Students and campus groups came together in protest after Georgetown University hosted and sponsored the largest student-run anti-abortion conference in the nation.
The Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life (OCC), an annual event on the intersection of politics and Catholic social teaching, drew student criticism with more than 120 students gathering at a protest organized by H*yas for Choice (HFC), an abortion rights student group. Georgetown University College Democrats (GUCD), in solidarity with the protesters, circulated a petition against the conference, which garnered 126 student signatures.
This is not the first time students have protested the OCC. HFC collected over 600 signatures in a petition against the 2021 conference, and the year prior, students chalked abortion rights messages in Red Square in opposition of OCC.
This year’s speakers included Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life Education and Defense Fund; Monica Sparks, the first Black president of Democrats for Life of America; and Catherine Glenn Foster, the president and CEO of Americans United for Life.
Students also condemned the inclusion of speakers at the conference who have previously worked for homophobic organizations, including Mancini, who worked for Family Research Council (FRC), and Foster, who worked for Alliance Defending Freedom.
HFC Vice President Lauryn Ping (COL ’23) said access to safe abortions is an important issue many students feel passionate about.
“A lot of people both have personal ties to the issue of reproductive justice because they have the capacity for pregnancy and love people who have the capacity for pregnancy,” Ping told The Hoya. “So this issue is extremely personal to a lot of students on campus, and that’s why they support reproductive justice and want to oppose the conference.”
The university does not formally recognize H*yas for Choice on the grounds that its abortion rights advocacy does not align with Georgetown’s Catholic values. As a result, the organization has not received university funding since 1992.
The large turnout at the protest demonstrates that the Georgetown student body supports abortion rights, said GUCD Co-Chair Brandon Wu (SFS ’24).
“For me personally, I think the protests send a clear message that there are so many folks out there who agree that Georgetown, at the end of the day, is a pro-choice campus,” Wu told The Hoya. “Even if our administration continues to support pro-life initiatives, the student body, who has a lot of power at Georgetown, will continue to show up and fight.”
Ping said the conference’s continued choice to also honor Cardinal John O’Connor, known for his homophobic rhetoric including his condemnation of homosexuality and his active opposition to AIDS education programs in the 1980s, further diverges from HFC’s mission.
“Obviously, in an ideal world, Georgetown just wouldn’t hold this conference altogether because the conference glorifies a homophobe that allowed LGBTQ people to die because he opposed these life-saving AIDS prevention efforts, and also, a lot of the speakers are associated with known LGBTQ hate groups and preach extremely anti-abortion ideologies that we don’t stand for,” Ping said.
GUCD discovered that, in addition to several other university offices like that of the president, provost and student affairs, the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) sponsored and funded OCC in early January, according to Wu. He said GUCD felt GU Politics’ sponsorship represented an unequal support of anti-abortion viewpoints over those of abortion rights activists, despite its goal of ending echo chambers.
GU Politics founding Executive Director Mo Elleithee said the institute’s programming has also included several abortion rights speakers such as former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
“Our policy here is if a student organization or a student group that is sanctioned asks for assistance that’s aligned with our mission of supporting political discourse and dialogue, we will give it.” Elleithee told The Hoya. “If you were to look at all of our programming in its totality, you would be hard pressed to say we demonstrate any bias on this issue or on any issue.”
Elleithee said he feels proud to see Georgetown students exercising their voice in political dialogue.
“It’s an issue that engenders strong passion on both sides,” Elleithee said. “And I think it’s fantastic when students on the opposite side want to demonstrate a respectful protest. That’s what you’re supposed to do in college.”
While Wu said in the future GUCD would like to see increased transparency from GU Politics regarding its donors, the two organizations are currently in discussions to consider the creation of an abortion rights equivalent of OCC.
Matteo Caulfield (CAS ’23), a co-director of OCC, said the conference intends to facilitate bipartisan debate on pertinent political issues, including abortion, mental health care resources and the death penalty.
“The Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life brings to campus some of the highest profile Catholic and pro-life speakers in the nation,” Caulfield wrote to The Hoya. “Their talks on the pro-life cause represent collegiate and academic discourse on the sanctity of human life.”
Voices from all ends of the political spectrum are welcome to participate in the conference, according to OCC Co-Director Maria Victoria (SFS ’25).
“Our range of speakers and topics are an invitation for people outside of the pro-life movement to engage in dialogue and find common ground,” Victoria wrote to The Hoya. “Anyone, regardless of political belief, is welcome to attend and respectfully participate in the Conference.”
Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy encourages a free and open exchange of ideas on campus through events like OCC, according to a university spokesperson.
“We are committed to being an inclusive campus and community that welcomes people of all faiths, races, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, abilities and backgrounds,” the spokesperson wrote to The Hoya.
Georgetown remains rooted in its Catholic heritage, according to a university spokesperson.
“Georgetown is firmly committed to the Catholic Church’s teachings and values, including those about the sanctity and dignity of life, and we strongly support a climate that continues to provide students with new and deeper contexts for engaging with our Catholic tradition and Jesuit identity,” the spokesperson said.
Nearly 70% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal if a pregnant woman’s life is threatened, while only one in ten say abortion should be illegal in all cases, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Ping said although the university is entitled to its own stance on abortion, the conference, which invites high school students to attend, imposes these views on an impressionable audience.
“The administration can have their own beliefs on abortion, and that’s fine,” Ping said. “We have a problem with them indoctrinating hundreds of high school students into their anti-choice ideologies and forcing this upon the student body.”