Go, Baby, Go
On a cool spring morning, Sheree Tullos, a University of Houston political science major, came on the main campus carrying a bomb. It didn't take long for her to be discovered.
A mob of outraged students cornered her in Butler Plaza, hurling insults. One guy with baggy skater pants and a shaggy blond ponytail emerged from the crowd, barking, "Do you believe this? You know, do you really believe this?" She stood her ground with her stomach tumbling and her mind going blank. The skater guy called her a bitch and spit in her face.
She got away from the crowd, away from the campus security guard who'd been summoned to restore order, but a woman stalked her, following her to class, where she tried to jump Tullos.
She didn't find sanctuary in the classroom either. Former friends and classmates turned on her, chewing her out and giving her the cold shoulder. It was as though she'd suddenly contracted social leprosy.
The day before, they'd had a theoretical discussion, calm and rational. But they didn't know what she was planning to do in the middle of campus, and as the abstract became reality, emotions surged and opinions hardened. Tullos was now the enemy.
They may not have known Sheree Tullos, but they knew exactly where she stood on March 26, 2001: behind the barricades, directly beneath a ghastly, 18-foot-high display of dead fetuses glazed in blood.
The Pro-Life Cougars repeat quite often that their goal with the fetus display is to pry open debate on campus.
In 2000, Tullos founded the group (originally known as the Free Speech Coalition) with the sole purpose of bringing to school the three-sided photo exhibit of dead fetuses.
Their mission hasn't changed.
The group remains very small, intense and dedicated. Though its leaders share conservative views -- and say they are ostracized because of them -- they come from very different backgrounds.
Tullos, a white 28-year-old who is one-quarter Mexican, grew up in a poor home in Houston where she says they "barely had enough food sometimes." Her dad took off when she was two, remarrying several times and fathering other children, which left her single mom to care for the family. Although raised in a religious vacuum, she was touched by the abortion issue at age five, when her mother, active in the 1970s feminist movement and also the pro-life cause, got pregnant and chose to have the baby and give it up for adoption. They later moved to California.
"I've been sort of out on my own since I was real young. I was 16 when I moved out," Tullos says. She worked and paid her way through community colleges before arriving at UH in fall 1999. A few years before that, though, she found God. Or, more accurately, He woke her up.
"God yelled at me when I was asleep one night," she says. At around 4:30 one morning, a loud voice summoned her. "I'm going, 'I'm hearing things, who is in here?' you know. I went back to sleep and at like six o'clock in the morning, a loud voice shook my bed and was like, 'You need to get up!' " When she went to church that day, she heard a sermon about forgiveness and fell to the floor in a baroque moment of conversion. Although her life had changed, her situation hadn't.
"I still was alone," she says. "I still didn't have many friends. I just read the Bible instead of watching TV or whatever." By the time she arrived on campus at UH, her politics had crystallized and her passion had been unleashed. And she knew, from the very moment she first heard about the fetus display -- owned and operated by the Kansas-based Justice For All group that travels to colleges mostly in Texas and the Midwest -- that she had to bring it to campus. "I'm not the type of person to just give up. I'm the type of person that will carry it out no matter if it kills me until I do it," she says. "And that's what happened."
Jonathan Saenz, 30, is last year's group president, a law-and-order kind of guy with a crisp, lawyerly style -- shirts always tucked in and ironed; charcoal hair trimmed short and parted neatly to the side; careful in choosing his words and steady in maintaining eye contact when he speaks.
"The whole thing is, if, through the things that we've done, if we've saved one life, it's worth it," says Saenz, who finished at the UH Law Center last May. "Because you're going to have people, 'Well, I don't like the way you do it and I don't like this' -- I would rather have those people upset with me, because my mission. Our mission -- is not to be popular and people liking us and 'Those guys are so nice' -- our mission is to educate people and save lives.
"Here's what it gets to: There are some things you can talk about over and over, but if you see them visually, the truth of it is undeniable."
Amanda Strassner, the new co-chair of the Pro-Life Cougars this year, doesn't drink. She doesn't do drugs. She doesn't even date, calling it "practice for divorce." She lays it all out, a self-assured Sandra Dee telling Rizzo what's what: "You're starting when you're like eight years old, you know, getting really close to someone, giving them all your secrets, sharing your life, and then breaking up," she says, catching her breath. "You get in this heartbreak -- you break up with this person -- and, oh, it's so bad, but you get better at it."
She allows a brief moment of silence to settle in. Then she adds solemnly, dramatically: "You get better at it."
