Inciting campus-wide dialogue and protest surrounding abortion rights, the Georgetown University Lecture Fund’s decision to invite Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to speak Wednesday was met with formal opposition from several Georgetown Jesuits, Catholic officials and anti-abortion student groups.
Associate professor Fr. Stephen Fields, S.J., and visiting professor of law Fr. Ladislas Orsy, S.J., presented a proposal to introduce an anti-abortion counterview into the event, a culmination of a four-yearslong effort by the Lecture Fund to bring Richards to campus, but it was rejected by Lecture Fund at its meeting March 29.
In addition to attempts to prevent Richards from speaking or altering the format of the event, initial efforts to see the event held in Gaston Hall were met with resistance by the university, according to leaders of the Lecture Fund and Georgetown University Right to Life.
Georgetown University Right to Life President Michael Khan (COL ’18) said following a meeting between Vita Saxa, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life and university administrators Feb. 29, Vice President of Mission and ministry Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J., approached the Lecture Fund to express concerns about holding the event in Gaston Hall.
According to Vice Chair of Finance for the Lecture Fund Elizabeth Rich (COL ’16), a co-planner and moderator of the event, the Catholic community on campus spurred the change of the event’s venue to the McDonough School of Business’ Lohrfink Auditorium.
“I do know that it was Fr. O’Brien who definitely brought that to their attention,” Khan said.
O’Brien has not replied to a request for comment as of press time.
Khan said anti-abortion advocates’ major concern with holding the event in Gaston Hall regarded the hall’s extensive history and its cross and Georgetown seal, maintaining that providing the venue as a backdrop for a pro-abortion rights speaker would resemble an implicit endorsement by the university.
A Jesuit Proposal Rejected
Fields and Orsy proposed that the Lecture Fund invite an anti-abortion speaker of equal caliber to Richards to the event, such as George Mason University School of Law professor and anti-abortion advocate Helen Alvaré or anti-abortion liberal columnist Kirsten Powers.
“We thought that [the Lecture Fund] would surely be interested in a full, free exchange of ideas, so we suggested that they have someone like Helen Alvaré or Kirsten Powers come, not as a debate, but perhaps as two speakers,” Fields said. “Then both of them together would field questions from everybody in the audience and that way both sides of the issue could be aired and the opinions of our students could be helpfully informed on the spot.”
Fields and Orsy met in the Jesuit Residence at Wolfington Hall on March 18 with three university administrators and the 16 available members of the Lecture Fund’s Associate Board to deliver the proposal.
The result of the vote — after concluding deliberations that began at the previous Lecture Fund Associate Board meeting March 22 — was clear. The board voted by a majority to keep the event as planned.
Chair of the executive board for the Lecture Fund Helen Brosnan (COL ’16), who co-planned the event, said obligations grounded in the group’s policy and constitution to honor previous invitations to Richards to speak unchallenged, were the major motivations behind rejecting the proposal.
According to Rich, logistical concerns also played a role in the vote’s outcome.
“We were so far along in planning and the logistics of this event, it just did not seem appropriate, and the whole entire Lecture Fund board agreed that we wanted to keep the event as it was,” Rich said.
Khan said logistical concerns aside, the Lecture Fund’s denial of a proposal for a balanced program illustrates its lack of commitment to genuine discourse.
“To host this event, and even worse to hold this speaker unchallenged, really shows to me that the Lecture Fund is not committed to true dialogue,” Khan said.
While a joint-speaker event was not realized, Vita Saxa did host anti-abortion advocate Abby Johnson — a former Planned-Parenthood-clinic-director-turned-activist — for an event in Dahlgren Chapel on Wednesday.
An Idea Long in the Making
The conversation with Richards was in development long before the Jesuit proposal in March. The idea for the event had been simmering in both Brosnan and Rich’s minds since their freshman years. On their applications they had each marked Richards’ name on their ‘dream list’ of speakers.
“This has been one of my career goals at Georgetown, to bring her, so it’s been a long process,” Brosnan said.
Brosnan met with the two prior presidents of the student group H*yas for Choice Laura Narefsky (COL ’14) and Abigail Grace (SFS ’16) over her sophomore and junior years to strategize.
According to Rich, the Lecture Fund had extended official invitations to Richards without success in past semesters.
Then, early in October 2015, Rich contacted Richards again, emailing a formal letter of invitation to Planned Parenthood’s generic contact email address.
Richards’ team quickly replied, requesting the Lecture Fund to follow up in January or February. Following a subsequent letter from Brosnan in December and a third from Rich in January, Richards officially accepted the invitation and the Lecture Fund began preparing for her arrival, booking large venues on campus such as Gaston Hall and notifying the university of its plans formally in mid-January.
Later, in early February, Brosnan met with numerous administrators from around campus, confirming in person that the event was scheduled and asking for their input, concerns and suggestions.
