How Georgetown fosters a civil debate on abortion (COMMENTARY)

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Georgetown University's Healy Hall

Photo courtesy of Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Georgetown University's Healy Hall in Washington, D.C.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards speaks at an event to publicly endorse U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Hooksett, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GEORGETOWN-RICHARDS, originally transmitted on March 7, 2016, and with RNS-LUPFER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on April 14, 2016.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards speaks at an event to publicly endorse Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Hooksett, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GEORGETOWN-RICHARDS, originally transmitted on March 7, 2016, and with RNS-LUPFER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on April 14, 2016.

(RNS) The news that Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards will speak at Georgetown University reignited a perennial debate about freedom and identity in religious universities, particularly Catholic institutions.

Such was the case when President Barack Obama addressed Notre Dame’s graduating class in 2009. A similar furor erupted at Georgetown when then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke at its 2012 commencement. Sebelius, a Roman Catholic, is an ardent defender of abortion rights and of the Obama administration’s rule that insurers must cover artificial contraception, which the Catholic Church opposes.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, called the Sebelius invitation “shocking.” Yet in very tangible and important ways, the archdiocese has a good working relationship with the nation’s oldest Catholic university.

While controversial speakers and protests generate headlines, Georgetown continually cultivates diverse and robust discussions of complex ethical issues.


RELATED STORY: Washington cardinal rebukes Georgetown for inviting Planned Parenthood chief


John Carr, 2nd from left, Director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, discusses abortion and Pope Francis' "throwaway culture" with Prof. Helen Alvaré, far left, Sr. Norma Pimentel, second right, and Prof. Charles Camosy, far right. Religion News Service photo by Jacob Lupfer

John Carr, 2nd from left, Director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, discusses abortion and Pope Francis’ “throwaway culture” with Prof. Helen Alvaré, far left, Sr. Norma Pimentel, second right, and Prof. Charles Camosy, far right. Religion News Service photo by Jacob Lupfer

On Tuesday (April 12), on its northwest Washington campus, Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life held a panel discussion with two lay Catholics and a woman religious. All three are deeply engaged as scholars and activists in opposing abortion.

In opening remarks, John DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, affirmed that as “beneficiaries of a profound moral and spiritual tradition,” a Jesuit university might have preferences about how an academic inquiry will turn out. Even so, he added, “We can never let our interests impede the open exchange of ideas and perspectives.”

In the two hours that followed, the panelists spoke forcefully and unapologetically about the urgency of protecting life at its most vulnerable and of their quibbles with the presuppositions and consequences of support for abortion rights.

The event had been conceived before a student-run group invited Richards to speak, but organizers saw it as an opportunity to offer a clear and affirmative discussion on protecting human life and dignity using Pope Francis’ metaphor of the “throwaway culture” as a starting point.

On the same day of Richards’ speech (April 20), Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood staffer turned abortion opponent, is also expected to speak.

In addition, Georgetown students who oppose abortion are holding an event called “Life-Affirming Alternatives to Planned Parenthood,” featuring U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and a panel of women’s health experts.

I have been plodding through a Ph.D. program at Georgetown for longer than I care to admit. When I arrived, I was an ardent secularist who disdained Catholic teaching on human sexuality and life issues. I only hoped Georgetown’s religious identity would not unduly interfere with my intellectual pursuits.


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Today, I find myself surprisingly sympathetic to views I once considered abhorrent. Where I still disagree, I at least acknowledge my respect for church teaching and for the men and women who faithfully promote it. By fostering an environment of freedom, openness and honest inquiry, Georgetown created the conditions for me to see the moral weight and internal consistency of Catholic social teaching.

I find the conservative critique that “Georgetown is not Catholic enough” to be weak and misinformed.

At a recent Mass on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (which celebrates the angel’s announcement that Mary was pregnant with the incarnate Son of God), a Jesuit priest led worshippers in prayers for all unborn children and for a culture that protects human life, especially at its most vulnerable.

