“Choose Life” Posters at Fordham Spark Debate and Controversy


Posters reading “Choose Life” drew criticism from some students, who responded by ripping them down. (Photo Illustration Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Published: February 12, 2009

Signs reading “Choose Life” were posted around Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) by Campus Ministry and, on a number of separate occasions, torn down by students in an apparent expression of disagreement. Other faculty and students have pointed out the fact that the signs are consistent with the Jesuit foundation of the university and that, even if students disagree with the message of the signs, they should voice their concerns in a more productive way.

In the time since the signs were posted, some students are still wondering why they went up in the first place. Francis Pastorelle, FCLC ’10, who says he has no qualms with the signs, was one of those students.

“I know October is Respect Life month—if there’s [something else] in February, I’m unaware of it,” Pastorelle said.

Rev. Damian O’Connell, S.J., assistant director of campus ministry at FCLC, explained that the signs were posted to coincide with the Respect for Life march in Washington, D.C. and went on to explain his rationale for posting them, which was to promote the Catholic Church’s idea of the “consistent ethic of life,” the notion that all life is sacred.

“The consistent ethic of life should be seamless. That is certainly part of the Catholic tradition, and the university identifies itself as a [Jesuit] university… ” McShane said.

The movement is not one of reproductive rights alone, but also condemns unjust war, economic injustice and poverty, capital punishment and euthanasia. Some, according to O’Connell, even use the argument to support an end to animal cruelty and the cause for vegetarianism.

“You can’t isolate out one of these things,” O’Connell said. “You can’t pick and choose among them because then you’re introducing into your argument an ethical inconsistency…”

Although the signs were created to promote all aspects of the pro-life movement, Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean of FCLC, said, “I suspect the issue [students have with the signs] is abortion.”

Jenica Asadorian, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, was one student who was irked by the posters. “I understand that the Jesuit beliefs fall in line with the Catholic beliefs of pro-life, but for someone who does not subscribe to that mentality, I find it kind of offensive because it doesn’t give both sides of the perspective,” she said. “It doesn’t really give you the opportunity to have a discussion about it; it just kind of puts it out there for you that [these are] the thoughts and the beliefs that the school endorses.”

Though the university does not advertise a specific pro-life position, Grimes said, “It permeates the regulations of the university,” noting policies like Health Services’ refusal to provide information regarding abortion clinics.

“It’s something that is lived out in day-to-day life,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there can’t be discussion about abortion, euthanasia or war and peace issues.And obviously faculty can teach on these issues, can discuss these issues and are free to take whatever position they want to take on these issues. But yes… I think [the notion of pro-life] is something that we find that the university mission is very much behind.”

Keith Eldredge, dean of students at FCLC, offering a similar feeling, said, “Although there might be policies and procedures [at Fordham] that might be in line with the Catholic Church teaching, certainly there’s an element of academic freedom in the classroom, and so topics and ideas and issues can be raised and discussed and argued from any perspective.”

Grimes explained that the idea of the consistent ethic of life came from Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who presented the concept at Fordham at the 1983 Gannon lecture, a reason why Grimes said he feels the topic is especially pertinent now.

“What Bernardin was trying to do was to say, ‘Look, the arguments that are going on here aren’t going to get us anywhere. We need to think of [pro-life] in more holistic terms. If abortion is a violation of the sanctity of life, what about war? What about euthanasia? What about the death penalty?’ [Bernardin aimed] to expand the debate beyond this one issue [of abortion] and rather to look at the bigger question of the dignity of human life,” Grimes said.

“One of the things that disturbs me is that people consistently take down the signs,” O’Connell said. “Why, certain voices should not be heard? Then what does that mean in terms of the life of the university? [Do they take down the signs] because they feel personally offended? Why would it offend them?”

Asadorian said, “I understand that ‘Choose Life’ applies to all of [those issues], but I think when you add abortion into it, you’re kind of negating everything else because [abortion] becomes the bigger issue. That’s the one that people are so willing to discuss and is so popular.” She also noted the personal nature of this attack for many students. “It could make students feel badly, especially if they know someone or they themselves have been put in that position where they had to make that decision [to have an abortion]. The posters are not very sympathetic to the possibility that students have had that experience. It makes you not want to talk about it more, especially given that this is the philosophy [our school] subscribes to.  It doesn’t really make it an environment that we want to discuss it.”

O’Connell, however, encourages students to turn to campus ministry with their feelings of frustration over the signs. “They don’t come and talk about it. They just decide to [tear the signs down]. There are a lot of things that are publicized around the university that I would not agree with, but I don’t take the signs down… If [students] are challenged by this, they ought to come and speak the challenge. Campus ministry is not an unfriendly place. You’re not going to be attacked,” he said. “The thing is, if people take the signs down and don’t engage in dialogue, then there’s no opportunity for us to hear what are the [painful] issues for them. Maybe they feel that this is a personal attack. But there’s no opportunity to dialogue about that.”

Asadorian said, “I think it would be good for [Campus Ministry] to advertise more that they’re willing to have those discussions, because the way that the posters present themselves, it doesn’t really appear that they’re really open to discussion about it. It’s not something that would cross my mind after seeing that poster. I just say ‘I don’t agree with that,’ and I move on.”

Pastorelle, who described himself as “definitely pro-life,” said, “Obviously if the flyers had a hateful message… like, ‘Voting pro-choice is murder,’ I’d be all for taking them down. But as it is, these flyers simply state a belief that the university holds, has held and has never hidden that they hold… If people are complaining about it, they’re wasting their breath. This is a Jesuit school and when you apply you’re applying for all that that entails. No one tricked you into enrolling at a Catholic university.”

“Are there different ways that it could have been done? Probably,” Eldredge said, “But I was struck by the fact that [the signs represented] all-encompassing concern for the human being. I would have been more concerned if it was just focused on one of those issues.”

“Maybe it would have been more direct to say, ‘If you have questions or concerns about this, contact Campus Ministry,’ but my sense was that if somebody did want to pursue a conversation, they at least knew where to go, by having Campus Ministry [printed on the flyer]. That’s part of the policy, so that if anybody has a reaction to any kind of flyer or just want more information, they know [whom to contact],” Eldredge said.

Eldredge said, “It’s disappointing that folks’ reaction would be, ‘Well, let me just take this down,’ just like I would be upset if they took down any flyer for anything [else] on campus if they didn’t agree with it.”

“In the university where Cardinal Bernardin first raised the idea of a consistent ethic of life, to raise the level of discussion on these issues, it would be sad if the level of discussion had fallen to just ripping down posters,” Grimes said.

However, he concluded, “If it brings forward Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life and Fordham’s place in it, then at least some good has come of it.