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CLAY Breaks the Mold

It’s hard to spot the Saint Gianna pregnancy clinic at first. Located across the street from a popular bistro, the clinic is tucked away in the basement of a small brick building on the corner of Whitney and Trumbull. Several apartments and a psychologist’s office provide camouflage. The only indication of the center: a small sign that reads “Pregnant? We Can Help.”

CLAY – or Choose Life At Yale – sends volunteers there every Saturday morning. And unless you’re one of its twenty active members, you may not have seen much of them. You probably didn’t walk by their photo exhibit in Bass Café, which featured the various stages of fetal development. You probably didn’t go to their conference in the fall, Vita et Veritas. And you almost certainly haven’t volunteered with them at Saint Gianna’s, where pregnant women can seek services and guidance. For many Yalies,  CLAY is just a name – one synonymous with “that pro-life group.” Its label gives students on campus a quick, but simplistic, shorthand for what it represents.

CLAY’s mission is to make the pro-life vision “intelligible on college campuses.” For too long, its website reads, pro-life organizations at liberal universities have felt marginalized for beliefs that are “hardly in vogue within society.” Yale may consider itself a liberal campus, but it has always had a small but vocal share of conservatives. A few students founded CLAY in 2003 in response to the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Part of CLAY is geared toward advocacy – to vocalize its members’ perspectives on a belief they hold dear. The other part seems motivated by preservation – to ensure its values are not lost on Yale’s campus.

More Yalies, however, know the group for its controversy. Last April, CLAY was denied membership in Dwight Hall, a student-run organization that coordinates social justice work in New Haven. Dwight Hall leaders drew attention for the lack of transparency in their decision. CLAY representatives were given just a short amount of time to present their case, after which their petition was rejected and the meeting quickly dismissed. Questions about the decision-making process– how the vote had been split and the particular rationale for CLAY’s denial – were left unanswered.

The decision prompted a campus-wide debate in the opinion pages of the Yale Daily News. Could the work of a pro-life group like CLAY be considered social justice? The conversations about abortion seemed quite abstract, far removed from the realities of life at Yale. But pro-life supporters have asserted a surprisingly diverse range of backgrounds and values. For Gabriel Ozuna ’16, his pro-life views come from a Christian brand of social justice, an “understanding that human beings are created in the image of God.” Every single human being from conception, he said firmly ­– as if he were steeling himself for yet another heated exchange – is endowed with an innate sense of personhood.

Others understand abortion in secular terms. Elizabeth Tokarz, more mild-mannered and soft-spoken than Mr. Ozuna, had never considered herself pro-life until coming to college. She had volunteered for a clinic back home in Chicago where pregnant women could go for support. It was at Yale, Elizabeth said quietly with raised eyebrows, that she met some very passionate and well-spoken people within CLAY. They prompted a reevaluation of where she stood on abortion and pro-life issues. Molly Michaels ’15 describes CLAY as a social action group uniting multiple interests. “We may have different motivations, but we all share the same vision” – a deep respect for human dignity.

Despite its controversy, CLAY has fared better at Yale than other pro-life movements on different campuses across the country. The answer seems grounded in the school’s libertarian streak; Yalies are not free from these awkward conversations, but they at least will defend their peers’ right to have them. “We are fortunate that Yale has this kind of libertarian approach toward its student body,” acknowledged Evelyn Behling, ’17, an active member of CLAY. She implies people have the freedom to do and say what they want, so long as they do not disrupt anyone else.

Kristan Hawkins, president of the nation’s largest and most active pro-life network, teaches student leaders how to engage their peers in pro-life dialogue. She visited Yale as a guest speaker at CLAY’s “Vita et Veritas” conference and compared her trip to her visits at other schools. Students here, she found, listened to her presentation with patience and respect. Other schools did not demonstrate the same level of tolerance.

Hawkins’ takeaway highlights Yale’s willingness to confront difficult issues that “no one wants to talk about.” During his talk with The Politic, Gabriel Ozuna noted an open environment at Yale where he could speak freely about his Christianity. Others were more ambivalent about their experiences as a pro-lifer at a liberal university. They qualified their support for Yale – our school may be tolerant but only to a point. “Yale is pretty ‘accepting’” said Elizabeth Tokarz, making air quotes with her fingers. “They usually don’t shut you down. They’ll give you a forum, but they may not agree with you and your opinions.”

