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Conscience Magazine

Debating Abortion on Campus

By Jon O’Brien December 20, 2016

Naturally, there are some who disagree with my perspective as a Catholic who believes that women and men must be free to follow their conscience on matters of sexual and reproductive health care and rights. I respect their right to disagree. While arguments can often feel uncomfortable, they are necessary and, indeed, healthy—especially if we want our communities to be places in which no one is afraid of the battle of ideas. We can learn by listening to different perspectives in the course of sometimes-heated debate. Sadly, it seems that such a simple desire to have informed and diverse debate is increasingly the opposite of what is happening on college campuses across the US and UK.

As a Catholic, I feel that restricting the free exchange of ideas at a university is contrary to the catholic tradition of the university itself. The university, academic freedom and the Catholic church have been intertwined since the Middle Ages. Medieval popes became champions of higher learning, because the schools produced educated personnel the church needed. According to William J. Hoye, a professor of systematic theology, Pope Honorius III was the first to articulate something like modern academic freedom. In 1220, this pope told the University of Bologna in Italy to defend its “scholastic freedom” from the local government, which was trying to require students to take an oath of allegiance to the city. In 1221, Pope Gregory IX proved ahead of his time by granting the University of Paris the right to strike—against none other than the Bishop of Paris, who wanted control over the hiring and firing of professors.

In the classroom, students enjoyed the freedom of inquiry, which was in vogue. “Yes, medieval scholars were concerned with accountability” to the church, theologian Jean Porter wrote in Commonweal, “but they also defended freedom to conduct research and teaching as they saw fit.”

It was a time “when intellect went wild, and had a licentious revel,” said Blessed John Henry Newman of the late Middle Ages, when universities were being established. “When was there ever a more curious, more meddling, bolder, keener, more penetrating, more rationalistic exercise of reason than at that time?”

Cardinal Newman, the 19th-century scholar/poet/musician/preacher/literary critic who is now on the path to sainthood, has become a symbol of the Catholic intellectual tradition. You might recognize his name from the Newman Centers on nearly every college campus in the US. His idea of the university reached back to the “Studium generale,” or university, which he called “the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot.” There’s an implied diversity and even expected discomfort that comes along with this use of the word “strangers.” Students weren’t there to passively soak up knowledge, but rather to exercise “the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among these new ideas, which are rushing upon it.”

Tempering the “Wild Intellect”

From this catholic perspective, the modern university should make room for diversity of thought. It should encourage strangers to assemble so that they may engage in that “rationalistic exercise of reason.” But lately there’s been a movement to cleanse campuses of certain ideas and words that may be considered offensive, and it seems that rationality may get scrubbed away with them.

For instance, a professor can be fired for swearing in class. In 2015, Professor Teresa Buchanan was dismissed from her tenured position for saying, “Fuck no” before her students, which Louisiana State University saw as part of a pattern of “sexual harassment.”

Even President Obama was not welcome to give a speech without an uproar. When Notre Dame invited Obama to give the school’s commencement speech in 2009, several anti-abortion groups, students and alumni protested because they felt his prochoice views were out of line with those of a Catholic university. The outrage gained a lot of traction. The local bishop, John D’Arcy, vowed to boycott the ceremony; several alumni wrote letters of outrage; more than 70 Catholic bishops criticized the president of Notre Dame for inviting Obama; and more than 360,000 people signed a petition calling for the invitation to be rescinded. In the end, Notre Dame did not back the petition, and Obama addressed the graduates. It’s a little ironic that someone would protest with the idea that prochoice views are antithetical to Catholicism when, in fact, we know that Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as other women.

It isn’t only prochoice advocates on campus who find themselves on the firing  line—those opposed to abortion are also silenced. © Getty Images
It isn’t only prochoice advocates on campus who find themselves on the firing line—those opposed to abortion are also silenced. © Getty Images

Despite that reality, the antiabortion side has devoted quite a bit of energy to silencing the voices and stalling the careers of people who could be creating a “clear atmosphere of thought” around feminism and women’s reproductive rights, especially on Catholic campuses. The Cardinal Newman Society—once called “the most unhappily and inappropriately named society on the planet”—is dedicated to contesting so-called threats to universities’ Catholicity. The Society devotes its energy to pointing out supposed breaches of dogma on Catholic universities; engineering negative publicity, primarily by instigating letter-writing campaigns; and posting online petitions. Anything from prochoice professors and pro-LGBT events to stagings of The Vagina Monologues might be shut down by negative publicity against school administrators. Some administrations have refused to be cowed and have defended academic freedom, whereas others have listened to online furor or the local bishop and disinvited speakers and otherwise made their Catholic campuses smaller, more censorious places.

