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"To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place, a new human being has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention. It is plain experimental evidence." - Dr. Jerome Lejeune.
So, you think that you would like to start a college right-to-life group? Congratulations and good luck! It is one of the most worthy things that a concerned college student can do these days. Here is real chance to stand up for the value of human life, to educate your fellow students and teach your professors, to possibly be the difference between life and death for an unborn child. Where else will you get such a chance? Most of all it is a very selfless act: few of those you aid will ever get the chance to thank you.
Pause to think for a minute about what you are letting yourself in for. It will require commitment on your part: your grades may suffer, you'll have less free time to spend with your friends (the best way to get around that is to get your friends involved too!), and you may find yourself more than a bit unpopular on campus. But you can do it, and you may be the only one who will do it. If you approach it with the right attitude, you'll find that in the end the work will all be worth-while.
Attitude is of primary importance. You must realize your limitations, first of all. When you set out to put the world aflame, sometimes the only fire you will set will be in the tempers of those who disagree with you, and then it will be you who will feel the heat. Stay calm and cool; your first problem is not the opposition, but rather yourself.
If nobody shows up to hear a speaker your group sponsors, you must be prepared to look calmly at your own errors and not to get depressed. St. Francis de Sales said, "Be patient with everyone, but above all with yourself...do not be disheartened by your imperfections, but always rise up with fresh courage." You can carry on.
You must be able to take personal insults coolly, and deal with very emotional topics while keeping your own emotions under control. You must prepare to face adversity and some big let-downs. And, most important of all, if you ever want to lead a group, you must learn to limit yourself and rely on others.
Too many leaders try to take too much upon themselves and end up doing nothing but burning themselves out and dispiriting their friends. Several years ago, for instance, a friend of mine was elected president of our school band and started off doing a great job. But within a semester she had also become editor of the yearbook, a residence halls assistant, and a little sister at a fraternity. And she tried to run each of these organizations pretty much without help, even from her fellow officers. Needless to say, everyone suffered, and she ended up dropping out of the fraternity and off the yearbook staff. One must limit oneself. (If you haven't got enough time to dedicate yourself to working with a group there are still ways you can help the pro-life movement as an individual such as by writing letters to the editor or your Congressman.)
This chapter explains how you can go about starting a college right-to-life group on your campus. Five steps are presented here to guide your efforts, but of course it is impossible to anticipate every obstacle you may encounter, so you will have to remember the fundamental rule of college pro-life work: use your imagination!
It only takes one person (you!) with a little guts and determination to get a group started, though it sure helps if that person knows what he or she is talking about. So, my second recommendation to the person wanting to start a college right-to-life group is: get some experience.
Joining another college's right-to-life group would be the ideal way to start. Before I even dreamt of starting a group at Carnegie-Mellon University, I had been active with the nearby University of Pittsburgh Students for Life for more than a year. I went to their meetings, argued with them, went on marches with them, even sold cookies for them at their Homecoming booth. Participating in another group's activities allows you to see what a college group can and cannot do, and you make friends who will prove invaluable when you begin to build a group at your school. It's a great way to gain experience. If you aren't lucky enough to have another college group to join up with you will have to look for other ways to gain experience.
Volunteering to work with a regular pro-life organization, such as the local Birthright or your local Crisis Pregnancy Center or one of the more politically-oriented right-to-life groups, is another way to gain experience. Attend their meetings, help them with their mailings, pass out their literature, get involved! Some of these organizations have youth groups, too. Three to six months work with other pro-lifers will help you immeasurably.
Go out and listen to pro-life speakers. Don't ever miss a chance to hear a politician speak, even if he does not have a pro-life voting record. Buy a good pro-life book, such as John Powell's The Silent Holocaust, Dr. Bernard Nathanson's Aborting America, or the Willke's Why Can't We Love Them Both (formerly called The Handbook On Abortion in its earlier editions), and read it. Watch the newspapers and magazines for current news and editorial opinions about pro-life issues, clip out the articles and start a clippings file.
What is important here is to develop a sensitivity to the issues and to acquire knowledge of the basic facts involved. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, orator, union organizer and liberal hell-raiser from the early years of the Twentieth Century, and namesake of Mother Jones magazine said, "Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts." It was sound advice. But you will have to think about what you hear and read, too. Not every author nor every nationally syndicated columnist knows what he or she is talking about, and few news reporters can be relied upon to always get the facts straight.
Pro-lifers may well have their biggest impact in those simple, day-to-day discussions about abortion and the right to life that pop up among their friends and colleagues. You must be prepared for these conversations. If you can calmly present well-supported opinions you will do much to further their respect for human life. In an academic environment you must be able to articulate an intelligent opinion or you will lose credibility.