“I must have had in February — the first weeks of February alone — 10 different meetings with people from all over the university, like upper level administrators,” Brosnan said.
After notifying both H*yas for choice and GU Right to Life of the plan for the event later in February, the Lecture Fund released a press statement announcing the event to the public March 3, the same day that the university issued a public statement supporting both the “free exchange of ideas” and “the sanctity and human dignity of every life at every stage.”
Disagreement Off Campus
In addition to Fields and Orsy’s objections to the format of the event, Richards’ speech on campus was formally opposed by the Catholic Daughters of America, The Cardinal Newman Society, the Archdiocese of Washington and the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
Vice President of the Catholic Daughters of America Julie Reiter (NHS ’17) raised strong objections during the regularly scheduled meeting of the university’s Speech and Expression Committee on March 30.
At the meeting, Reiter, supported by two other students from GU Right to Life, argued under the university’s Speech and Expression Policy that Richards’ views could be judged “grossly obscene” and therefore be impermissible on campus, and under the university’s Access to Benefits policy, that the Lecture Fund’s invitation of Richards “substantially [advocated] positions inconsistent with Roman Catholic moral tradition” and should therefore halt her speech.
Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Erika Cohen Derr, who serves on the committee, said it understood the students’ concerns and gave them feedback about the committee’s interpretation of university policy.
Reiter said the committee informed her that her objections did not stand.
“We received an explanation in the meeting as to why our proposal did not hold ground,” Reiter said. “I thought that the administrators were very thoughtful, but in the end that we agreed to disagree.”
Directly following the March 3 announcement, the Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement urging the Jesuit community to better impart Catholic values on campus.
The Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Catholic values, also created an online petition against the event that garnered over 14,700 signatures as of April 18.
Additionally, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a network that serves to promote Catholic ideals, demonstrated against the event at the campus gates on April 4 and on Wednesday.
Director of Student Activities for the TFP John Ritchie said in allowing Richard to come to campus, Georgetown disgraced its reputation as the oldest Catholic university in the country.
“We think it’s a real shame to see Cecile Richards come to campus and disgrace the honor of the Catholic Church,” Ritchie said. “I think the only circumstance that would allow Cecile Richards to come to campus would be if she came to ask for pardon for the 2.8 million babies she saw killed under her direction as president of Planned Parenthood. We’re praying that Georgetown will be able to restore and recover its identity.”
At least two other petitions in opposition to the event circulated, one published by Maya M. Noronha (COL ’05, LAW ’10) on March 7 in conjunction with GU Right to Life that gained over 230 signatures from university community members and another co-sponsored by Students for Life of America and GU Right to Life last month with over 9,800 signatures as of press time.
On April 8, university president John J. DeGioia hosted a group of anti-abortion student leaders and activists for about an hour in his office in Healy Hall, listening to their concerns about Richards’ coming speech.
Khan, who attended the meeting, said that while DeGioia seemed sympathetic to the students’ concerns, no action occurred as a result of the meeting.
“He really wanted to listen, so we expressed our objections, our concerns and how we think this not only violates the mission of our school but the free speech codes,” Khan said. “We got out of that [meeting] probably what we expected to, which was not much.”
Rich said the Lecture Fund is surprised by the intensity of the response, which culminates in GU Right to Life’s “Life Week” events from April 18 to 22. Vita Saxa’s annual Life Week corresponds to Richards’ visit.
“I don’t think we anticipated the amount of attention that we got … [but] it has raised awareness that this conversation is happening and I think it has engaged more of campus,” Rich said. “It’s good to see our work is paying off.”
President of H*yas for Choice Sophia Kleyman (COL ’16) said she is disappointed in the university’s response to the event.
“It’s a little disappointing that the university or that administrators are in such strong opposition to this,” Kleyman said.
A Path to Further Dialogue
Looking ahead, Hunter Estes (SFS ’19), tabling co-chair for GU Right to Life, said he hopes the Lecture Fund will work with the university in the future to host a more balanced event around this debate in the coming semester.
“I would really hope that in the coming semester that the Lecture Fund and the administration can work together in a combined effort to bring two speakers of equal caliber who can equally explain and pronounce their views rationally to the community and then have a dialogue,” Estes said.
Brosnan said a balanced event could be valuable to Georgetown’s campus in a future semester, perhaps this coming fall.
“I would love [a balanced dialogue] and I frankly would love that among students,” Brosnan said. “And I think it would be a great follow-up to this event in the fall.”
Hoya Staff Writers Ashwin Puri, Toby Hung and Christian Paz contributed reporting.
Correction: This article previously stated that Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and anti-abortion advocate Abby Johnson spoke at Georgetown on Thursday. They spoke on Wednesday. The article also previously stated that the Georgetown University Lecture Fund rejected a proposal to host an anti-abortion voice in an open-forum meeting; this meeting was closed.