In July 2008, the University of San Diego (USD), a Jesuit Catholic institution, rescinded its offer of an endowed chair to Rosemary Radford Ruether, one of today’s most influential feminist theologians. The National Catholic Reporter once said that Ruether’s “scope is awesome,” and a stack of her published books had to be measured next to a medium-size person. Pamela Gray Payton, a USD spokesperson, claimed that Ruether’s “public position” on abortion was the primary reason for the rescinded offer. “This chair is a powerful, visible symbol of Roman Catholic theology, and in Roman Catholic theology abortion is disallowed,” she said. Ruether thought there was an outside group that may have put pressure on the university. “Its chief objection was my membership on the board of Catholics for Choice,” she explained.

The fact that USD disinvited one of the most widely respected, published and read contemporary Catholic theologians was not lost on people in both the Catholic and academic worlds. Two Catholic organizations—the Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)—organized a petition drive in protest and gathered more than 2,000 signatures. “Rosemary Ruether is like the godmother of the feminist theologian movement,” said one of the endorsers. Indeed, 56 USD faculty members signed the petition.

In this rescinded invitation, Ruether saw a worrying trend for the future of Catholic higher education: “My concern is that Catholic colleges and universities are in danger of becoming intellectual ghettos where controversial issues, particularly in relation to Catholic teachings and practices, cannot be discussed. But if they cannot be discussed at Catholic universities, where else can they be discussed? What better place is there for them to be discussed?”

I wonder what USD was so scared of? It’s the same old irony: Excluding someone like Ruether is to acknowledge that her ideas are powerful.

Kowtowing to the Censors

Though we know nothing of the protesters who initiated the USD controversy, they are not really the main problem. University administrators who cave to an intimidation campaign are siding with censorship. Those who answered the call for restriction are the problem. After all, there is no controversy unless someone accepts there is. If a university administration whittles its pedagogy down to little more than reading from a set of known truths, then universities are no longer a space for innovation or freedom or thought.

In 2012, Ohio state representative Bob Hagan was disinvited from speaking at the commencement for the Youngstown campus of the Mercy College School of Nursing. As an explanation, Bishop George Murry cited Hagan’s prochoice views: “While I respect and appreciate many of the social justice positions taken by Rep. Hagan, it remains a fact that he has also consistently voted for pro-abortion legislation, policies and funding.”

Hagan disagreed with the school’s reasoning, pointing to his good works, which were in line with his Catholic faith. He remarked: “I am saddened that the work that I have done to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help cure the sick, and to bring an end to the death penalty has fallen on deaf ears.”

Murry offered to speak with Hagan, and they met for a “cordial and respectful” discussion that touched on the role of individual conscience. This meeting, however, was not enough to convince Murry to admit that he had made a mistake or allow Hagan to speak. Brian Corbin, diocesan director at the Office of Social Action at the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, all but admitted that diocesan officials were scared of prochoice ideas catching on: “We are very concerned about issues of people who are actually public authorities that actually vote and they’re elected.”

Newman would have little patience for a Catholic university protecting a graduating class of nursing students from ideas. In fact, Newman would have wanted the bishop to debate side-by-side with Hagan. “I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline,” Newman wrote. “Only a system that can tolerate and welcome such contradictions would be enough for students’ ‘wild intellects.’”

Lately there’s been a movement to cleanse campuses of certain ideas and words that may be considered offensive, and it seems that rationality may get scrubbed away with them.

Roxanne Martino, a business executive and Notre Dame alumna, resigned from the school’s board of trustees in 2011, just two months after her appointment, when donations she made to prochoice groups were made public. Conservative blogger Bill McGurn broke the story that she had donated more than $25,000 to EMILY’s List, a political action committee for prochoice candidates. He also revealed Martino’s donations to the Chicago Fund for Women, which also supports prochoice causes.

In her official statement, Martino claimed she was resigning in “the best interest of the university … I had looked forward to contributing in this new role, but the current controversy doesn’t allow me to be effective.”

To add insult to injury, Notre Dame’s trustees and president tried to manage the scandal by saying Martino “did not realize” that her donations were to prochoice groups—as if depicting a savvy businesswoman as ignorant is somehow preferable to her support of reproductive rights. McGurn criticized the Notre Dame administration for glossing over the very obvious prochoice stance of EMILY’s List: “It’s sad that someone who obviously has enormous talents had to come to this kind of end. It’s even sadder still how the way [Notre Dame] handled it all put her in the worst possible light.”

It’s unclear how Martino’s private activities—whether her giving history or any other personal decision—should affect her ability to serve on the board of trustees of Notre Dame. Excluding a qualified alumna from a leadership position paints the Catholic university as a fragile thing. Surely a person making lawful decisions as a private citizen won’t break the “Studium generale,” which is supposed to be welcoming—even to the opposition?