Most importantly, try doing something on your own. Start by sitting down and writing a letter to your Congressman or Senator, expressing your feelings. This means, of course, that you will have to find out who your representatives are and what their stance on abortion is. Hitch a ride to Washington, D.C. in January for the annual National March for Life, if possible. Tens of thousands of people from all over the country brave the ice and snow to travel to the Capitol for this annual protest march. The Capitol in January is a Mecca for pro-lifers. The March is an excellent opportunity to see the strength and variety of the right-to-life movement. Do something!
Why go through this process to prepare yourself? There are two reasons. First, so you know what it feels like to be personally involved. When you come to realize that there are people who will insult and abuse you because you choose to take a stand in the defense of the unborn, the handicapped, the elderly, the innocent, and you know that you can stand up to their insults and return love, then you have what it takes to really be part of the right-to-life movement. The decision to work for the right to life must come from your love of your fellow human beings as creatures of God, not from any animosity towards those who kill unborn children.
The second reason is a bit more worldly. You must be able to answer calmly and wisely the questions put to you by both friends and detractors. It is a cliché to say that this issue has intensely polarized the American people. But remember that our planet, too, has its poles, and most of the people live in the temperate zones. So too, on this issue most of the people are wandering about between the poles. Still the North Pole does exist; there is a right and a wrong to the question of abortion, and abortion is wrong. It takes a hardy person to honestly explore the implications of the extremes of these issues. The public has yet to be exposed to honest debate on this issue and is generally ignorant of the relevant facts. That is what you must be prepared to do - teach the facts, and teach them well.
Remember, as Bishop Fulton Sheen said, "Win an argument, lose a convert. Often it pays to be gentle with your opposition rather than humiliating them in a debate. You can make your point, but if a person is foundering in a pro-choice argument that they haven't thought out well (as is the usual case), then an attitude of polite listening will say, "While I do not agree with you, I respect you as a person." Chances are good that he will think, "This guy is a pro-lifer but he's not at all what I had envisioned. He's pretty patient and polite. Maybe there is something to what he is telling me." Even if you are not there to see the fruits of your labors, he may yet change his mind. Your attitude can make all the difference in whether he is eventually persuaded by pro-life arguments or whether he becomes even more entrenched in his preconceptions.
In order for a group to grow on a college campus, students must see the right to life as a "current" issue. Actually, most college students do know what abortion is - they are usually of the vague opinion that it is sort of a "necessary evil," - but they are seldom aware of the nature of abortion. That is, they don't realize that it is the destruction of a human being, they don't understand that there are more than a million abortions per year in the United States alone, nor do they realize that infanticide occurs and is becoming more and more accepted.
In order to start a pro-life group it may be necessary to attempt to create an awareness on your campus of the horror of abortion. Someone out there must feel that abortion is not only wrong, but that it is bad enough that they must go out and fight it. One way to start is by writing letters to the editor of your school paper. Keep them short and clean, but make sure that they clearly state your unwavering opposition to abortion and infanticide. If someone else writes in supporting abortion, so much the better. Answer their letters calmly and reasonably. Pay special attention to those who write in supporting your side of the question, i.e. save their letters and remember their names. Try to keep the exchange of letters running for several weeks.
Putting up posters around campus attacking abortion is another possible route. Choose a sensible poster - using exceptionally gory posters early on may be counterproductive - and post copies on bulletin boards all across your campus.
Making arrangements for your local community pro-life groups to set up information tables on your campus is another way to raise folk's awareness. They can provide pamphlets, books, buttons, and the like to interested students, and their presence is sure to cause a little controversy.
Finally, you might try passing out some pro-life literature on your campus. Be forewarned that you won't always get a warm reception from today's "enlightened" students. If you'd be uncomfortable handing out literature on the street corner, stuffing pamphlets into student mailboxes is another way to assure that the campus will see at least some pro-life material. The point of this step is more to gain members than to spread the pro-life message - that will have to wait until your group is established and "goes public" (see Step Six).
The next step, which should be started at the same time you begin to try to create an awareness of pro-life issues on your campus, is to get others involved with the idea of starting a right-to-life group. The best way to begin is to mention what you are thinking about to your friends. Some evening at supper bring the subject of abortion or infanticide to the fore. Listen for those who are genuinely interested in the subject; find out what their views are. See who is sympathetic, then talk to these folks privately, encouraging them to help you start a college right-to-life group.
Explain to your friends what experiences you have had: what you have done and what you are trying to do now. Find out if they have had any experience in the right-to-life movement, whether it be with a high school group, a church committee, or just helping with the group that their parents belong to. When I initiated the group at our school, a few of my friends did agree to lend a hand, but we didn't have anybody with any experience.
