Editor’s note: This article was updated March 8 to include Cardinal Donald Wuerl's comments.
WASHINGTON — Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the United States, will speak sometime next month at Georgetown University, the country’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university.
Richards was invited to speak by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, a non-partisan student-run organization that says it strives to bring speakers to Georgetown’s campus “to enlighten, educate and, occasionally, entertain.”
Helen Brosnan, the student executive board chairperson at the Lecture Fund, told the Register in an emailed statement that Richards’ talk will not be open to the public, and only those with a Georgetown University identification will be allowed to attend.
“We extend invitations to any and all speakers, they accept or deny the invitation, and we plan accordingly,” Brosnan said.
That the leader of the country’s largest pro-abortion organization has been invited to speak at a Catholic university angered several pro-life activists and Catholic observers, including Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life.
“The abortion controversy is not about viewpoints, but about victims,” Father Pavone told the Register. “It is not simply about beliefs, but about bloodshed.”
Georgetown University released a statement on March 3 noting that Richards is not being paid to speak, and student groups may invite any outside speakers and guests to campus. The university added: “An appearance of any speaker or guest on campus is not an endorsement by the university.”
The university also said that it strives to ensure its Catholic and Jesuit values, “while at the same time providing a forum that does not limit speech either in the content of the view being expressed or the speaker expressing the view.”
Patrick Reilly, president and CEO of the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit with the stated mission to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” told the Register that while Georgetown says it is committed to the free exchange of ideas, “we’ve seen how this plays out time and again.”
“There will be no effort to ‘exchange’ any notion of Catholic moral teaching with Cecile Richards,” Reilly said. “No, Georgetown will sit back and allow a prominent public figure responsible for the deaths of more than 2.8 million babies to spout off to its undergraduates. It is one more example of Georgetown’s legacy of Catholic-identity abuse.”
Father Pavone also said that allowing Richards to speak on campus “is not a matter of free speech or academic freedom.”
“Georgetown University’s defense for inviting the head of the largest criminal enterprise and child-killing industry in America adds more evidence to the argument I advanced in my new book, Abolishing Abortion: that the debate over abortion — even within the Church — has become far too abstract for our own good,” Father Pavone said.
Lila Rose, president of Live Action, the pro-life media organization that has investigated Planned Parenthood and works to build a culture of life, told the Register that allowing Richards to have a platform at Georgetown University is “gravely wrong” and antithetical to the university’s Catholic identity.
“Over 320,000 children a year have their lives ended. Those children — their stories and the beautiful purpose that God had and the love he had for each of them — are not with us because of Planned Parenthood,” said Rose, who added that it would have been a different matter had Richards been invited to debate someone articulating the pro-life position.
“But she has been given a platform to express the extreme pro-abortion position that she upholds,” Rose said.
In addition to arranging forums on a variety of topics that range from nuclear-energy alternatives to urban economics, the Lecture Fund, according to its website, also hosts “an active calendar of individual speakers who address a wide range of subjects and disciplines.” Previous speakers have included Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, actor Bradley Cooper and billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet.
The Lecture Fund’s board consists of only undergraduate students, said Brosnan, who added that the student-run organization exists “to enrich the academic experience of the Georgetown community.” Like all past lectures, Richards’ talk, which is free of charge to those who attend, will be followed by a question-and-answer period.
In its official statement, Georgetown University said it respects students’ rights to express their personal views and is committed to sustaining a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas may be difficult, controversial or objectionable to some. Georgetown University also said its long-standing “Speech and Expression Policy” governs the university’s response to controversial speech.
Father Pavone noted that the university’s policy also says that the right of free speech and expression does not include “activity that endangers or imminently threatens to endanger the safety of any member of the community.”
“Cecile Richards’ speech as well as actions endanger and imminently threaten the unborn, including those whose parents may be on campus,” said Father Pavone, adding that the policy also states that speech that is “grossly offensive on matters such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation” is inappropriate in a university community.
Said Father Pavone, “I would argue that, based on the same reasoning, and grossly offensive language of Cecile Richards and Planned Parenthood toward the unborn, refusing to recognize their humanity and basic rights, based on age and dependency, is likewise inappropriate.”
Abortion, Contraception and Fetal Body Parts
Along with Planned Parenthood’s provision of more than 2.8 million abortions since Richards became its president in 2006, the Cardinal Newman Society highlighted Planned Parenthood’s advocacy of birth control, including abortifacient contraceptives commonly referred to as the “morning-after pill,” as well as the series of undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress that purport to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the procurement and sale of fetal body parts for profit, which is against federal law.
The videos prompted several state and congressional investigations, though Planned Parenthood officials say those probes have not uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing.
Responding to the undercover videos, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, then the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said last summer that the news stories concerning Planned Parenthood focused attention on two larger issues in society.
“The first is abortion itself: a direct attack on human life in its most vulnerable condition,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “The second is the now-standard practice of obtaining fetal organs and tissues through abortion. Both actions fail to respect the humanity and dignity of human life. This fact should be the center of attention in the present public controversy.”
In a recent fact sheet on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest provider of abortion. From 2014-2015, Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 323,999 abortions. Planned Parenthood today performs one out of every three abortions in the United States and provides almost 17 times more abortions than birth-oriented services.
Rose said Georgetown University would likely never allow speakers on campus who espouse violent ideologies, such as Ku Klux Klansmen or Islamic State militant fighters.
“Georgetown has the right as a private university to uphold the values of the school,” Rose said. “If the school has Catholic values and promotes human rights in general, giving a platform to the most extreme abortion group flies in the face of justice, and it’s really a promotion of abortion, which is a grievous moral wrong as well.”
Said Rose, “Ultimately, Georgetown is espousing the most violent and unjust ideology of the day, which is the pro-abortion ideology.”
In a statement released March 7, Cardinal Wuerl said that Richards’ Georgetown appearance was incompatible with the values that should prevail on an authentically Catholic university’s campus.
“What we lament and find sadly lacking in this choice by the student group is any reflection of what should be an environment of morality, ethics and human decency that one expects on a campus that asserts its Jesuit and Catholic history and identity,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
“One would prefer to see some recognition by this student group of the lives and ministry, focus and values of people like Blessed Óscar Romero, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Pope Francis in place of that group’s seemingly constant preoccupation with sexual activity, contraception and abortion. The Archdiocese of Washington is always open and ready to dialogue with the students, faculty and administration of the university on issues of such significance.
“The apparent unawareness of those pushing the violence of abortion and the denigration of human dignity that there are other human values and issues being challenged in the world lends credence to the perception of the ‘ivory tower’ life of some on campus. This, unfortunately, does not speak well for the future. One would hope to see this generation of Georgetown graduates have a far less self-absorbed attitude when facing neighbors and those in need, especially the most vulnerable among us.”
Added Cardinal Wuerl, “Perhaps those so interested in learning more about the killing of unborn babies and disrespect for the dignity of all human life might take a look at the recent America magazine issue that speaks at length about the extent of violence and persecution the people of faith around the world suffer. It would be beneficial for these Georgetown University students to learn more about these serious problems in the world. The contribution to a better world today can take inspiration from the Gospel and its proponents, such as Pope Francis, and from the Jubilee Year of Mercy, rather than from the organized efforts to facilitate the violent destruction of unborn children.”
Concluded the cardinal, “The Jesuit community on campus clearly has its work cut out for it and a long way to go as it tries to instill at Georgetown some of the values of Pope Francis. Until then, it is hard wholeheartedly to share in the cry, ‘Go Hoyas!’”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.