On Oct. 26, an anti-abortion group called Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) appeared on campus at UNC Charlotte, comparing abortion to genocide while displaying graphic images of unborn fetuses. While this is not the first time such a group has appeared on campus at the university, some of this group’s reported behaviors raised a discussion about what happens when anti-abortion advocates stretch the limits of freedom of speech and use actions that could be considered harassment or even assault.
GAP, which had a permit from UNC Charlotte to be on campus, remained on campus for three days. While they were there, some students alleged that members of the group used racial slurs against them, spat on them and violated the terms of their permit in other ways, sometimes prohibiting students from getting to their classes.
Queen City Nerve spoke with faculty members and students about the incident and what they think should be done to ensure GAP doesn’t return to campus and act in the same manner.
Anti-abortion groups like GAP have stepped up their activity since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June, pushing for more abortion bans on countrywide tours. In addition to the static display at UNC Charlotte, members of GAP also arrived in a box truck with more graphic images on the sides that they drove around campus.
On their first day on campus, members of GAP set up in a grassy area behind a metal barricade near the Student Union. As the week went on, they moved to other parts of the campus, eventually ending up near the parking garages and disability access ramps, sometimes blocking the use of the ramps by students.
“My student was late getting to class because they were unable to get to where they needed to be,” said one faculty member at the university who spoke with Queen City Nerve under the promise of anonymity as they were wary of any potential backlash.
In addition to blocking access in various places on campus, the group also used whistles, which could be considered a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Selene Mautte, a hearing-impaired UNCC Charlotte transfer student, was present at the group’s demonstration. They told the group that the whistles violated the ADA, which GAP members denied.
“I was disgusted,” Mautte said.
The faculty member pointed out that, in addition to the display and the truck, GAP also distributed pamphlets that were just as graphic as the displays.
“If you haven’t seen them, don’t look at them,” the faculty member said.
According to some student accounts, GAP members regularly became aggressive with students who declined to take their pamphlets, sometimes even following the students and verbally insulting them.
John Cox, associate professor of global studies and director of the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies, said the group had visited the University of Florida, where he used to teach prior to UNC Charlotte.
“I was aware that [GAP] had become more aggressive in recent years and, in fact, it was very easy to learn that because whoever gave them a permit or allowed them to come to campus apparently had never heard of a website called Google.com,” he said. “And, really, there was no mystery about what this group is about, about what they do. I think it’s important for people to know, too, that they also trampled on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and that shouldn’t be allowed.”
The Rehabilitation Act created and extended civil rights to people with disabilities.
An ‘educational’ front
The so-called Genocide Awareness Project is a project organized by a national anti-abortion organization called The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. According to GAP’s website, the group focuses on “educational outreach, providing students with information they are not likely to receive from pro-abortion faculty (or news media or entertainment sources).”
The group used pictures of unborn fetuses, which they said were ten weeks along, when in fact the images appear to be further along. The inaccurate images helped spread misinformation, which is in direct contradiction to what the group claims to want to do.
In all of their discussions, GAP didn’t appear to mention the cases in which abortions are the result of rape or sexual assault, nor did they condemn rape, though they did depict images disparaging gender-affirming surgeries.
“They’re not changing anyone’s mind and I don’t think that that was their purpose,” the unnamed faculty member said.
Students and faculty on campus had no warning that the group would be there. In the days preceding the display, a daily email blast called the “Niner Insider” was distributed to the UNC Charlotte student population, which included a link to the school’s website explaining free speech.
Many students thought the inclusion was odd, but didn’t think much of it. This was the closest the school came to warning the student body of the display.
“I didn’t know until it was too late,” said Mautte.
Many students found out about the display when they encountered it. After news of the graphic images spread, the school placed signs near the display that read: “NOTICE: Images ahead depict graphic content.”
But the display was quite large, visible from other parts of the campus, which rendered the haphazard signs useless.
“We had several elementary schools touring our campus during that [incident],” said the unnamed faculty member. They weren’t sure if the children had seen the display or if they were able to avoid it.
False equivalencies with genocide
GAP members consistently equated abortion to genocidal acts such as the Holocaust, the lynchings of Black people and the Rwandan genocide.
