Jack Dowell ‘21

Staff Writer

This past fall, one semester after the Sexual Wellness Vending Machine was installed, the Planned Parenthood Generation Action (PPGA) e-board was alerted to a pair of anti-abortion pamphlets left on the table next to the machine. Similar materials, such as the Catholic magazine The Word Among Us and conservative magazine the National Review, continued to appear near the machine throughout the last semester and into the current one. The incidents were addressed privately until a National Review issue with a transphobic cover article titled “The Tragedy of the ‘Trans’ Child” provoked PPGA President Caroline Roddey ‘20 and Vice-President Luis Toledo ‘20 to post about the event in the Davidson College Facebook group.

Roddey said, “at first, pamphlets were more directly targeted towards abortion, praying for forgiveness after an abortion.” When they initially appeared, Roddey noted that PPGA “started taking them to [Assistant Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Dre] Domingue, and [Treasurer and Publicity Chair] Grace Colley [‘21] started filing bias reports.” Davidson’s website states that students who “have been the target of a bias incident (or have witnessed a bias incident)” may submit bias incident reports online anonymously or directly to Dean Domingue. These reports were based on how “it was very clear [the magazines] were targeted towards the vending machine, and we knew this because they would cut out the names of whoever was subscribing,” said Roddey.

Roddey continued, “we didn’t want to make a big public display about it because we felt that wouldn’t be productive to the space; we want to keep it as apolitical as possible […] And we didn’t want people to feel like they were going to be targeted for using the space.”

Roddey and Toledo specified that th Sexual Wellness Vending Machine does not contain anything that could induce an abortion. While it does contain Plan B, the pill works by preventing ovulation, meaning that sperm cannot reach an egg to fertilize it. Roddey said “there is nothing that can be construed to be an abortion. That’s why we feel people are trying to make a space political that doesn’t need to be political. And it’s just an attack on access to sexual and reproductive health.”

When the transphobic magazine covers appeared, however, PPGA decided that a line had been crossed. Consequently, the group made a public Facebook post to affirm PPGA’s support of the vending machine’s users. Toledo explained, “trans folks are part of the population we serve and fight for, and [the magazines are] attacking a population we’ve promised to serve and defend.”

This is not the first time that Davidson students have felt obligated to condemn socially conservative activism on campus. Last semester, Lily Acton ‘20, a Student Health Advisor and Davidson’s Representative for NARAL Pro-Choice NC, wrote a Perspectives piece on the presence of a Crisis Pregnancy Center at a Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) Community Involvement Fair. In her article, Acton explained that crisis pregnancy centers target individuals with unplanned pregnancies and intentionally give them misleading information regarding abortion. She commented that while the CCE’s rules don’t allow them to restrict groups, their presence “isn’t ok because these people lie and propagate misinformation, and that goes against Davidson’s values. […] It’s not sharing any sort of facts or truth, and as we know, Davidson is all about integrity.”

Moreover, in the spring of 2018, students were surprised to find a Students For Life-affiliated table set up adjacent to the Chambers flag pole, asking passersby about their views on abortion. Acton noted that one of her professors raised an objection to the table because it was collecting data without approval from the college’s Institutional Review Board. Director of College Union and Student Activities Mike Goode ‘83 noted that when he investigated the table, the only individuals there were non-students. The Student Organization Handbook’s Solicitation Policy states that outside solicitation requires prior approval from the Union Director, and a student sponsor must be with them at all times. Acton commented that “a table outside Chambers isn’t the way to have a conversation about this, especially when it’s one grown adult man trying to talk to a bunch of students walking to class.” 

PPGA members agreed that leaving magazines is not conducive to a productive discussion on abortion rights. Roddey noted, “we’ve fostered many discussions in the past as PPGA with conservative groups,” referencing various roundtables hosted by the group. “That’s been part of the difficulty; it’s not like these magazines are being left to facilitate any sort of discussion, the name is not on the magazine, there’s no one we can trace it back to, we can’t sit down with whoever’s doing it and say, ‘let’s have a discussion.’”

One challenge lies in the sensitive nature of the machine—while some  have suggested installing a security camera, Roddey said, “we’re not interested in having any surveillance,” citing fears of contributing to a culture that treats access to reproductive health services as something to be monitored. While PPGA representatives noted the administration’s concerns regarding the incidents, “they haven’t really been able to do much.” Union staff is also aware of the magazines, and Roddey noted Union student employees were told to keep an eye out for any further pamphlets.

Despite the sensitivity of the subject, Toledo said it is important to have open discussions: “We don’t think that ignoring something or sweeping it under the rug is going to be productive at all, rather we want to make sure that people know we have their backs.”