It may make for some noisy debates, but our society needs these multiple perspectives. This diversity means we are always free to change our minds—God forbid students never be allowed to change their minds about veganism or Marxism or even their major. As a result of engaging with opponents, we can become firmer in our convictions. The existence of committed adversaries forces both proabortion and antiabortion advocates to debate: to think deeply and speak clearly.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, the university thrives on diversity of thought: It is the “marketplace of ideas.” It’s disappointing when not everyone feels like that market should sell a wide variety of goods. As seen, groups like the Cardinal Newman Society use a straitjacket of uber-orthodoxy as a rallying cry against abortion and other reproductive rights, and the stories of Ruether, Hagan and Martino are becoming familiar. But as the censorious cleansing on campuses goes on, it isn’t only prochoice advocates who find themselves on the firing line—those opposed to abortion are also silenced. This should trouble all of us, no matter what our views on abortion or women’s rights.

Censoring the Antiabortion Side

In recent years, antiabortion forces have devoted considerable energy to their protest tactics, which now include toting graphic displays of aborted fetuses onto campuses across the country. These posters, or in the case of the Created Equal group, Jumbotron-size displays, are designed specifically to goad the prochoice side into a reaction. For some prochoice bystanders, such displays are taken as a visceral attack on their beliefs, and that’s fine. Newman said that “the energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow.” However, it’s hard to imagine him supporting those who try to block displays because they are upset­ting or “triggering”—and that is what some prochoice advocates have done to antiabortion campaigners on some campuses.

For example, an antiabortion group was silenced at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in 2015 over a display of fetal development. For the past 30 years, the JHU Voice for Life group had used the same display, which depicted the stages of fetal development, but suddenly the student committee determined that the display wasn’t appropriate. “We’ve reviewed your pictures with our advisors and have determined that your display contains triggering and disturbing images and content,” said the student committee, banning Voices for Life from the university’s spring fair. JHU Voice for Life president Andrew Guernsey responded, “Abortion is dis­turbing, that’s the reason we have such a table.” Guernsey pointed out that it was “ironic that a university that has dedicated itself to the advancement of medicine and biology would find displaying medically accurate fetal models disturbing and offensive.”

Ultimately, the student committee had second thoughts and reversed its ban. “We were wrong in our initial decision,” the committee said. “The committee values free speech.” It went on to clarify that JHU Voices for Life was not banned from the spring fair, only the group’s fetal development display.

In 2010, the Duke University Women’s Center used similar reasoning when it cancelled an event planned by an antiabortion group. Duke Students for Life (DSFL) planned to hold a “Discussion with a Duke Mother” about the challenges of being a mother and a student, as part of a “Week for Life.” The day before the talk, DSFL received a voicemail notifying it that the discussion had been cancelled. Martin Liccardo of the Women’s Center explained that the cancellation was because of a strong student backlash.

This is all deeply troubling. For Catholics, conscience takes a primary role. Conscience is our final arbiter—it’s the reason I and many other Catholics believe that a woman can make a moral decision to end a pregnancy, to take birth control, to have in vitro fertilization. If prochoice people are committed to all women being able to follow their conscience, shouldn’t we let the opposition follow theirs as well—even when it leads them to promote views we can’t empathize with at all? It seems logically impossible to support choice while preventing people from thinking for themselves. Our position is strong enough that we don’t need those kinds of ‘narrow victories.’ We should be able to debate the opposition and trust that students have the ability to judge for themselves which is the better argument.

I would rather have antiabortion supporters talk about their prejudices and feelings in front of me, so they can be examined in the light. An indicator that our ideas are strong and well-reasoned is our ability to deal with their arguments. I think we will see that despite campaigns by the opposition, support for women’s autonomy will always remain strong.

When I look at the state of free speech in the academy, I am concerned that we are losing Newman’s idea of the university as a curious place, one that houses that ‘wild intellect.’ It would be a shame for the university to go even further backward, to before the 12th century, and to look around and see that the ‘Studium generale’ had been lost and that strangers are no longer welcome.

People on both sides of this issue share an astonishing desire to silence open discussion. They don’t have the courage of their own convictions, worrying that someone else’s words may defeat their own. In a healthy society, people aren’t afraid to discuss things. We must never be afraid of the battle of ideas.


This article is excerpted from Unsafe Space: The crisis of free speech on campus (Macmillan Publishers, 2016).

Jon O’Brien
Jon O’Brien

is president of Catholics for Choice, where he promotes reproductive health policies in which every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, and the resources and access to exercise her choice freely. A lifelong Catholic and advocate, he is a leader in developing local, national and global strategies on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with an emphasis on social justice.

Tagged Abortion