TAMPA — It was Valentine's Day, overcast and rainy. Students walked to the library, to the sandwich shop, to their next class, and when they saw the display their eyes and jaws grew round.
They were looking at a decidedly stark antiabortion protest Thursday at the University of South Florida, organized by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. The visiting group is an international antiabortion organization that demonstrates at colleges with its Genocide Awareness Project, comparing abortion to history's most deplorable mass killings.
Huge posters wrapped around the grass outside the USF library, showing Holocaust and Darfur victims, lynchings, Cambodian killing fields and abused children alongside pictures of abortions. One sign compared an abortion after rape to an honor killing.
The two-dozen Genocide Awareness Project members arrived Wednesday at USF, where they have protested a few times in the past. The university allows free speech anywhere on campus as long as the activities are safe and don't block doors or disrupt learning.
Nicole Cooley, one of the group's project directors, wore a sweatshirt that said, "I regret my abortion. Ask me about it!" She had an abortion 17 years ago after being raped, she said. She supported abortion rights until she held the fetus. It was all hard to grasp.
"If what I did was wrong, it meant I killed another human being, and that was very painful," said Cooley, 43. "My heart shattered."
She knew the pictures Thursday were shocking. She said the group ascribes to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s idea of confronting people with uncomfortable things in order to bring change.
Across the sidewalk, USF students from organizations including Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom wore bright clothes under wet ponchos and passed out condoms. Graduate student Becky Killik, 24, pointed to the posters. The images could trigger traumas for people just trying to get to class, she said. "It dilutes the definition of genocide and makes it less impactful. … They're hurting people."
Tam Tran, 19, was on his way to study group wearing a hot pink shirt and tie. He stopped next to a student arguing with one of the antiabortion protestors. He didn't know what to think, he said. He stared at a poster, a fistful of red holiday carnations drooping in his hand.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected]