Among the throngs expected to pour into the nation's capital yesterday to mark the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade was an unlikely contingent - two dozen anti-abortion students from the University of Pennsylvania. The robust presence of "Penn for Life," both on campus and off, signals a heightened debate - at Penn and elsewhere - about an issue once thought all but settled in the more elite halls of the academic world.
"At the national level, we've noticed a uniform increase in on-campus pro-life activity," says Michael Sciscenti, president of American Collegians for Life, whose pre-march conference saw attendance grow from 70 students three years ago to 350 students, representing 70 universities, this year. Perhaps most interesting has been the growth at some of the country's most prestigious institutes. Princeton, MIT, Yale, and Stanford are among the campuses that today have active groups that oppose abortion rights.
For many years, Ivy League campuses were seen as unlikely recruiting grounds for the anti-abortion movement. But as the political and social views of college students in the United States have grown more conservative, that has begun to change.
At the University of Pennsylvania, thanks to a booth at the school's activities fair last fall, membership has grown from six to 245. Members include non-Catholic Christians, Orthodox Jews, and, the leadership hopes, some atheists. There are undergrads, graduate students, faculty, and employees. Alumni support, as well as business donations and unsolicited funds, has swelled Penn for Life coffers, from $200 last summer to nearly enough, now, to fund speakers from groups as diverse as Feminists for Life and Pro-Life Gays and Lesbians.
The diminutive Nina Mirarchi, a junior from Philadelphia, who heads the organization, is determined to use her considerable intellect and her premium education to eventually outthink the other guy. "I'm learning the arguments of the other side so I can refute them," she explains.
Her membership is doing its homework as well, and brings a comfort with history, philosophy, science, law and public debate to a case which more often has been associated with theology. Stereotypes placing them on the "lunatic fringe" notwithstanding, members field the familiar arguments for abortion rights by quoting poets and writers, orators and medical research where others may have turned to Scripture. They are confident that technological developments since the Roe ruling tilt objective reason in their favor and will ultimately support their belief that life begins at conception.
In the end, members say they see no choice. "Life is life and it's wrong to destroy it," says Ms. Mirarchi.
Frank-Paul Sampino, vice president of the group and a sophomore from Woodbury, Conn., weighs the worst-case scenarios: "I don't mean to be insensitive, but if we are right and abortion was made illegal, we would just have more children and mothers would be more burdened." But if the other side is wrong about abortion, he says, "that means we lost between 30 and 50 million human lives over the last 30 years, and that certainly ranks up there with the greatest catastrophes in human history."
While his arguments may be secular, he refuses to distance himself from the religious underpinnings of the anti-abortion movement, placing his cause with antislavery, civil rights, and other historical injustices where morality grounded in religion sparked change.
Its massive halls fronted on one side by campus greens, on the other by bustling city streets, the University of Pennsylvania campus teems with life, its daily routine a revolving door of laptops and lunch truck vendors, scholars, and surgical scrubs.
It is a place that seems confident of what it knows. Vice Provost Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum says it is a place where debate is encouraged. "Because we are so diverse, we try to make a space or place for any student who has any opinion to be able to state that opinion openly in a way that they feel supported," she says.
That the prevailing sentiment on campus still favors abortion rights was evident at a recent Penn for Life bake sale. "It was sort of funny," recalls Mr. Sampino. "A lot of people would come up and want to buy a cookie or a brownie, and ask 'What is this for?' and we'd tell them, and they'd return the brownie."
The Penn for Life students say they deal with their minority status in different ways.
Emily Stetler, past president of the group and 2001 graduate, simply dropped a religion course where she was identified as the only student there opposed to a woman's right to choose abortion. Natasha Mooney, a soft-spoken freshman whose roommate is "very much pro-choice," says the two remain friends because neither believes she will convert the other.
But Ms. Mooney does plan to speak up, if gently, should the classroom conversation turn to abortion. "I feel this is the truth, and I feel called to uphold truth in any way I can."
For her part, Mirarchi sometimes feels that her professors tend to gloss over the case against abortion rights in class. She was also bothered when one professor stated flatly that he didn't understand "those pro-life people."
But for the most part, she says, she is content to simply allow Penn for Life to offer a forum for kindred spirits at her school, amassing knowledge that she eventually plans to use for political, think-tank, or other policymaking work.
How is she so sure she's right on this issue? "I let the facts speak for themselves," she says.