An English and political science double major, Strassner entered UH at age 16 after being homeschooled her whole life and will graduate next May from the Honors College. Law school is a definite -- it's been the plan all along, since she was eight -- but maybe not Harvard. After all, she says, she's already put up with liberals for three years here. Plus, she admits, her LSATs might not be that good. She still lives at home with her parents and her six younger siblings and spends three nights a week at her Southern Baptist church.
Her résumé is littered with the Greek codes of scholastic excellence: Phi Kappa Phi, the academic honors society; Omicron Delta Kappa, the leadership honors society; Phi Alpha Delta, the law society. On top of all that, she holds a part-time job doing public relations for the engineering department. (Not that she needed the money; as a former National Merit Scholar, she got a full ride to college.)
As with fellow co-chair Mary-Margaret Buchanan and activities coordinator Melissa Tumlinson, Strassner's top priority this year is recruiting. "We need more people," she says.
This fall, she'll get their attention. Two and a half years after it first appeared, Amanda Strassner is bringing back the dead-fetuses traveling show sometime this fall.
The arrival of the fetus exhibit at the University of Houston in March 2001 shook up an otherwise sleepy campus. For the three days the exhibit was on display, classes buzzed with students and faculty debating abortion. Some made signs in protest and struck up chants within earshot of the display. Coat hangers were hung in effigy. The exhibit ran as the top story in The Daily Cougar because, as one editor put it, "We don't get stuff like that here."
It's hard to make generalizations about a student community of 34,000. It's harder still when you have a diverse school like UH with a fairly even mix of white, Asian, Hispanic, black and international students all jumbled about, at various stages of finding their identities. Many from both the left and the right agree with one student's assessment that UH is a "quietly liberal" place, with nearly everyone emphasizing the "quietly" part.
"You can tell on campus when there's something big coming on," says Christian Schmidt, a senior who wrote about the event for the campus newspaper. "I had never seen that many people hanging out in Butler Plaza on the lawn. It was just huge."
Standing in front of images of tiny severed limbs, papery, peeling skin and the crushed entrails of dead fetuses, Tullos saw up close the wide-eyed expressions of horror on her classmates' faces. "You know how when you see the picture of the Wicked Witch of the West and people spray water or whatever and she melts? People acted like that. It's like you sprayed water on them and they're going to melt," she says. "They freaked out."
Maria Carminati, a third-year student who publishes a Feminism Today newsletter, called it "an act of violence against the whole campus." She and her friend Taylor Kirk, president of UH Young Democrats, argue that Tullos's efforts had a reverse effect from what she had hoped for. "I think it made everyone more militantly pro-choice," says Kirk, who reacted by joining NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) shortly after the display appeared. They slammed Tullos's group for using tactics they labeled as guilt, shock, fear, disgust and repulsion.
Using a university policy on student demonstration, the school said the display would be "potentially disruptive" for Butler and could be allowed in only one of two sites on campus: the University Center patio or Lynn Eusan Park. Tullos's lawyer, Benjamin Bull, dubbed them "the Siberia of the campus," in comments to the Houston Chronicle, and Tullos rejected their offer. When she contacted James Spencer, general counsel for the Justice For All group, his reaction was clear and direct: "Sheree, they cannot do that."
"Based on my experience at other universities and my knowledge of the law, I knew immediately that their decision to ban the exhibition from Butler Plaza was unconstitutional," Spencer says. "There certainly was a gut feeling that the reason they were making this decision was because of content, but a gut feeling wasn't going to hold up in court." The Alliance Defense Fund, a Phoenix-based Christian legal organization, agreed to litigate pro bono if Tullos wanted to go forward. For days, she prayed and worried over what to do. The other girls in the group backed away from the lawsuit, Tullos says, fearing it would jeopardize their graduation. "I was scared, too, to tell you the truth," she says.
On January 22, 2002, some 29 years to the day after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Tullos filed a federal lawsuit against the university alleging free speech violations.
The university categorically denies that the lawsuit would have ever jeopardized Tullos's or any other student's graduation. "I can't begin to understand how the students would think that way," says Mike Cinelli, director of external communications at UH. He also rejects the plaintiff's spin that the school was trying to stifle pro-life speech, emphasizing that it was an issue of "time, place and manner" and not content that cued the rejection. Cinelli says that it was an "honest mistake" by an administrator that allowed the display to go up at Butler the first time. (Spencer fires back that it's a "convenient" honest mistake.) Court documents confirm Butler Plaza has been a "designated public forum" for student activity over the years and that "Dean Munson received no complaints" the first time the exhibit came.
