A conflict emerged among anti-abortion demonstrators, women’s rights advocates and students on the Hattiesburg campus near Shoemaker Square Tuesday afternoon.
A sizeable crowd of people formed by the fountain and expressed their views about pro-life, pro-choice and advocating for women’s rights. The anti-abortion demonstrators frequently visit The University of Southern Mississippi and speak about pro-life to students who walk past Shoemaker Square.
Brady Leatherwood, a USM graduate student in the School of Social Work, was attempting to counter the demonstration against abortion by presenting signs about women’s rights. This was Leatherwood’s first time protesting near them and the situation quickly escalated.
“I’ve been outraged over these (demonstrators) for the past few semesters and just like many other students, I have not done anything because I have felt like I have not had the time,” Leatherwood said.
She said the demonstrators always come during students’ lunch break and students usually walk past them because they are hungry or have something else to do rather than to stop and listen. But on Tuesday, students took notice.
“Tuesday demonstrated that those emotions are still there and I think many of the female students just needed one person to publicly take their side to give them permission to release these emotions and to let their voice be heard,” Leatherwood said.
Social work instructor Susan Hrostowski also joined the protest for women’s rights advocacy. Hrostowski has feminist values and also serves as an Episcopal priest. According to the USM website, she “serves at area churches and is often called upon to speak on spiritual issues in social work.”
While Hrostowski fully supports First Amendment rights, she said these demonstrators are particularly offensive by displaying large photographs of aborted fetuses.
“Some female students have reported being verbally accosted by (the demonstrators), which should not be tolerated by the university. I am proud of students who refuse to tolerate this interruption in their campus life,” she said.
Johnny Brekeen, an anti-abortion demonstrator, was in the midst of the dispute. According to Brekeen’s Facebook page, he posted a photo of the crowd on campus and wrote, “Exposing the deeds of darkness and warning students to repent of their justification of abortion and other sins and seek Christ for salvation.”
Brekeen posted another photo of the protest of the women’s rights advocates and wrote, “claiming to be Christian, justifying abortion and accusing us of judging her for telling her that Bible says that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
One witness even said that none of the students stood up for the demonstrators.
“We are commanded by Jesus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves,” Brekeen said in an interview with The Student Printz in September about his anti-abortion demonstrations. “These are our unborn brothers and sisters. They have no voice so we need to speak out for them.”
Senior Lasha Poole joined Leatherwood in the protest because she said social workers are all about advocacy. She said the demonstrators Tuesday made this about a religious issue when she believes it was actually a human rights issue.
“I spoke for the right to choose today,” Poole said. “Everyone has a right to do what they want to their own bodies. Everyone has been complaining about the (demonstrators) amongst each other but no one has taken a stand.”
Poole said the demonstrators were very disrespectful to the crowd as well as to her, Leatherwood and Hrostowski by shouting Bible verses and name-calling.
“I wanted to convey to the students of Southern Miss that this is our campus and our opinions matter,” Poole said.
“I hope that the university looks into this and at least makes (the demonstrators) take down the horrific pictures.”
She said the demonstrators have a right to their personal beliefs, but they must not violate others’ right to validate their own beliefs.
“Campus should be a safe place for women,” Leatherwood said. “There are women on our campus who have had to make that indescribably difficult decision and I do not believe that the school is showing any concern for their mental health by allowing such images and public judgment to take place.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and about four in 10 of these end in abortion.
In 2011, nearly 50,000 of more than 600,000 women of reproductive age became pregnant in Mississippi. Seventy-nine percent of these pregnancies resulted in live births and four percent in induced abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute state abortion report.