EDITORIAL: Dr. La Verne Tolbert's Chapel talk
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The Westmont community is responding passionately and critically to a message shared in chapel by Dr. La Verne Tolbert on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Tolbert, an ally of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, spoke from a unique perspective — she was formerly a member of the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood in New York from 1975 to 1980.
Her presentation began with a rhetorically forceful video which featured images of fetuses and newborns. The clip was accompanied by a child’s voice reading passages of scripture, including Jeremiah 1:5 and 29:11 and Psalms 139:13-16. Designed to tug the heartstrings, this video set the tone for a chapel talk intended to persuade.
Tolbert communicated a message that was vigorously and unambiguously pro-life. She used a great deal of traditional pro-life rhetoric, but also introduced the Westmont community to racial concerns she believes must be addressed alongside the usual questions that abortion raises.
The Horizon staff is a group with diverse opinions, but we share a desire to initiate a constructive and edifying response to Tolbert’s message. We believe the Westmont community must respond to this chapel talk. We want thoughtful public responses that move the campus dialogue on abortion forward.
We hope to see opinionated members of the community respond with an awareness of the unique privileges and limitations of each individual perspective. These perspectives are formed through diverse social locations, personal histories and ideological commitments.
We hope to see the dialogue move toward substantial, intentional presentation of arguments and responses. We want to create an environment that is accepting and patient, allowing individuals to feel comfortable taking ownership of their ideas — a place where people know they will be treated with both empathy and respect.
We hope to see the truth spoken in love.
Why has Tolbert’s message launched such a frenzy of protest and confusion? Many students expressed frustration toward the rhetorical strategies Tolbert used, particularly the videos she included.
The clips were produced by a nonprofit Tolbert has publicly endorsed, The Radiance Foundation, as part of a media campaign called Too Many Aborted. Many students were suspicious that the slick graphics and music disguised emotionally manipulative arguments and misrepresentations of facts and statistics. Others were concerned that Tolbert’s presentation made the issue appear overly simplistic. They wished she had addressed a wider range of objections and situations, in which decisions regarding abortion and adoption may be less clear-cut.
Tolbert’s discussion of her experiences with sex education in public schools was also puzzling to many students. It was unclear whether she was lamenting the unnecessary abortions due to these teens’ extreme reproductive ignorance, or appealing to Westmont students as if we were those teens. Although some Westmont students have a sexual history, it seemed an inappropriate choice for Tolbert to present sexual abstinence as a revolutionary concept, since the average Westmont student is very familiar with this message.
Additionally, Tolbert seemed to assume that her video and explanation of the medical procedures used to abort babies would be sufficient to persuade the audience to the pro-life position. Although many Westmont students identify with the pro-life movement, others are more skeptical of its rhetoric and still others identify as pro-choice. Tolbert seemed to assume that being a Christian automatically means being part of the pro-life movement. Those who felt alienated by Tolbert were understandably frustrated. Some worried that this failure to demonstrate an understanding of the diversity of her audience tarnished Tolbert’s message.
Many students wished that there had been some kind of advance warning about the nature of the chapel presentation. It is highly likely that some students will have either undergone abortions or know someone who has, and this chapel could have easily triggered a response to past emotional trauma. Also, the campus pastor’s office or another source might have explained why we were talking about the issue. Many students were caught off guard by the highly political nature of the chapel, and some explanation of our institution’s official position on the issue (or lack of a position) would have been helpful. It would also be productive for the college to provide some kind of forum, on a smaller scale, for students to process the complex thoughts and emotions raised in the chapel talk.
Although critical responses have had the most volume, there was much about Tolbert’s presentation to value. Her emphasis on social justice for marginalized racial and economic groups is a welcome contrast to others in the anti-abortion movement. Some anti-abortion organizations have been accused of obstructing efforts to care for mothers and children by cutting social programs. Tolbert’s encouragement to support crisis pregnancy centers that provide services to mothers and children certainly defies this tendency.
Tolbert’s presentation may also be viewed as Westmont’s effort to continue past conversations on-campus about abortion, which reached dramatic heights last fall.
Overall, the Horizon staff wishes to affirm the validity of these concerns, while expressing respect and good faith toward the administration of our college. We hope to provide a place for students to work through this complex issue and to present one type of forum for healthy public debate.