Education

Students in favor of abortion access protest women’s center at Middlebury fair

Members of the Middlebury College chapter of the Coalition to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers demonstrate against the participation of The Women’s Center, a crisis pregnancy center, in the college’s annual student activities fair on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Dozens of Middlebury College students protested at their student activities fair on Tuesday, chiding an organization that they said provides misleading medical information in an effort to dissuade people from having abortions.

The student activities fair allows for student clubs and nonprofits from the surrounding area to host tables to recruit members and volunteers. The Women’s Center in Middlebury, which some students describe as a crisis pregnancy center, was allowed to join the fair in part because of its nonprofit status. 

Crisis pregnancy centers, which have come under lawmakers’ scrutiny, generally offer some prenatal care and parent counseling but primarily aim to convince people not to terminate pregnancies. 

Sarah Ray, the director of media relations at Middlebury, said that the school supports free expression of differing viewpoints.

“Middlebury is committed to promoting and supporting the consideration, discussion, and questioning of ideas, even if they are unpopular or controversial,” Ray said. “As an educational institution, we know better debate and discussion lead to better solutions to complex problems.”

Some students, however, were frustrated that The Women’s Center had a table at the fair. 

“We're all pretty upset that the college has continued to invite them or allow them to come,” said Adelle Macdowell, a first-year student at Middlebury who helped plan the protest.

Adelle MacDowell hands out pamphlets as she joins members of the Middlebury College chapter of the Coalition to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Elissa Asch, who co-led the protest with fellow senior Bella Cady, said that although she believes in free speech, she doesn’t believe that The Women’s Center should be allowed on campus. It’s a “public health risk because of the way they advertise themselves … in a manipulative way,” she said.

Asch said that she was also frustrated that the administration was “very restrictive of what students are allowed to do when they demonstrate,” such as giving them a designated area away from the student activities fair where protestors “weren’t allowed to leave.”

Members of the Middlebury College chapter of the NESCAC Coalition to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers gather in a designated protest zone to demonstrate against the participation of The Women’s Center, a crisis pregnancy center, in the college’s annual student activities fair. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Representatives from The Women’s Center who were at the student activities fair — including individuals identified as the director, a staff member and a former client — each declined to comment to VTDigger.

A couple of dozen students marched across campus together to the fair holding signs and chanting about how crisis pregnancy centers “give false medical information” and “lie about abortion risks,” among other chants. Some demonstrators stood in front of The Women’s Center table to hand out zines with information about crisis pregnancy centers and a petition to get the New England Small College Athletic Conference to ban crisis pregnancy center advertising and involvement on campuses.

Macdowell said that she spoke to some of the people at The Women’s Center table and found out that The Women’s Center keeps a record of clients who have positive pregnancy tests. The practice bothers her, she said, because organizations in other states where abortion is illegal could hypothetically use it to determine if a person has had the procedure.

Asch helped to found the New England Small College Athletic Conference Coalition to ban crisis pregnancy centers with several other students after the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overturned Roe v. Wade, which had protected abortion access at the federal level. She said that at least eight other schools are involved in the organization with about a dozen members.

However, Asch said, Middlebury students’ protest of The Women’s Center’s participation at the fair dates back years.

“We're just kind of the new leg of it,” she said.

A staff member from The Women's Center, a crisis pregnancy center in Middlebury, who declined to identify herself, left, tries to engage with William Bastos, a member of the Middlebury College chapter of the Coalition to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers, during the demonstration. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Elissa Asch with the wrong surname.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall

About Juliet

Juliet Schulman-Hall recently graduated from Smith College, majoring in English, minoring in sociology and concentrating in poetry. Most recently, she has worked for MassLive covering abortion and the environment, among other topics. Prior to that, she worked for Ms. Magazine and has done freelance work for PBS's Next Avenue and Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

Email: jschulman-hall@vtdigger.org

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