Students at area universities recently found a surprising addition to the Sudoku puzzle and sports scores in their student newspapers -- 12 slick, full-color pages of an advertising supplement called "We Know Better Now," with photographs of tiny fetus feet and shattered, contemplative men and women imploring you not to make the same mistakes they did.
It's part of an annual push from a Minnesota-based anti-choice nonprofit called Human Life Alliance. More than 40 papers nationally, including The Pitt News and Edinboro University's The Spectator, have run it. Another student paper, The Campus of Allegheny College, has pledged to do the same, after controversy between the newspaper's staff and HLA.
Many of the assertions made in the pamphlet are hotly debated. For instance, the supplement claims that abortion increases a woman's risk for breast cancer; that "post-abortion syndrome" causes depression and suicide; and that hormonal birth-control methods are tantamount to abortion.
But in 2003, the National Cancer Institute said, "[N]ewer studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast-cancer risk." A study released last week by researchers at Johns Hopkins University says the claim that women experience negative mental-health consequences after abortion is based on shoddy science.
"If Johns Hopkins wants to deny this, that's fine. You can deny that overeating causes obesity, too. It's very disrespectful and hurtful to ignore" the consequences of abortion, says Jo Tolck, executive director for the Human Life Alliance, which she says has no political or religious affiliation.
"We document everything we do with secular documentation," Tolck adds. "We're not quoting religious or political agenda."
"I have read through [the supplement] and it has misinformation about birth control and contraception," counters Kim Evert, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. "The advertising is irresponsible because it's giving misinformation, and people are making choices based on the information." For instance, says Evert, if a person is told that condoms are ineffective, they might chose unprotected sex, putting them at risk for disease and pregnancy.
"The student papers need to look at what they're running," Evert says. "They've said it's paid advertising and they have a right to run it. Ethically speaking, is it right to give students false information?"
"[I]f someone's willing to buy the ad space, it's covered by the First Amendment," says Katelyn Polantz, editor in chief of The Pitt News. But Polantz says the paper didn't just take the money and run: It asked the Student Health office to vet the supplement. "We didn't want to run something that was factually wrong," Polantz says.
Officials at the student-health center didn't exactly endorse the pamphlet, though, as evidenced by a letter to the editor from its medical director, Elizabeth Wettick, and health educator Jaime Sidani. Their letter ran the day after the supplement. The two took no side, but instead encouraged students to consider the source of any information they receive:
"... We feel that it is not in the best interest of Pitt students to wage a battle with the ideas and values presented in the Human Life Alliance insert on these sensitive, personal and controversial issues. ... If there are clear 'sides' to the information or issue that you are questioning, get facts from both sides so that you can determine which information you choose to believe."
The choice to run the pamphlet rested with the paper's business manager, Stephanie Betts. Betts says she gave the Student Health office, and the editorial department, the chance to preview the material as a courtesy. "They didn't have a say" in deciding to run the ad, Betts says.
"Obviously, The Pitt News has the right to accept or deny advertising," she adds. But "It's very important to us as a student-media outlet to uphold the First Amendment."
(Full disclosure: City Paper editor Chris Potter sits on a Pitt News advisory board, though the board had no impact on the HLA insert.)
On the day the supplement ran, Nov. 18, Polantz published a disclaimer in the paper's op-ed section: "Although the pamphlet addresses a controversial topic, as with all advertising in the newspaper, we neither condone nor condemn the message of the advertiser. We do, however, value the right of free speech and we encourage public discourse within our pages."
"The editor can run whatever he or she wants to run. They do not have to validate the content of the advertising," says Ron Spielberger, executive director of College Media Advisers and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Memphis. "Depending on the volume, of course, it would be impossible to check the validity of the ads that come in."
Spielberger says the decision to run or not run any advertising must be undertaken mindfully by student editors.
"Let this spark debate on the campus on whatever it may be. I think they ought to go on the side of the First Amendment rights but again, they need to understand the consequences of what they're going to do and be prepared for those phone calls and e-mails and for the potential for student protesting."
At Allegheny College in Meadville, the supplement has yet to run, and there are conflicting accounts of the reasons for the delay. HLA officials call it censorship, while student editors at The Campus call it an honest mistake.
Both sides agree that the HLA bought the space in the paper and shipped the supplements, which were also slated to run Nov. 13. But the insert has yet to appear.
"We sent the [inserts] and a check," says Joe Langfeld, deputy director of the HLA. "The publications arrived on Nov. 3." But two weeks later, "a supporter called to tell us they didn't run when they were supposed to run."
The HLA responded with a press release in which Executive Director Tolck said, "We see this type of censorship all the time. It's a shame that on a college campus some individuals still oppose free and open discussion of issues relevant to students."
Pro-life blogs and newsletters took the story and ran with it.
"I probably received 30 e-mails saying we censored them, comparing us to Hitler," says Anna Gengel, editor in chief of The Campus. "[The HLA] accused us of censorship -- they didn't even talk to us." In addition to the e-mails, a local HLA supporter stopped by the paper's offices to demand answers about where the insert was -- Gengel says she explained to him it was a matter of logistics and not censorship.
"We were planning on running it," Gengel says, though she concedes "I could have communicated with them a little better." The check arrived, but student editors didn't know where the inserts themselves were.
What happened, Gengel says, is that the package containing the inserts was mistakenly delivered to the mailbox of the previous editor, who is currently studying abroad in Scotland.
"I really didn't have [the inserts] in my hand. Logistically, we couldn't have run them," Gengel says. Once the pamphlets were located, the paper began planning to insert them. "I thought we cleared that up -- then we received the press release," adds Gengel.
Langfeld counters: "There was no communication, at which point we said, 'We have a real problem here.' I said, 'Hey, you've got to call us! You told us you'd run it, you took our check, you took our publications.'"
Eventually, Gengel and Langfeld spoke by phone. Gengel says she assured Langfeld the inserts would run Jan. 19, and that Langfeld pledged to work up a new press release, explaining the mistake.
"When they finally wrote something, they said, 'We did it through grassroots efforts,'" says Gengel.
The press release announced, "After phone calls, e-mails and a visit from a local HLA supporter, student editors have agreed to insert 'We Know Better Now.'" It then quotes Langfeld saying, "We're thrilled these students have communicated with HLA and agreed to give us a voice on their campus."
"We never said we weren't going to run it," says Gengel. "I feel a little manipulated. We're not happy."