WASHINGTON — The 14th annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, the nation’s largest student-run pro-life conference, was held Jan. 26 at Georgetown University, the day after the March for Life.
With 695 registrants, it was the largest conference to date. The conference, which is always held at Georgetown, is named in memory of the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, whose pro-life ministry was a central focus throughout his 16 years of service as the archbishop of New York City.
Simultaneously, on the other side of Washington, Students for Life of America (SFLA) was hosting its national conference. The focus of the two conferences was different but complementary.
“We’re targeting different demographics. SFLA targets activists, while we talk about the philosophy behind the life issues,” explained Kelly Thomas, co-director of the Cardinal O’Connor Conference. Thomas is a sophomore in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
“Our goal is to help people be grounded, so they understand why we are against abortion, why we stand against the death penalty, so they don’t have to just say: ‘I’m against abortion because I’m a Catholic’ — because they need to understand the natural law behind why.”
“We want people to leave with the intellectual and philosophical basis to create a culture of life,” Thomas added.
True to that goal, the lineup of speakers and topics focused on the most serious pro-life issues.
“The Injustice of Assisted Reproductive Technologies,” “The Pro-Life Movement and the Death Penalty,” “Fertility Awareness” and “Refuse to Choose: Reclaiming Feminism” were the titles of some of the breakout sessions. An afternoon panel discussion on “Women Leaders of the Pro-Life Movement” featured Lila Rose, founder of Live Action; Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List; Sister of Life Veronica Mary, outgoing director of the Archdiocese of New York Family Life/Respect Life Office; and Melissa Ohden, an abortion survivor.
‘Sex Makes Babies’
The keynote address was given by Helen Alvaré, an associate professor of law at George Mason University who is emerging as a leader on the topics of true womanhood, marriage and family life from a Catholic perspective.
With humor, charm and authority, Alvaré issued an eloquent invitation to join the culture of life.
She urged the students to reject the sexual revolution.
“Sex makes babies! What a radical idea!” she said humorously, adding more seriously, “When you date somebody, you have to look at them and think, ‘You might make me a mother; I might make you a father.’ That certainly scrambles some contemporary dating practices, doesn’t it?”
Alvaré contrasted the individualism of the sexual revolution with a pro-life ethic rooted in “the whole social-justice tradition based on living out our communal being.” She urged students to learn to “walk the walk of interdependence and taking care of others,” cautioning them that being pro-life means “living in service for others.”
The “Women Leaders” panel was moderated by Jeanne Lord, a professor of Catholic studies at Georgetown. Another Georgetown faculty member, Jesuit Father Stephen Fields, spoke at a breakout session on “Pro-Life Theology.” Father Fields, an associate professor of theology, is chaplain of the campus’ Knights of Columbus chapter.
The conference was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus' Georgetown University Council 6375, Georgetown University Right to Life and Georgetown University Catholic Daughters of the Americas.
Additional sponsorship came from 20 organizations that rented literature tables at the conference. A visit along the array of tables provided a glimpse into the microcosm of the culture-of-life counterrevolution currently under way.
Crossroads, the pro-life campaign that organizes walks across the country every summer, had a busy table, selling t-shirts and collecting signatures. Also present was the World Youth Alliance, a group of more than a million young members worldwide that works to protect human dignity at the United Nations.
The Catholic Medical Association table was visited by students who are engaged in or considering medical studies; students could sign up to receive updates on medical issues from a Catholic perspective. Other tables included Feminists for Life, the Institute for Psychological Studies, the Knights of Columbus and Defend Life.
One of the most prominent presences belonged to Generation Life, a movement of young people who do pro-life and chastity education.
Young men and women sign up for a year to work as full-time, volunteer Generation Life chastity missionaries, fundraising their own expenses before dedicating 12 months to peer outreach. One project sends teams onto the beaches of South Jersey to talk with young people about chastity.
Last year, there were more applicants than the organization could accommodate. One young woman from Australia attended the 2012 Cardinal O’Connor Conference and stopped at the Generation Life table. She ended up becoming a missionary, and, next year, she plans to take Generation Life back to Australia.
Generation Life participants stress the connection between chastity and the life issues.
“80% of women who have abortions are not married to the father of the baby,” said Stephanie Deutsch, one of the group’s current missionaries. “Sexuality is misunderstood. That’s why we have a chastity education and activism branch.”
Connie Marshner writes from Washington.