Georgetown University prides itself on facilitating dialogue among a variety of passionately held and often contradictory views, a truth confirmed by a stroll through Red Square. In line with this spirit of pluralism, some believe the university should recognize H*yas for Choice on the grounds of free speech. On the contrary, Georgetown’s refusal to fund H*yas for Choice is an authentic expression of its Catholic and Jesuit identity, which does not meaningfully impede the free exchange of ideas.
As a Catholic university, Georgetown is committed to upholding a distinctly Catholic moral view. In the case of abortion, the Church sustains that a fetus is a human person and that abortion, therefore, is tantamount to murder. Georgetown is also committed to upholding the principle of free speech, which includes speech that might disagree with church teaching, though it does not actively endorse such viewpoints.
Today, Georgetown remains an open forum for all manner of debate, including those over abortion. While exercising certain restraints, like organizational restrictions against room reservations and Council of Advisory Boards activities fair tabling, the university does not prohibit H*yas for Choice’s speech. In fact, the organization is free to hold meetings, peacefully demonstrate and host regular programming on campus. Moreover, it is free to table, provide contraception without university rebuke and otherwise advocate for abortion rights. In 2016, Georgetown even hosted Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortions and health services, to speak on campus.
Despite these allowances, Georgetown has good reason to continue withholding formal recognition from H*yas for Choice. After its founding in 1989, the group was officially recognized by the university in 1991. The university supported the group as a vehicle to promote speech, but it determined that the use of university resources to advocate for abortion would violate its Catholic moral commitments. Thus, as a condition of recognition, its mission was limited to promoting “awareness and discussion of the arguments central to the abortion debate.” That is, H*yas for Choice could not fund, advertise or otherwise support the practice of abortion. But after just a year, it was accused of violating its charter by escorting women inside abortion clinics; the group was defunded in 1992. This episode demonstrates the crucial distinction between speech and action.
As a university, Georgetown is committed to defending free speech. However, this does not mean that Georgetown is obligated to materially support every viewpoint or cause found on campus.
Thus, Georgetown is not “prioritiz[ing] free speech over religious policy,” as has been claimed. Instead, Georgetown is simultaneously respecting both commitments, allowing dissenting opinions while upholding its moral values. The more fundamental question raised by this debate, then, is whether Georgetown should have a moral stance in the first place.
The university and its students have benefited from Georgetown’s moral commitments. Students of all stripes frequently urge the university to take moral stances in light of its Catholic and Jesuit identity. When the university renegotiated its contract with Nike, for instance, it did so with an eye to Catholic teaching, thanks to the efforts of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. When it adopted its Socially Responsible Investment Policy, it did so in accordance with Catholic social thought thanks to Georgetown University Fossil Free and Georgetown University Forming a Radically Ethical Endowment, two groups focused on shaping how Georgetown invests its endowment. These student-led changes came about precisely because the Georgetown community shares a moral framework to which it can collectively turn.
If the university were to recognize and fund H*yas for Choice, it would cut itself loose from the framework that has guided its pursuit of social justice. Doing so would potentially pit the various interests of the Georgetown community against one another without any common principles with which to build consensus.
If the university does not have a framework to which it strictly adheres, it would no longer have objective grounds to make and uphold its decisions. Instead, it would merely be subject to the prevailing opinion of the day.
Anyone advocating for the recognition of H*yas for Choice must acknowledge that Georgetown is indeed a forum for all speech, one in which H*yas for Choice is among the most prominent voices. More importantly, H*yas for Choice proponents must explain how a morally neutral university is preferable to a morally committed one. The question of taking a moral stance is not a matter of prioritizing values but a conflict that cuts to the heart of Georgetown’s Catholic identity. One can debate whether Georgetown should preserve its Catholic framework or adopt a new morality, but to advocate that the university violate its own principles is to advocate a policy of hypocrisy.
Richard Howell is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.