In June 2002, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. issued a preliminary injunction allowing the display to go up again at Butler and concluding that the university's policy had violated the First Amendment. The following day, the university put out a new freedom-of-expression policy, banning all demonstration in Butler Plaza -- everything from two-story-high dead fetuses to "the silent expression of a single student on the Plaza holding a small sign proclaiming 'The World is a Beautiful Place,' " as one official testified in court. They claimed the judge's injunction was, thus, moot in light of the new policy.
"The university's response was about as irresponsible as they could be," says Ross Lence, a professor in the political science department and faculty adviser to the Pro-Life Cougars. "They said it didn't apply to them. That's an arrogance that used to mark the old administration." The judge refused to rescind his order and, in September 2002, a smaller, eight-foot-high version of the exhibit came back to UH and received a much more muted reaction.
Some say that's because the initial shock value was gone. Others say that by putting up a "free speech board," where students could vent written objections to the display, a lot of anger was defused. The exhibit stayed for three days and moved on again.
But the Pro-Life Cougars weren't done yet.
The following month, they again sued the university, after Jonathan Saenz was denied permission to walk through Butler Plaza wearing a placard that would have read: "Life is Beautiful. Choose Life." He says while the request wasn't entirely bait for the second lawsuit, he certainly wasn't surprised when the school turned him down and they went to court again. Their lawyer, Bull, in keeping with the Russia theme, later remarked to the Houston Chronicle: "The university is almost Stalinistic in banning government-disfavored and politically incorrect speech." Their second suit complained that the new policy, which banned all activity from Butler, was even more unconstitutional than the first.
According to legal experts, free speech zones came about in the 1960s as a university response to student protests. Professor Michael A. Olivas, director of the UH Law Center's Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance, says the Pro-Life Cougars' grievance fits in with legal history. "I think it's simply another in a long line of cases of groups that, whether correctly or incorrectly, feel that they've been excluded," he says, citing anti-McCarthyists in the 1950s, peace activists and blacks in the 1960s, gays and lesbians and women's groups in the 1970s and, starting in the 1980s, conservative and evangelical Christian groups.
"I think the Houston experience was unusually stressful for this institution in that they got hit in the courts and hit in the legislature," says Robert M. O'Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and author of Free Speech in the College Community. This spring, state Representative Norma Chavez of El Paso introduced House Bill 2447, an effort to corral what her aide called the kind of "egregious" free speech policies employed at places like UH. According to Spencer, the lawyer for Justice For All, the UH case was the first time his group ever had to resort to legal action to get the exhibit on a campus.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, scoffs at the very notion of free speech zones. "It's right out of a George Orwell essay -- they actually call these 'free speech zones'!" he exclaims in a telephone interview. "What you're saying is that 98 percent of the campus is censorship." He says that there's been an evolution on campuses over the years, from when student liberal views were once suppressed and conservative orthodoxy protected, to the reverse nowadays. He claims that the "time, place and manner" legal clause -- to prevent students from airing messages by bullhorn at 3 a.m. outside dormitories -- has been used in an overly restrictive manner by schools like UH. According to these experts, the Supreme Court has yet to rule specifically on this issue, but Spencer likes the momentum.
This summer, the university settled with the Pro-Life Cougars out of court, agreeing to pay $93,000 in legal fees and to purge its policy of several restrictions on campus expression. Most important for the group, Butler Plaza has been reopened as a free speech zone. Spencer believes the ruling and settlement will have a ripple effect on other colleges across the nation. "They'll see that these pro-life students mean business and are not just going to allow themselves to be pushed around," he says, adding that he'll e-mail the summary judgment to any university official who tries to give him trouble in the future.
Tullos describes the experience as "the hardest two years" of her life. Even as it made her a pariah among liberals, it christened her as a darling of the right, both locally and nationally. Students on campus approached her at the display and asked if they could pray for her. Some professors, she says, gave their anonymous support. In June, The O'Reilly Factor inquired about their coming on the show, but the scheduling never worked out. She says she spoke on Mike Richards's local radio program. And celebrity pundit Ann Coulter took an interest in their cause, with Tullos sending her regular e-mail updates.
Looking back on how things unfolded from that first tense morning, Tullos echoes a quote that she posted on the group's Web site: "Courage doesn't always come naturally. Sometimes you have to invent it."
Ray Hafner, an editor at The Daily Cougar, agrees UH is not normally politically active. "These things are fairly rare at UH, because these people are here to get a degree and not to raise trouble. It's a far cry from, say, Berkeley."
The only other example of campus activism in recent years has been an antiwar protest this spring. Otherwise, many say, apathy reigns -- perhaps less a product of Gen X disillusionment than out of practical necessity.
According to Sandy Coltharp, the associate director of Residential Life and Housing, only 12 percent of the total population lives on campus, so a vast number of students commute. And it's tough to raise hell when you can't find a place to park.
