NEW YORK — When Stephanie Toti arrives before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, the adjunct law professor at Fordham University School of Law will argue a landmark case that could decide what power states have to regulate abortion facilities.
However, the Jesuit-run university will likely not be breaking out the champagne glasses to celebrate the critical role Toti, a Fordham alumna, is playing in U.S. legal history. Toti is lead counsel in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole for her firm, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which specializes in advocating for legal abortion rights and is representing Texas abortion providers.
The Register reached out to Fordham University about Toti’s role at the university but did not receive a response by publication time. Apparently, Toti’s work with CRR was not unknown to Fordham: Her profile on the law school’s website shows she has worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights from 2006 to the present. The same page indicates that Toti has been teaching “Legal Writing for LLMs” at Fordham from 2008 to the present.
According to Toti’s profile at CRR, she also “teaches courses on comparative reproductive rights and legal writing” at Fordham (an assertion confirmed by an online listing of spring 2015 Fordham law school courses). In addition to highlighting her role as lead counsel in Women’s Health v. Cole, her profile also highlights Toti’s role in challenging a number of abortion regulation laws in Oklahoma, along with assisting the city of Baltimore in defending “a first-in-the-nation ordinance regulating the deceptive practices of crisis-pregnancy centers.”
The Register reached out to Toti but received no response by deadline. But according to a Feb. 3 article published by Law.com, Toti became a staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights in 2006 because “she decided to use her skills to advance the cause of women’s equality. That cause, she said, is inextricably entwined today with abortion rights.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Catholic identity in academia, told the Register that Toti’s principal employment at a firm dedicated to advancing legal abortion is cause for concern.
“Toti’s work at the Center for Reproductive Rights opposes Catholic teaching, attacks human dignity and threatens innocent lives,” he said. “That’s directly opposite of the witness that an educator at a Catholic university should provide to students, in both words and action.”
Toti’s status as senior staff attorney in a firm dedicated to the advancement of legal abortion constitutes what Catholic moral theologians call “formal cooperation in evil.”
“Abortion is certainly one of the most grave of immoral actions, and there is no question that her support [for it] is clearly formal toward that type of action,” John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told the Register.
A Question of Scandal
But when it comes to Fordham University, DiCamillo said the moral concerns involve “more a question of scandal than cooperation.”
“So long as the reason she is hired and the work she is doing is not to promote that immoral activity [abortion], then there would not necessarily be formal cooperation on the part of the university with what she is doing,” he said.
The problem for Fordham, however, is that Toti is a public, high-profile figure whose well-known advocacy for abortion forces the university to “take seriously the question of scandal.”
DiCamillo said the nature of the firm she works for and its aims, which clearly contradict the Church’s teaching on human life and dignity, are grave enough that her employment by Fordham “could seriously compromise the Catholic identity of the institution.”
“It’s an entire organization dedicated to essentially promoting abortion rights, and that in itself — aside from the fact that she’s working this high-profile case in particular — already speaks to a very serious scandal question,” he said.
Scandal, DiCamillo explained, is not simply the issue of someone taking offense. In the Church’s moral theology, scandal means an act that leads others into morally wrong choices or sin. Toti’s status as a Fordham adjunct, he said, “gives the impression that [abortion] is not such a serious issue.”
DiCamillo added that this can have added moral consequences for law students who may conclude they can use their legal talents to advocate for abortion or that “you don’t have to be against abortion to be a faithful Catholic.”
Responsibilities of Universities
According to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education, “The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.”
The 1990 apostolic constitution also adds that the university’s authorities have to “watch over these two fundamental needs in accordance with what is indicated in canon law.”
The canon cited in Ex Corde is Canon 810, which explains that universities’ authorities are not only to hire professors that have academic and teaching excellence, but “also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and probity of life; when those requisite qualities are lacking, they are to be removed from their positions in accord with the procedure set forth in the statutes.”
It also states that “all teachers and all administrators” must be informed from the start that they have a responsibility to promote, or at least respect, the university’s Catholic identity.
Reilly, himself a 1991 Fordham alumnus, who founded the Cardinal Newman Society two years later over concerns about his alma mater’s Catholic identity, said that Fordham is not alone when it comes to Catholic universities employing professors who are known to have formally advocated for abortion — not just having a personal opinion in favor of legal abortion.
“Many Catholic colleges expect little of their professors in advancing a Catholic mission, but the expectations are even lower for adjuncts,” said Reilly. “Usually, it’s simply a matter of having no clear understanding and appreciation for Catholic teaching and practice, but we’ve also seen serious scandals.”
Reilly referred to the Newman Society’s 2015 report, “A More Scandalous Relationship: Catholic Colleges and Planned Parenthood,” which identified five adjunct professors at Georgetown University who had professional relationships with Planned Parenthood groups. One of the professors listed, Zoe Segal-Reichlin, had served as adjunct at Georgetown University Law Center before taking a job as associate general counsel of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Segal-Reichlin did cease working at Georgetown in December 2010, according to her LinkedIn profile: however, that took place approximately nine months after working full-time in Planned Parenthood’s legal department.
The College of Mount St. Vincent defended its employment of Bianca Laureano as an adjunct professor teaching on human sexuality, even though Laureano video-blogged about her work as an “abortion doula.” Laureano’s name can be found in a search of the college’s directory, and Laureano still lists herself as employed at the college on her website. However, the last comment left on “RateMyProfessor” was from May 2013 and indicated she was leaving the school.
Other institutions, however, have taken matters seriously and dismissed adjuncts. In 2011, for example, Chestnut Hill College declined to renew an adjunct priest’s contract for teaching theology because he had made public on his blog his long-term homosexual relationship, which the college’s administrators noted was in open opposition to the teaching of the Church.
“This should raise alarms at Fordham, especially in light of its mission statement, which affirms ‘the dignity and uniqueness of each person,’” Reilly said. “It’s essential that Fordham reforms its hiring policies to prevent employment for any professor who actively denigrates humanity and denies the basic human right to life.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.