Georgetown University's Healy Hall in Washington, D.C.

Photo courtesy of Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Georgetown University’s Healy Hall in Washington, D.C.

Against a backdrop of daily Masses, active Catholic student groups and visible institutional support for conferences, events and activities where abortion opponents engage in persuasion and activism, the idea that Georgetown is hopelessly liberal or insufficiently Catholic is simply indefensible.

But I would not have opened my mind to the Catholic moral tradition in an environment where abortion rights supporters are forbidden from even speaking. I needed to hear abortion opponents’ most rigorous and compelling arguments to see any intellectual feebleness in the fashionable elite opinion that legal abortion is the definitive guarantor of women’s liberation and equality.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

I had been immersed in religion since childhood. I came to Georgetown, which I supposed to be mostly secular, to escape primitive superstitions and move on with my professional life. Instead, I re-engaged religious questions in the most stimulating environment imaginable for such pursuits.

Georgetown and its leaders deserve our thanks and respect for so effectively and faithfully modeling vigorous and civil debate on the great ethical questions of our time. Surely this is vital for a moral citizen’s education. It has certainly been foundational to mine.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

 

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  • yoh

    Interesting that the anti abortion crowd was the one least receptive to the idea of civil debate on the aubject. But it’s not surprising.

    The anti-abortion stance posits that self righteous moralizing types have a right to override personal decisions of women. So naturally they have no desire to hear what others have to say. They know better and don’t care about the concerns people would have.

    Of course there is no need for debate. What a woman does with her pregnancy is nobody’s business but hers. Nobody else has a right to make decisions for her in this regard.

  • Chris1122

    No, no…it is most often pro-choicers who want no debate on this topic. Even at a place like Oxford:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-down-abortion-debate.-Free-speech-is-under-assault-on-campus.html

    Your own comment makes this very point. You don’t think there should be debate either.

  • yoh

    It was American Catholic hierarchy which opposed having the head of planned Parenthood on campus. An op-ed from a UK source on a local issue for them is an irrelevancy here. Try again.

    I don’t think for one moment the anti abortion crowd is reasonable enough to bother with debate. The onerous attempts at a defacto abortion ban in the US show a lack of good faith efforts on their part. Plus the character assassination attempt don’t help credibility either. Nor the violent rhetoric against abortion supporters and providers. Add to that the basic dishonesty of anti abortion rhetoric doesn’t do much for garnering civil respect from opponents.

    Not worth the effort. Simply put, this would not be an issue if there was a modicum of respect for the lives and privacy others.

  • G Key

    Chris1122 says “either”. Yoh says “bother”.
    Let’s call the whole thing off.

    The alternative is so much better: the last person standing wins.
    Right?

    Or maybe both sides could just respect each others’ boundaries and leave each others’ private lives & beliefs alone.

  • Chris1122

    Of course “leaving each other alone” is not how justice for the most vulnerable works. When you “leave each other alone” the powerful dominate (and sometimes even kill) the weak.

  • G Key

    On Spiritual/Existential Beliefs

    Some believe life begins at birth.
    Some believe life begins at 26 weeks.
    Some believe life begins at 20 weeks.
    Some believe life begins when fetal movement can be seen.
    Some believe life begins when a fetal heartbeat can be heard.
    Some believe life begins when a zygote attaches to a uterus.
    Some believe life begins when an ovum is fertilized.
    Some believe life begins when an ovum exists.

    Everyone has their own beliefs.
    Everyone cherishes their own beliefs.
    Everyone has a right to their own beliefs.
    Everyone cherishes their right to their own beliefs.

    One’s beliefs are not more “valid” than another’s.
    One’s beliefs are not more “important” than another’s.
    One’s beliefs do not trump another’s.
    One’s beliefs do not govern another’s.

    What matters is one’s right to hold oneself to one’s beliefs.
    What matters are others’ rights to hold themselves to their beliefs.

    This may or may not be wisdom.
    But this is America.