As a faculty member, there are risks that come with riding Binghamton University’s Off Campus College Transport (OCCT) buses regularly. Should a student peek at my phone, they might discover my Cardi B addiction, glimpse at the goofy messages I send to my partner or learn that I almost exclusively follow cute animals on Instagram. But familiarity with OCCT is also very valuable: I learn a little more about how my students live, what they care about and the kind of messaging that surrounds them.
This is why I was initially pleased to see Birthright International’s advertisement on OCCT. The ad shows a soft image of a pretty pastel-tinged woman. She is presumably pregnant and visibly worried. The ad promises her a safe space of help and confidentiality, without judgment. This initially seemed promising: I hate judgment! Confidentiality is great! I believe all people have the right to control their own bodies without interference or discrimination! But as I continued looking at the poster, something felt wrong. The word “Birthright” didn’t sit well with me (and not only because of the possible copyright infringement of Birthright Israel). In my classes, I teach close reading, and as I close read those words, I started to ask questions: Namely, whose “birth” — and by extension, life — is valued here? Why does the language of rights and property manifest around the phenomenon of birth rather than personhood, humanity or civic or social standing? And what does it mean to privilege the moment of birth over the many other moments in a long process that can include love, planning, gestation, labor and postpartum care, but also miseducation, coercion, manipulation and sexual assault?
So I put Cardi on pause (“I got a baby, I need some money, yeah”) and searched for Birthright on my phone. My instincts were right. Birthright International is a Canadian anti-choice organization with chapters worldwide, including in the city of Binghamton. Learning about its mission requires some research: Its website, like its poster, is fuzzy and coy. But according to another site titled Catholic Straight Answers (pun intended?), Birthright is “a wonderful pro-life organization, that is dedicated to teaching the miraculous wonder of human life given to us by our Creator and protecting the fullness of the dignity of each person.”
Wondrous indeed. Now, we are all entitled to our own opinions. If you believe that human life is dignified at the moment of its birth but disposable once it is breathing, gendered, raced and social, that’s your prerogative. If you believe the propaganda spread by anti-choice organizations — whether it concerns lies about the medical risks of abortion or the false metrics of personhood in utero — no one is stopping you. And if you believe there is “no judgment” when you come to an organization seeking balanced information and leave with a pile of baby clothes, well, then that’s totally on you. Birthright may also offer valuable assistance to women who have made a decision that lines up with their own desires and beliefs, and we should support women no matter what choice they make. But the operative word here is choice. Remove that choice, and you have an organization that promotes personal beliefs often at the expense of empirical evidence, and which deploys deliberately misleading rhetoric to advertise its services. This kind of organization has no place in a public institution subsidized by New York state taxpayers.
When I reached out to OCCT, it refused to remove the ads due to “certain legal issues.” But from a purely legal standpoint, these ads are potentially actionable. There are serious legal debates about whether or not pro-life campaigners have the right to advertise on public property, which would presumably encompass the SUNY system. Furthermore, SUNY policy claims that “Public advertisements for non-commercial organization activities” must be approved by the campus president. I am genuinely curious to know whether or not this policy is enforced.
New York consumer law also protects the public from false advertising, including the failure to disclose significant information about the advertised product. The kind of bait-and-switch tactics deployed by Birthright International are punishable by up to $10,000 in damages. Given the nebulous legal framework governing anti-choice advertisement, it seems imprudent for OCCT to grant Birthright International access to public space.
But beyond potential legal ramifications, we also need to look at the matter from a moral standpoint. University student populations are among the most vulnerable to reproductive injustice and sexual misconduct. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “11.2 percent of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.” Women aged 18 to 24 are among the highest risk targets of sexual assault (trans or nonbinary students are even more vulnerable although it is difficult to obtain figures on these demographics).
At the same time as sexual assault allegations on campuses nationwide are increasing, our University’s services, including access to STI testing and mental health care, are unavailable or insufficient. Family Planning of South Central New York (FPSCNY) offers comprehensive and confidential sexual health services and is, according to its website, “proudly pro-choice.” In this respect, we are luckier than most parts of America, but FPSCNY does not advertise on the OCCT and may not be known to many BU students. The nearest Planned Parenthood, which students are more likely to know by name, is located nearly 50 miles away in Ithaca. Birthright International ads target a population already inundated with mixed messages and scant resources, promising an easy answer to a difficult question.
When I see my students, I see smart, strong, critical citizens. I see taxpayers who have a right to ethical advertisements in the public spaces they subsidize. I see some people who probably know all about FPSCNY, or have a trusted doctor at home. But I also see people who might (very understandably) become disoriented in a scary moment and easily fall prey to propaganda. I see many different kinds of people but I definitely don’t see fuzzy pastel-hued girls. I urge OCCT to reconsider these advertisements: Our students deserve better than scare tactics, lies and manipulation.