signs, at least once a week, until Westmont administrators take a stand against abortion or allow the Genocide Awareness Project to come to campus. Administrators don't intend to punish Gruber or restrict his free speech, Higa said. As long as he continues to do what he has been doing, without escalation, they won't interfere. But they don't intend to approve the GAP display.

More than anything, Gruber wants to stop hearing people say they share his views about abortion but don't agree with what he's doing: "While I appreciate the sentiment, we can't just say we agree to disagree. Do you realize what we're talking about?"