"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Tullos. "They call it a commuter school and therefore we have commuter school syndrome. Because we know no one's going to get involved, we don't want to get involved." The average age for UH undergraduates is almost 23, which raises the likelihood that students have outside responsibilities like jobs or families. All of this adds up to "a very grounded school," as one commuter put it.
Against this grounded, apolitical canvas, the Pro-Life Cougars nailed their three-sided theses. Some critics dismiss the group, saying they're just out for attention. The Pro-Life Cougars might not entirely disagree. As the Justice For All Web site claims: "Opposition to abortion is not tolerated in academia. Critical information and dialogue is being omitted from our institutions of higher education. Herein lies the need for the Justice For All Exhibit."
At the 25 schools the display has visited, student reaction has varied tremendously, says Tammy Cook, the field operations director at Justice For All, and UH fell somewhere in the middle. Obviously, more liberal campuses respond with greater furor. According to Cook, the most intense reaction came at the University of Kansas a few years back, when a student drove a car at the display, knocking it over. As for the need to use such explicit material, she compares the current "genocide" to crimes like the Jewish Holocaust and the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955.
"We see something synonymous going on here," she says.
Tullos and the rest of the group acknowledge there are those in the pro-life camp who remain against such graphic tactics. Activists are often split on how to get their point across -- for every Martin, there is a Malcolm; for every Abbas, there is a Hamas. Some favor restrained debate in the tidy arena of term papers and conferences; others, like Tullos, feel the message needs to shock people. If it looks grisly, they say, it's because it is grisly. In defending the display, one particular anecdote resonates deeply with the Pro-Life Cougars and the Justice For All group.
"The second display came and there was a girl she walks up and she's just looking like it's like a plane fixin' to come down and hit her," Tullos says, a hint of her native Texan drawl creeping in. The frightened girl started yelling at a group of guys who were protesting against the display. "And I look at her and she's about to start crying and I didn't know what to say to her at the time," Tullos says. The girl's eye had been caught by one particular panel on the display: the spidery fingers of an aborted ten-week-old fetus clutching a dime. "She said, 'I didn't know it looked like that at ten weeks,' and she was ten weeks pregnant," Tullos says. "She said she was going to have an abortion, but now that she saw the display she wasn't going to -- that she was going to tell her boyfriend that she was going to keep it." Tullos got the girl's phone number but never heard back from her.
For every one life the group may have saved, though, there seem to be a dozen people they pissed off. The barricades protected them that day from a reaction as visceral as the images they put up. Madeleine Bullard Connor, 41, a UH Law graduate, was one of a few who stood beside Tullos at the time. "I was real impressed with her because of these things -- where she comes from, where she's going and the courage to take an unpopular position," says Connor. "It's not a fun place to be."
If their politics tend to isolate them in class, the lifestyle they advocate makes them rebels on campus. Justice For All has a list of four things that people can do to help, and No. 1 on their list is "SAVE SEX" (not to be confused with "safe sex"). By standing beneath this message, the Pro-Life Cougars become, quite literally, the poster children for abstinence.
For a generation long since weaned on dominatrix MTV videos, desecrated apple pie and the soft-core porn of Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, a statement like "SAVE SEX" can seem baffling and out of step. At the very least, they're swimming against the tide of hormones for their age bracket. Justice For All's Cook says that talking about abstinence with students is her organization's biggest challenge. "One of the things that I try to tell students is, we have to understand that there's a difference between us and animals," she says. "If we can get them to agree on that, we can get them to see we're able to control ourselves."
Maria Carminati, editor of the feminist newsletter, maintains that the Justice For All pictures are doctored. Taylor Kirk, the Young Democrats president, says, "They don't even look like fetuses. They look like babies chopped up by, like, Freddy Krueger."
An expert in the obstetrics department at Baylor College of Medicine says that while the photos looked accurate, the captions may have slightly embellished the phases of development. For example, an aborted fetus labeled "nine weeks" could be more like 11 weeks, and the "21 week" fetus looks more like 30 to 31 weeks.
"One thing that's misinformative and misleading is the health effects of abortion," adds Michele C. Curtis, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UT-Houston medical school, who evaluated the display online. "For all of them, I thought, no, no, no, no." For example, she says, the stated link to infertility is an "extremely rare event."