Ask your friends if they would like to help you start a college group. Don't beat around the bush, ask a direct question: "Can you help me?" It may be that they are already committed to another organization or that their studies are slipping, and they cannot give the time. A "maybe" may mean that they really aren't interested but don't want to hurt your feelings, or it may mean that they are interested, but a bit timid. You must decide which is which. Be encouraging, not demanding. There is the chance, however, that some folks will be intrigued by the possibilities of starting an entirely new group. In any case, be willing to accept what the person tells you they can do, and be ready to use their help to the fullest extent possible. Don't try to pressure them into anything.
Now, whether or not you've managed to get a few friends interested, you should try to get some other people involved: people you've never met before. Gathering a small group of friends together isn't that hard, but it doesn't give you much of an organization.
Remember those letters you wrote to the editor of your school paper? Who else wrote in attacking abortion? You should personally contact them.
Check with political organizations on your campus, such as the college Republicans, the college Democrats (yes, there are a few pro-life Democrats...), conservative student newspapers, as well as the Philosophy Club and the Forensics Society to see if any of their members are interested in helping you form a pro-life group.. Groups such as service organizations for the handicapped and pre-med and pre-law societies are also a possibility.
Some other people to talk to might be your campus ministers. Inquire among the various religious organizations on campus, especially the Newman (Catholic) Center, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Lutheran and Episcopalian groups, Baptist fellowships, and Orthodox Christian, Orthodox Jewish and Moslem groups. Perhaps their leaders know of students who are interested in pro-life work?
You should make an effort to contact all these people personally. Talk to them. See what their views are. Maybe give them some pro-life materials to read. Ask if they are interested in helping you organize a right-to-life group on campus. If they are they can help you with the work ahead.
What you must do next is make the fact that you are starting a right-to-life group known around your campus. You must spread the word and provide an opportunity for those who hear it to come and join you.
An "interest session" is the best way to do this. Our group really got underway because of such a session. Basically, what I did (working alone - but it wasn't to be for long) was to put up a few hand-made signs around the campus, and get a notice printed in the school paper inviting anyone interested to come to an "interest session" in such-and-such a room at such-and-such a time and date. Good publicity is a must (see Chapter Seven for ideas).
The Dean of Student Affairs informed me that any student at our school could reserve a room for the purpose of organizing a student group. Once. (They weren't too friendly.) After that the group had to be formally recognized by the student government to reserve a meeting place. Most schools probably have some provision similar to this. It turned out that one shot was all we needed; after that our group was off and running. I also checked with the Dean about how a group should go about acquiring formal recognition from our student government and whether or not we needed an advisor.
At the office of one of our community pro-life organizations, I explained what I was attempting and managed to cajole them out of a stack of pamphlets - at no charge. I also asked the president of another college's right-to-life group to come to the interest session and speak about their group's activities.
Once these arrangements had been made, I sat down and wrote out an agenda - keeping in mind that the session should be brief. To tell the truth it wasn't primarily that I was concerned with boring those who came, it was more a case of my being a bit scared to stand up in front of a group of strangers and talk, especially on such a sensitive topic.
In addition to the pamphlets, I prepared a handout listing some ideas of what a pro-life group could do on our campus. But most importantly, I also prepared two sign-up sheets. The first was simply a sheet asking folks to write down their name, their address, and their phone number. I cannot over-emphasize how important this was. How was I to contact anyone without this information? The second sheet asked people to sign up for some specific tasks such as telephoning members, putting up posters, stuffing envelopes, etc. These lists helped me to pick out those people who were really interested in doing some pro-life work.
Also on the latter sheet was the very vital question, "Are you interested in serving as a temporary officer to help get this group going?" Those who signed up under this question were the most interested and dedicated. It was from this group of people that our future officers were to come and our group was to grow. (You might even include here a note that those who are interested should attend a meeting at such-and-such a time at such-and-such a place.)
After all these arrangements had been made, I was still a bit scared. Would anyone show up for the interest session? Would I look foolish? So, for good measure I asked a few close friends to come to the meeting to provide some moral support and a few friendly faces. I was hopeful that others would show up at the meeting, but not overly confident.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Twenty-three people, and two pro-abortion protesters, attended the interest session. For an ice-breaker I had each person stand up, give their name, and briefly say something about themselves. A representative from the neighboring University of Pittsburgh's right-to-life group spoke about what their group did. We passed out the sign-up sheets and the pamphlets. I asked people to discuss they would expect from a pro-life group. The session went well: several people thought having a group was an excellent idea and signed up to help start one. We were off to a roaring start - and now it really was "we."
You should be able to stimulate enough interest at this session to go on to build up a core group. Otherwise, you will have to go back to writing letters to the editor and passing out leaflets until more folks are awakened to the importance of pro-life issues.
Follow-up is important to make any meeting effective, so during the week after the interest session I called up those who had expressed interest in serving as temporary officers. Because interest and enthusiasm were high we got together for a meeting at my house within two weeks of the interest session. Together we decided there was adequate interest to form a student group.
Most campus organizations coalesce around just such a core group of dedicated individuals. Once you have decided to start a group, how do you go about consolidating the group core? At that first meeting of prospective officers, ask each person to introduce themselves (give their major, where they are from, the usual stuff...) and to talk briefly about what they expect from a college right-to-life group. It is important not to let enthusiasm die away. We immediately set up temporary offices, got volunteers to fill the positions, and began to plan the structure of our group (see Chapter Three for more on structuring your group).
Members of this core group should get together at least once a week while you are trying to get started. Even if there are only two or three of you, get together and talk. Talk about your dreams for the group and begin to make plans. Do some brainstorming. Even before we got recognition from our student government, our temporary officers began planning to bring in a pro-life speaker and film.
At this point you already have a group, even if it only consists of a few temporary officers and has not yet been recognized by your student government.
This is also the point in time when you should begin looking for a faculty advisor. Your group may be required to have an advisor for formal recognition, but even if not required an advisor can be very helpful. Find someone who is interested in the pro-life movement and likes young folks. An advisor must be willing to attend some of your meetings and offer advice from time to time.
Advisors offer the group a sense of continuity - they stay on while students come and go. Advisors can help your group in its dealings with the university, and he or she can present the pro-life message to your school's faculty. If your advisor is well-known, his or her name on your group's stationery can build your group's prestige. Your advisor is also the ideal person to run your elections.
Once you have begun the process of setting up your group, you will naturally want to be recognized "officially" by your student government. Even if it does not include access to student activity funds, official recognition usually allows you to reserve meeting rooms, lecture halls, to be listed in the handbook of student organizations, and to conduct activities on campus.
Though student governments vary from campus to campus and you will have to adapt your approach to your school's requirements, there are a couple of general points to remember as you approach the recognition process. First, it never hurts to have friends in the student government. They can smooth the way for your group. They can give you hints as to how things are likely to turn out. Even if you don't know anyone in the student government, just simply talking with a few members before requesting recognition will often pave the way to a smooth recognition proceeding. Any member of your student government should be able to provide you with the rough details of the recognition process. You may even find that they are pro-life!
The founders of a group seeking recognition may be called upon to address the student government. To prepare the best presentation of your plans for a group you must know what is expected of you. Ask for details and then tailor your presentation to fit. A little practice beforehand never hurts.
Second, fight for your rights if they won't give them to you. Be polite, but don't let them trample on you. Like any government, student governments are susceptible to pressure. If they don't cooperate, you might consider recourse to the school paper or to your Dean of Students. Picketing a recalcitrant student government would give your campus press a field day. If you get no satisfaction there, go on to the president of the university. Outside press and legal advice should be your last resort. If none of these things work, you might begin to ask yourself if you really even need to be recognized to operate.
Third, use your imagination. If the student government says they don't recognize (or fund) political organizations, split your group into two parts. Make one an educational group and get formal recognition for it, reserving political action for the unrecognized group. These two groups can and should have the same members and officers for the most part. With a little imagination you can mold your group to fit the regulations and yet still do exactly what you want.
Apart from official recognition, your group will also want to gain recognition (of a positive sort) from the campus at large. Your group must "go public." The best way to do this is make sure that your first event goes off with a big bang. Whatever you plan as your first public activity do it right. Get a dynamic speaker and/or a good film. Pay special attention to publicity: put up hundreds of posters around campus, take out ads in the school paper, and issue personal invitations to members of the press and to the faculty of your school (see Chapter Seven for more ideas). Invite members of community pro-life organizations, especially members of their executive board. Serve food and refreshments. Make it a grand affair.
After your group "goes public" you must continue to strive to gain recognition for your group. This is primarily a matter of publicity and activity, suggestions for which can be found in Section Two of this handbook. Your group must do things and publicize what it does. You want the entire campus to know you exist, and you want them to know what you stand for. This will attract new pro-lifers to your group.
Where do you go from here? Chapters Three, Four, and Five give advice on how to structure your group, what goals you might set, how to lead a group, and what college right-to-life groups can do. Section Two of this handbook contains a compilation of program ideas for college groups. Included in this section are chapters of ideas which deal with social action, political education and political action, and educational activities. These chapters are meant to serve as a warehouse of ideas for college groups. Also included are ideas of more general interest to college groups: ideas on publicity, membership recruitment, and fund-raising.
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© Copyright Andrew A. Siicree, 1985, 1997.
Permission is granted to any pro-life group or pro-life individual to copy this handbook provided that proper attribution is given.