Yale has a long way to go before instilling a fully open culture of acceptance. For many CLAY members, their Dwight Hall rejection reminds them of the hard road ahead. As Ozuna describes, “We had assumed Yale was more open to dialogue. But we hope this is an isolated incident.” The incident wasn’t isolated; tensions between the pro-life and pro-choice groups on campus have steadily increased.

After a period of inactivity beginning in 2010, the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale (RALY) reemerged this semester. Some CLAY members take credit for this revival; they claim their efforts have made abortion a topic worth debating. RALY President Isabella D’Agosto ’16 told the YDN that she did not reinstate the group to counter CLAY. Rather, she said she sought to create an outlet for pro-choice activism that she otherwise had trouble finding on campus.

Tensions between the two groups reached a boiling point in January, when RALY hosted a closed event at Dwight Hall to celebrate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. CLAY members were explicitly denied entrance. A Yale security guard stood at the door while a RALY member asked those walking in about their affiliation with CLAY. When Evelyn Behling confirmed her membership, she was not allowed to enter the event. “My friend and I just wanted to go and hear what they were discussing,” described Evelyn. “But once we approached the door, a girl asked us if we were from CLAY. [My friend] said ‘Yes,’ and then we couldn’t go in.”

Why was CLAY there? Once members got wind of the RALY event, they went to silently protest. Each CLAY member interviewed denied any intention to disrupt the event. Twenty members held signs outside, singing songs like “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome.” Evelyn acknowledged RALY couldn’t have known that CLAY wanted only to make its presence felt. But it troubled her that “the event was so closed off to people they knew would have an opposing view.”

Whether Dwight Hall can actually restrict student access to Yale-sponsored events raises complicated legal and ethical questions. In a lunch with Dean Holloway several weeks later, Evelyn learned that Dwight Hall is technically not Yale property. The students hosting Dwight Hall events decide who can enter.

CLAY has overcome challenges at Yale that few other student groups have faced. Its members struggle to address pervasive stereotypes that persist among many college-educated liberals. “We’re smart people, but we become ‘unintellectual’ or ‘overly religious’ as soon as we identify as pro-life,” explains Gabriel Ozuna. “It doesn’t come up all the time,” Elizabeth Tokarz ’17 said of her pro-life views, “but I do feel like I’m in the minority.” “People tend to write you off,” adds Victoria Campbell ’16, who remains careful about how she presents her pro-life views. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, so you hate women.’ The tenor of the debate can put pro-life people at a disadvantage because of their status as an ideological minority.” Campbell sees a culture at Yale that largely assumes conformity in thought among its students.

CLAY’s goal remains unchanged. We still want to stir up some discussion, stresses Evelyn Behling, to help people realize there is a discussion worth having about abortion. Evelyn hopes to foster a relationship with the Women’s Center. Such efforts, however well-intentioned, are difficult to achieve. The Women’s Center, as its Outreach Coordinator Isabel Cruz ’17 stresses, is “firmly and proudly pro-choice.” The Women’s Center’s core values, Cruz adds, has made past contact with CLAY “difficult and often unproductive.” She highlighted in particular CLAY’s protest of the RALY event in January.

Another point of dissent lies in pregnancy care centers. Centers like Saint Gianna reportedly showed women unsolicited sonograms, provided false information about abortion, and even extended women’s decision timeline to exceed the legal date for terminating pregnancies. According to Cruz, these centers are “notorious for pressuring women to keep their pregnancies through dubious means.” Cruz’s remarks do not refer to Saint Gianna’s as “pro-life” but “anti-choice.”

Nevertheless, not all of our principles and work are incompatible, says Cruz. One point of agreement is that pregnant women “should have full control over their decisions to keep a pregnancy.” And some collaboration seems within reach; CLAY had invited pro-choice Yalies to engage in a conversation about pregnancy at Yale. Its members seem to care more about talking with our campus than opposing it. Being pro-life is more than anti-abortion, Behling emphasizes. “If you believe in social justice and human dignity,” she claims, “there will always be sufficient common ground to bridge our differences.”

And it becomes our obligation as Yale students, Gabriel Ozuna says – as the country’s future leaders – to bridge these politicized differences. Because at the center of the abortion debate lies a deeper question of how we define our own personhood. Whatever reason we may have for terminating a pregnancy reflects how we view ourselves as a society and understand our humanity.

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