“When we discredit genocide and we discredit the Holocaust, we’re going to repeat it,” said the unnamed faculty member, “and it scares me when we have delegitimized it to the point that we’re comparing it to abortion.”
Cox echoed his collegue’s feelings.
“I think it’s obscene and grotesque, and I think that they really trample on the memory of victims of real genocides by misusing and exploiting the pain of many millions of others,” he said. “University is a place for debate and dialogue, but it also is a place that should have some standards, and it should not put out the idea that all ideas are equal.”
Both faculty members noted that historical images can be hard to view, but they have a time and place, usually in an educational context or setting. When those images are used, they should used to educate, not to evoke an emotional response, they agreed.
“I’m a scholar of history and Holocaust genocide, but I’m ethnically Jewish as well,” said Phoenix Riesing, a UNC Charlotte student and abortion doula who was present for the display. “There’s very misleading images. It’s so far past horrifying because from a woman’s perspective, abortion and abortion access is life-changing. It’s life-saving.”
Several students counter-protested the display. The counter-protest measures included students using a large message board to record feelings about the display, playing “WAP” by Cardi B at loud volumes to drown out the GAP members, and bringing their own protest signs.
The students also tried to block the graphic images but were reportedly threatened with legal action by the school. Instead, they ensured students had access to disability ramps by clearing GAP members from standing on the ramps as they had done upon arrival on the campus. They also tried to prevent GAP members from accosting students who didn’t want to communicate with the group.
The group reportedly became more aggressive in response to the counter-protests. Allegations that the group used racial slurs spread quickly, as did reports of assault. GAP members allegedly spat on students. Riesing said she witnessed the use of slurs and saw GAP spit on a female student.
Both Cox and the unnamed faculty member reported that they had multiple students who reported witnessing the use of slurs.
“At what point do [university leadership] cap free speech?” the faculty member asked.
“I hope that we would not welcome the Ku Klux Klan to our campus to set up a huge display or the Nazi Party of the US. We all know that free speech is not absolute,” Cox echoed.
The university responds
As of publication, the university has not acted on any of the claims made by students. The lack of official response rang hollow for many.
“They’re moral cowards and bigots themselves,” Mautte said. “What the school needs to learn is you need to take accountability for your own actions.”
“[GAP] did this for two days with impunity,” said Cox, adding that a lot of students used the same word to describe how they felt about the university’s lack of a response: betrayed.
The unnamed faculty member stated that students were still trying to process what happened and could not focus on their class.
“Our goal as a university is to educate students. We charge our students an exorbitant amount of tuition for their access to campus resources,” they said. “And then we have a group that blocks people’s access to campus, it blocks their access to class, and it stops some students from attending their classes. We have now interrupted the university’s purpose, which is educating students.”
“I think their response was despicable. It was absolutely gaslighting,” Riesing said. She was one of the few students who reached out to the university and got a response.
While there was no official public statement, the university did provide Queen City Nerve with a statement in response to questions about GAP’s behavior on campus.
The statement noted that GAP was not invited to campus by anyone at the university, and that The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform reserved space for the organization to be on campus.
“The group routinely visits college and university campuses around the U.S. and Canada,” the statement reads. “As with other groups that reserve space on campus, the views of the organization should not be interpreted as the views of the University
“We understand this event was upsetting to members of our campus community,” the statement continues. “As a public university, UNC Charlotte has a responsibility and legal obligation to uphold free speech, including the right of outside organizations to reserve space on our campuses without regard to the content of their speech. This includes content that others may view as objectionable. The University has established protocols to create and sustain an environment where freedom of speech and expression is supported regardless of the viewpoint of the speaker.“
The statement says the university is reviewing its policies related to free speech events to assess the opportunity for further changes, and claimed that professional staff members were present with the GAP group and counter-protestors during the event “to provide support as needed.”
Cox said he hopes the university’s review will result in action being taken so students no longer need to be concerned about being accosted and harassed on campus.
“You shouldn’t have to come to school, to the university in the morning, and expect that you’re going to have to either help someone or be helped because you’re confronted with really a horrifying and even a menacing spectacle,” he said.