Most contentious, however, is the display's assertion that "abortion is a risk factor in breast cancer." While some studies have argued this, many have been criticized for unreliable methodology. The National Breast Cancer Coalition, the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society all deny a cause-and-effect relationship between having an abortion and getting breast cancer. In February of this year, the National Cancer Institute held a special workshop on the issue and, after reviewing the evidence, concluded there is no increased risk. Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, conducted her own review of the evidence and, in an article this summer in a medical journal, blasted "cancer organizations, the mainstream press, women's magazines, politicians who campaign as abortion supporters, and left-of-center women's groups" for using politics to trump science and informed consent. Both sides might have trouble extracting political conclusions from the raw data.
The Pro-Life Cougars just want to talk about it.
They say they totally despise abortion clinic bombings -- Saenz calls them "absurd" -- and they require members to sign a nonaggression pact. They also say they haven't heard much about clinic bombings in the last ten years. (Florida sent a man to die earlier this month for fatally shooting an abortion doctor and his bodyguard back in 1994.) Similarly, Saenz and Tullos question the coat hanger "myth," the argument that if you change the law, you'll send women back into alleys for abortions. "There hasn't been any evidence, anything I've seen where a woman's stood up and said, 'Yeah, I did that, I used a coat hanger,' " Saenz says. Rhetoric that no doubt appalls pro-choice advocates.
Technically (very technically), their stated goal as Pro-Life Cougars is not to overturn legislation. They register on campus as a "religious/spiritual" group as opposed to a "political/social action" organization, and they recite the hard-to-argue-with tagline "changing hearts and saving lives." It's not that they would necessarily be opposed to a reversal of Roe v. Wade, because for them, no cause is more important than battling abortion, one potential parent at a time. For now, though, this is the means to preventing an end.
At the campus activities fair, on the third day of school this year, the sun has been darting in and out from behind gathering storm clouds. Pamphlets become fans, as the group swats limply at the sticky heat. On one side of the table, Saenz takes command, delivering handshakes to those who walk up and pitching genial phrases at those who pass by. At the next table over, a gaggle of Asian sorority girls chirps peppy recruiting lines. Saenz catches the eye of one and starts rumbling through an introduction and explanation of the group. The girl smiles weakly, as though, like, this is not what she feels like talking about.
A marketing rep stops by and asks if anyone's looking for a way to earn some extra money. Amanda Strassner and activities coordinator Melissa Tumlinson shrug him off and talk about having too many jobs already.
Tullos could not be here today. She's somewhere across town, teaching government and economics to seniors at a high school in Fort Bend ISD, having finished at UH last December. It's her first year as a teacher and she was way nervous about the start of school. She describes her new students as underachieving gifted kids who just need to learn how to apply themselves.
She says she can't wait to talk about the abortion issue in class. And, no doubt, the First Amendment as well.
Tiny raindrops start pelting the tables, the early pitter-patter tap dance that announces a more thorough soaking to come. Strassner cradles the legal pad e-mail list and shuttles it into her backpack. Saenz tries to get the others to fan out in the thinning crowds. "If one of y'all is brave enough to go over there," he points to the other side of the fountain, "because we're not quite getting the traffic over here." He coaches them on how to do it: "Just say, 'Hey, I'm involved in this group -- take a look at this.' " He mimes handing out a flyer and then hustles off to feed change to the parking meter.
All around them, through the sprinkle of rain, the neighboring tables have packed up and headed home. Kappa Delta Phi: gone. The badminton club: gone. Three tables to their left and 11 to their right have emptied out, now slick with rainwater instead of flyers and photos to sell you on all the good times had last year. Co-chair Mary-Margaret Buchanan finally comes by, having just finished class. She's wearing an "Army" T-shirt. She takes a stack of flyers and wades out into the crowd. When Saenz comes back, he sees her and laughs a little.
"That's funny -- 'God's army,' " he says. "She's one of the troops." A few kids plow by -- one with a "Free Yayo" T-shirt and another with several face piercings. Saenz tries to get them to take a flyer. In their recruiting, the Pro-Life Cougars don't discriminate. "I think anyone can be reached," Saenz says. He jokes about how people avoid making eye contact, though. At this point, they're pretty much sticking it out all alone. The rain has let up some, but the pavement still smells of a hot, wet summer.
Tumlinson watches the clock: "We've got about eight minutes left." Buchanan cozies up to speeding students and walks alongside them, talking up the group. Saenz plays nose tackle to her cornerback, digging in right in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to nab those who rush by. A crack of thunder rolls across the sky as the clock nears 1 p.m.
"Hurray! Hurray -- 75!" Buchanan exclaims, walking back over to the table. They've handed out 75 flyers for the day. A campus corner, once bustling, is now empty.
"Let's say a prayer real quick," Saenz proposes. The four of them gather in a small circle. "Dear Lord, thank you so much for bringing these people together " And so the Pro-Life Cougars begin another year.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.