Last Sunday, on the eve of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, students from Advocates for Life set up a display on the Sunken Garden. Later that evening, the display was removed, and the William and Mary Police Department has opened an investigation into the vandalism.
According to College of William and Mary Spokesperson Suzanne Seurattan, Advocates for Life, a group of graduate students who identify as anti-abortion, followed proper protocol to organize this demonstration, had worked with the office of Student Affairs and had received permission for its display.
“It is very unfortunate that someone decided to destroy that display,” Seurattan said in an email. “Vandalism is never an acceptable form of expression. We have been in touch with the student organizer of the display to express our own disappointment and to offer our support.”
The display consisted of approximately 3,000 popsicle sticks, used to represent the average number of daily abortions in the United States, and signs featuring anti-abortion messages. According to Seurattan, the students are planning to reinstall the display.
Katherine Beck J.D. ’19, who serves as Advocates for Life’s president and who was the organizer of the demonstration, said that the display was done to bring awareness to what she sees as the biggest civil rights issue of the modern day.
“We wanted to bring an awareness to all the lives that have been lost,” Beck said. “With each life that has been lost, a mother and a father’s lives have been impacted. We got 3,000 popsicle sticks that represented abortions that occur every day, 60 million abortions on average.”
Beck said that she first learned that the display had been removed when an undergraduate student emailed her informing her that the display was no longer on the Sunken Garden. After seeing for herself that it was gone, she called a dean at the Marshall Wythe School of Law, who encouraged Beck and her group to go to the police.
“There were about three popsicle sticks left and the signs were ripped up in the closest trash can,” Beck said. “Our response was really upset at first on a lot of different fronts. That day was intended to represent Roe v. Wade, we were really upset that we weren’t allowed to bring awareness, since [WMPD] viewed the video, they saw it was taken down around 12:40 a.m., just a few hours after we finished putting it up. First and foremost, there wasn’t really awareness, so we are really upset from a free speech standpoint. We were advocating for a group of oppressed people.”
Beck was joined by nine other students, including one undergraduate student who is a member of Students for Life, the on-campus anti-abortion organization for undergraduates. One of these other students, Advocates for Life’s Events Coordinator Hallie Hovey-Murray J.D. ’19, was responsible for ordering the materials and helping plan the display.
Hovey-Murray said that while many in the anti-abortion movement are religious, some are not. Because of this, she decided to use popsicle sticks instead of crosses, which are often a feature of this type of display when other institutions host it.
“There is a stereotype of what a person who is pro-life is, it’s not just about that,” Hovey-Murray said. “We wanted to start a conversation on campus. I had really hoped that this isn’t how the conversation would be started. I think [the vandalism] really brought us together as a group to promote the peaceful discourse on campus. I had really hoped that people would appreciate different viewpoints and take time to have peaceful discourse instead of resorting to something like this. I really don’t think the actions of however many people took down the display is indicative of the whole campus. I think we will be able to fulfill the intent of the display.”
While Hovey-Murray said that she knows many are anti-abortion because of their religious or family upbringings like her, another reason she personally is anti-abortion because she has a disability.
“As a young woman with autism, with a disability, it is really important to promote life because so many children who are found prenatally to have a disability are aborted,” Hovey-Murray said. “That is one thing I am really passionate about, that students and children with disabilities are worthy. That is my driving force in being interested in this. Making sure that all children, instead of living in the culture today, where children who aren’t seen as worthy, where doctors encourage women to pursue abortion, there is no prenatal genetic testing for autism yet. Looking at studies of how many children with Down syndrome are aborted over those tests scares me that one day when there is, that it will lower the number of students with autism.”
The display was not the only work that Advocates for Life did to commemorate this week’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Earlier in the week, Hovey-Murray and Beck joined five other anti-abortion women at the Marshall Wythe School of Law to give a lunchtime discussion on anti-abortion feminism. According to Beck, she has always found the students at the law school to be respectful of new ideas.
“My number one hope is to bring awareness to the vast impact that abortion has had and to bring awareness to all of the unborn lives,” Beck said. “I hope this brings awareness to abortion and opens up a dialogue that allows us to express why we are advocating for an end to abortion and stand up for the voiceless and be able to tell people that we are not here to control women’s bodies, I would hope that the display and the group in general, and advocate for why we are truly and authentically pro-life.”
Hovey-Murray said that she shares similar hopes with Beck and hopes that the conversation that the vandalism started continues.
“There has been an outpouring of support, especially at the law school,” Hovey-Murray said. “Even people who are vehemently against the pro-life movement have been supportive, and I think that this is indicative of the culture at William and Mary, that people are supportive of having difficult conversations. That has made my heart happy, that this is overall something that has created that conversation.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hovey-Murray was not religious. The article has been amended to reflect her religious background.