As I am writing this, I stare out the library windows on Marquette University’s campus in Milwaukee at a field of little pink and blue flags commemorating female (pink) and male (blue) fetuses. Since I began my undergraduate career at Marquette University in the fall of 2014, I have witnessed the annual "fetus graveyard" in the central greenspace of campus. The “Memorial for the Unborn” is sponsored by the pro-life student organization and supported by the university administration.
Last year, on my way to class, I was blindsided once again by the sea of flags of the "baby graveyard" and decided to do something about it. A group of friends and I covered the “Memorial for the Unborn” sign with phrases like "My body, my choice” and “Stop the hypocrisy! Care for women’s reproductive health!” We got thanks from students, faculty, and staff walking by. Later, however, we received unsolicited and repeated contact from the Marquette University Police Department. We got a slap on the wrist by the university. We were told that they had to punish us in some way because the parents of the pro-life students who make themselves out to be powerless. We were asked to watch a TED Talk and write a two-page reflection on how we hurt others’ feelings. The university sent out a letter via email describing how destruction is not dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue. Take a shot every time a member of the administration at Marquette University says the word DIALOGUE.
So, this year, we started a dialogue. In June, we met with a representative from Campus Ministry who assured us that if we keep meeting with them, we will be able to come up with a compromise. So we kept meeting with them. We met in July and August. In September, we were allowed to meet with the students of the pro-life student organization. In hindsight, I don’t know what we expected to accomplish through these series of meetings.
They described their mission as fighting for the unborn in the womb and posed the question: How can we care for anyone if we don’t respect the unborn in the womb? When they described the activities they partake in, the two that stood out were throwing baby showers for mothers who “have chosen life,” and praying/handing out flowers in front of abortion clinics. They had to yell down from their ivory towers so we could hear them.
By and large, the most egregious statement they made during our meeting was when they described that just because the Memorial for the Unborn makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it isn’t needed. Then they compared the "baby graveyard" to the Vietnam Memorial because people opposed the Vietnam War and didn’t want the fallen soldiers memorialized. They then compared the "baby graveyard" to the 9/11 Memorial and described how the 9/11 Memorial makes Muslim people uncomfortable because Muslims caused it.
(Feel free to read that again to process. I’ll wait.)
My jaw dropped. I looked around the conference room, expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out and tell me I had just been Punk’d. Did she really just say that Muslim people were uncomfortable with the 9/11 Memorial because they caused the 9/11 attacks? When we asked for a clarification, she said that she knew many Muslim people who were uncomfortable with the 9/11 Memorial. The meeting spiraled from there as we collectively lost all respect for the people sitting on the other side of the table.
Their closing statement was that the "baby graveyard" has to be a public display because the issue is public.
A women’s right to choose is the epitome of a private issue. The status of my uterus is not up for debate. And then it hit me that Marquette University, the Catholic Church, and, of late, the United States government, think that they can put chains on my uterus. I mean, I always knew that was the case, but I had not really conceptualized the extent to which my body is not my own. They, at the height of male privilege and internalized misogyny, think that it is their business what goes on inside my body. As a woman, I am not rational enough to make my own decisions and, therefore, decisions must be made for me.
At this point, it is probably pretty clear that I am pro-choice. And you’re probably wondering why I chose to continue to attend a university that was simply adhering to its Catholic identity. And you’re probably right.
That’s a conversation for another time, though. Because this isn’t just an issue of pro-choice versus pro-life. Regardless of ideology, displaying a graveyard for fetuses in the middle of a college campus where nary a student, faculty member, or staff member can avoid it goes beyond the issue of abortion. It is fundamentally an act that retraumatizes and calls out students, faculty, and staff who have experienced not only an abortion but also a miscarriage or stillbirth. It fails to be inclusive of all people contrary to what Marquette’s values claim.
Because of its location on campus, it is very difficult to avoid seeing the "baby graveyard" when walking to class or to the library or to get coffee or to go to work. Therefore, any individual who has experienced an abortion, a miscarriage, or a stillbirth is now subjected to being reminded of it in a jarring and unexpectedly graphic way. After an extremely personal and sometimes traumatizing experience, students, faculty, and staff must relive that experience and be retraumatized by a freaking "baby graveyard."
The "baby graveyard" sends a clear message: You are not okay, you are not welcome, you are alone here.
Last year, our plan was formulated last minute. This year, we held meetings, asked for advice, and planned ahead. One adviser said that conservative student groups are more successful on campus because they get their parents involved. When the university isn’t doing what they want, they get mommy and daddy all up in arms. The administration receives calls from angry parents threatening to withdraw their donations and tuition, so they listen and do what it takes to keep the river of affluent, conservative parent money flowing in their direction. So those of us who had sympathetic parents did the same.
But, despite the calls made, the "baby graveyard" went up a day earlier than it did last year. Since I have been writing this, I have seen one person put their chewed gum on the sign, two people spit on the sign, and many others dance and run among the flags, crushing as many as they safely could. Many more stop to look at the sign or take pictures.
This year, however, there was an addition to the "baby graveyard." Throughout the graveyard, Campus Ministry put up signs saying, “You are not alone in an unplanned pregnancy. Hope, Help and Support are available! Contact Campus Ministry,” and, “If you or someone you know is grieving over a past abortion, or just want to talk, we’re here to listen. Caring, non-judgmental support is available. Contact Campus Ministry,” followed by a phone number. In other words, if you are pregnant or attempting to cope with experiencing an abortion, seek counseling with individuals who believe that they are in charge of your body and what happens to your body.
This is what “dialogue” looks like at Marquette University. It is not “vigorous yet respectful debate,” as the Marquette University Guiding Values state. It is not a discussion between peers defending their beliefs. It does not engage students or ask for involvement from the Marquette community. It is stagnant tradition shoved in the faces and down the throats of students who, despite their efforts, are ultimately powerless and silenced from having a positive effect on their surrounding “educational” environment.
Welcome to Marquette. We hope you silently and passively enjoy your time here.
Photos courtesy TM Bridges
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TM Bridges is a student at Marquette University studying English. She is on the board of the Intersectional Empowerment club. She enjoys reading, writing, cats, and smashing the heteronormative, cisnormative, white supremacist, neocolonialist, ableist patriarchy. Follow her on Instagram @does.this.come.in.black and on Medium @Tess Bridges.