Anti-abortion rights activists on campus pride themselves on the ability to catch the eyes of passersby. There are the picketers outside the women’s clinic on Clinch Avenue holding signs that promise salvation and perhaps even an adoption. There is the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform which props up large panels and hands out pamphlets covered with photos of dismembered fetal parts at busy intersections every spring.
And then, there are the students of Vols for Life, tabling on Pedestrian Walkway with a prominent sign that reads “Abortion and slavery: wrong for the same reasons.”
Vols for Life, a student-led anti-abortion rights group, was founded last fall by juniors Cody Levi and Amanda Campbell, who serve as president and vice president of the organization, respectively. The racialized anachronism of comparing abortion to slavery is part of their effort not only to abolish abortion in the U.S., but as the pair said, to make abortion “unthinkable.”
Their logic for comparing abortion with slavery and genocide rests not on historical context, but on what they see as the “dehumanization of the unborn.” Levi said they are tabling not only to change the minds of students, as they are open to having their minds changed, too.
“The mission of Vols for Life is to change the hearts and minds of its citizens through education, civil discourse and public policy. It’s essentially to change the hearts and minds of students at UTK, and let that be something they can carry with them,” Levi said.
“We essentially want to teach truth. If that’s students changing our minds, then let it be, but if not, then basically the purpose of this group is to find truth and let other students find truth, too. We just hold and defend with science and philosophy that that truth is that abortion is genocide.”
Levi and Campbell are members of the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society, and in a debate often enmeshed in religious language, they are committed to making what they see as rational and scientific arguments against abortion rights. Like most anti-abortion rights arguments, theirs begin with the syllogism that the unborn are fully human and that abortion is therefore a form of mass murder.
“We use strictly science and philosophy to defend the pro-life cause, so our group, we’re not a religious group, we’re not even a political group, we just take a strictly moral standpoint,” Campbell said.
“If you just establish that abortion kills an innocent human being, you don’t have to be a Christian to realize that killing a two-year-old is wrong or killing a teenager is wrong, so if you can establish that the unborn children are just as human as any other human, then you don’t have to be a Christian, you don’t have to have faith to believe that.”
Vols for Life trains students in how best to engage with advocates of abortion rights and their training includes learning what abortion rights activists are up to.
When asked what he finds to be the most convincing pro-abortion rights argument, Levi name dropped the work of philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson on bodily autonomy. When asked the greatest setback to the anti-abortion rights movement, Campbell discussed the Biden administration’s increased funding for Planned Parenthood and the rescission of the Mexico City policy, which prevented federal funding from going to foreign organizations that provide abortions or otherwise promote abortion rights.
But just as Democrats and Republicans increasingly seem to speak different languages, so do Vols for Life students and the pro-abortion rights students they seek to reach. While Levi and Campbell focus their arguments on the life of the unborn, their opponents focus on the problems facing women and the injustices of sexism that abortion rights seek to redress.
As with most lines of reasoning on the pro-abortion rights side, Levi has a simple response to these objections.
“You don’t fix injustice with more injustice,” Levi said. “If this is truly a human being and if they are truly being murdered, then the whole point is injustice doesn’t fix injustice. While misogyny and those oppressive acts are problems, the whole point is this isn’t fixing the problem. This is actually something that should not be done no matter what.”
Levi and Campbell said they have had mixed success while tabling on Pedestrian Walkway. Some students shake their head and walk past, others give them a thumbs up, and those who talk to them either have civil discussions or shout out abortion rights slogans like “my body, my choice” or “no uterus, no opinion.”
The latter epithet is undoubtedly directed towards Levi and other male members of the group. Levi knows that he will never have the experience of an unwanted pregnancy himself, but he views these kinds of gendered slogans as irrational nonetheless.
“Arguments don’t have genders, people do,” Levi said. “If something is truly logically correct, if something is truth, truth doesn’t have a gender. Truth is not based on a uterus or genitalia.”
For her part, when she has gendered arguments used against her, Campbell is called an anti-woman woman. She believes that the opposite is true.
“Personally, I think that’s a very anti-woman message to say that women should have the right to kill their own children to be equal to men,” Campbell said. “It’s also an injustice against women, not only because abortion hurts women psychologically, physically, all those reasons and 50% of children who are aborted are unborn women, so I would argue that true feminism is being pro-life.”
Anti-abortion groups increasingly rely on arguments that seek to reverse accepted narratives in the divisive, decades-long battle over abortion rights. For one thing, the anti-abortion rights movement is emerging as a group of mostly conservatives who identify as pro-science and cite embryology textbooks to argue that life begins at conception. For another, with the work of activists like Live Action’s Lila Rose, they are rebranding themselves as a pro-woman movement.
“I’m extremely pro-woman,” Campbell said. “I am pro-choice for a lot of other issues. I think women should have the right to choose their own healthcare, to choose their own education, to choose who they marry, to choose what kind of job they work at, but some things you just don’t have the right to, like (killing) your own children, and I will die on a hill that unborn children are human beings from the moment of conception and that they are people.”
Levi and Campbell envision a future society in which their anti-abortion syllogisms would not be offensive, but rather commonplace assumptions. If fetuses are fully human, then they believe it ought to logically follow that ending their life would be a form of murder. And if it is a form of murder, then they believe it ought to be made illegal.
“We already do limit people’s actions based on law. Law says what you can and can’t do,” Levi said. “We’re just trying to say they should recognize this as a law that we shouldn’t be able to do, as in kill other human beings. So it’s just more so of extending the recognition that already exists of who we murder and who we don’t.”
Opponents of Vols for Life argue that the group does not take factors other than the life of the unborn into account — for instance, the increase in government control that would attend the abolition of abortion. Campbell defended the group’s position on the grounds that the right to life is the first and most important right.
“Without the right to life, no other rights exist, so we can talk about rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness and healthcare and all these things, but if you don’t have the right to life, then none of those other rights matter,” Campbell said.
Levi said that he and Campbell started Vols for Life because they were concerned that there were no voices opposing abortion rights on campus.
Juniors Gabby Magness and Carmen Solt are two prominent voices among many leading the charge on campus to keep abortion legal and safe. The pair serve as president and vice president of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action Council at UT, and, whereas Vols for Life speak in the stark language of life and death, they speak in the language of women’s rights and reproductive healthcare.
In a statement to The Daily Beacon, Magness and Solt said that they take a more holistic approach to women’s rights and reproductive healthcare, and that abortion is only one of several issues in their advocacy work.
“It is important that pro-choice groups have a presence on campus to provide education about bodily autonomy and sex-ed to those on campus,” Magness and Solt said. “We’re about more than just abortion.”
Levi said that the bodily autonomy argument can be the toughest to rebut, but only if fetuses are not considered to be human. In a debate where the two sides seem to be operating from different belief systems and reading from different scripts, scientific and philosophical arguments are often drowned out by the noise of moral questions.
Vols for Life may attempt to utilize only scientific and philosophical reasoning, but they know where they stand on the moral questions, too. And where the Generation Action Council may focus on a wide array of issues, Vols for Life has only one.
“If abortion truly is the murdering of innocent human beings, then what are we doing doing nothing? What am I doing just going about my life not doing anything?” Levi said. “That’s kind of what led to, ‘let’s do something on campus.’ I’m a junior on campus, something needs to happen, and no one else is leading the charge, so someone’s gotta.”