On Jan. 19, Georgetown will host the 20th Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. Student awareness of the event remains surprisingly low despite its self-proclaimed status as the “largest collegiate pro-life conference in the nation,” the controversial speakers it invites and the alarmingly consistent presence of high-profile Georgetown administrators at the conference. As this year’s conference approached, I mentioned it to many peers, but it seems very few students know it exists.
Given the administrators in attendance — Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson, Dean of Students Jeanne Lorde and Assistant Vice President Erika Cohen are all regular attendees — clearly the conference has institutional support. However, as a community of students, it shouldn’t have ours. Hoyas need to know that it exists and fight its shameful, consistent and unchallenged presence on our campus.
Occurring annually on the heels of the March for Life, the world’s largest pro-life rally, the conference attracts speakers and attendees largely from high school and collegiate groups attending the march. So like it or not, this conference matters — hundreds of people who attend each year leave with a distorted impression of Georgetown students, our community, and our values.
The namesake of the conference, Cardinal John O’Connor (GRD ’70), is a stain on Georgetown’s legacy and a disgrace to our community’s values. A notorious homophobe, O’Connor actively worked against the LGBTQ+ community through his efforts to overturn New York’s ordinance against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, block AIDS education programs and prevent the distribution of condoms as the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay community.
O’Connor also had heavily misogynistic inclinations, claiming abortion is immoral in the case of rape or incest because rape is a “legally lesser evil” than abortion. Moreover, he brushed aside the deaths of thousands of women forced to resort to unsafe abortion prior to legalization with the comment that “the mothers involved could have chosen not to abort.”
To champion this man as “pro-life” is misleading and untrue, and to host a conference under his name insults these women and people who died of AIDS as a direct result of his harmful efforts. He has blood on his hands, and there should be no place for reverence of his name on our campus.
In addition to its regrettable namesake, the conference has a long history of bringing shameful and discriminatory speakers to campus. This year’s keynote speaker is Cardinal Timothy Dolan who, like O’Connor, is strikingly homophobic. Dolan has in the past called same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ families “detrimental to the common good” and a “perilous” act of “Orwellian social engineering.” He has also likened same-sex marriage to incest.
Further, Dolan is complicit in the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, attempting to shield church finances from damage suits by victims of childhood sexual abuse, and authorizing payments of as much as $20,000 to sexually abusive priests to ensure their quiet dismissal. Welcoming him to campus with open arms underscores the inaction of the University in the face of calls to revoke the honorary degrees of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who abused boys for decades, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who protected abusers.
Past speakers also include Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the namesake of the notorious Hyde Amendment, which prevents Medicaid funds from being used for abortion except in certain cases, shamelessly discriminating against poor women and women of color. Hyde brazenly admitted to his targeting of vulnerable women in Congress stating “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the … Medicaid bill.”
This conference promotes itself as the exemplary vision of the pro-life movement, claiming to foster “discourse on the sanctity of human life.” And yet, the conference’s singular focus on abortion suggests an indifference to the countless undeniable threats to human life. The conference fails to have a single breakout session or panel engage with war, migration, transphobia, police brutality, gun violence, environmental degradation, or the overwhelming majority of issues outside of abortion that indisputably threaten the lives of vulnerable people. It’s not a conference about life. It’s about abortion — or more specifically, making sure people can’t access abortion.
The Georgetown administration actively supports the Cardinal O’Connor Conference, but we shouldn’t. I believe in a Georgetown community that does not support homophobia, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, or the denial of reproductive healthcare. If you agree that this conference is not the Georgetown we want to present to the world, join me to protest outside Healy Hall on Saturday to make our disapproval known.
This viewpoint was updated on Jan. 16 to account for additional information on Cardinal O’Connor Conference breakout panels.
Elianna Schiffrik is a Sophomore in the SFS studying International Politics. She is also Co-Director of Media and Communications for H*yas for Choice.