ANN ARBOR, Mich. — They have no hired staff, their colleagues tend to disdain them and the mainstream media almost always ignore them, but nearly 300 professors — most from the United States — are using their intellects and research to try to raise public awareness about pro-life issues.
About 80 of those professors attended the University Faculty for Life's (UFL) 12th annual meeting in June at the Ave Maria School of Law. Speakers included political science professor Hadley Arkes of Amherst College in Massachusetts, author of the book First Things and an expert who has testified before Congress on abortion. Other attendees included theologians, philosophers and lawyers from both secular and religious colleges.
The organization was founded after a meeting of the American Collegians for Life in 1989. There, Jack Wilke, the former president of the National Right to Life Committee, gave a speech in which he highlighted the absence of a faculty pro-life organization.
Jesuit Father Thomas King, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, and several other professors — including Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, now president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. — took Wilke's message to heart and founded UFL.
Father King said he was also motivated to start UFL by a desire to answer the criticism of media mogul Ted Turner. “Turner said, ‘Pro-lifers are idiots and ding-dongs,’” Father King said. “[Through UFL] we want people to know that some of those ‘idiots’ are university professors.”
According to its brochure and Web site, UFL is concerned with the value of human life from conception to natural death and particularly focuses on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Beyond that Father King, who still serves as UFL's president, said he sees two main goals for the organization: First, to give pro-life professors the means to speak confidently about issues relating to life from conception to natural death. Second, to let the public know that there are pro-life instructors in college.
While UFL counts two priests among its founders, the organization is not made up entirely of Catholics. Many of the professors espouse other religions and at least one is an atheist, Father King said.
Media Ignore Message
Still, Father King worried that UFL's message is not getting across.
“It's been very hard for us to get press coverage,” he said. In fact, with the exception of a mention in two columns by Norah Vincent that ran in the Village Voice – a paper well-known for its liberal slant — UFL has been almost completely ignored.
Even among pro-life activists UFL is relatively unknown. Though she knows Father King and has asked him to speak at her events in the past, Nellie Gray, president of the March for Life, said that she did not know enough about UFL to comment on the organization.
“I have never been to one of their programs,” she said.
According to Teresa Collett, a longtime UFL member and a professor at the South Texas College of Law, much of the problem stems from the fact that UFL does not receive enough support from any single university to be able to hire a staff. As a result, she said, it falls to full-time professors, especially Father King, to organize UFL's quarterly newsletter and yearly conference in addition to fulfilling teaching duties.
“Ideally,” Collett said, “I would like to see some university that would have an Institute for Life Studies,” which would be a pro-life answer to Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute provides abortion statistics often considered more accurate than those of the Center for Disease Control.
Professor Richard Myers of Ave Maria School of Law acted as local host to UFL's June conference.
“UFL is a great organization,” he said, “and it fits in well with what we are trying to do at [Ave Maria].”
But Myers isn't sure that a college pro-life institute would solve what he sees as a bias against religious organizations. He pointed out that it is often easier to get research published if a professor teaches at a large, secular college, and that the prevailing academic and media bias might marginalize such an institute as it has tried to do to UFL.
A poll taken in January 2002 by the Luntz Research Center for the Study of Popular Culture revealed that most professors at America's top universities are pro-abortion. Only 1% of Ivy League professors thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, while 37% thought it should be legal in every case. In the general population, according to a Gallup poll in August 2001, only 26% believed abortion should be legal in all circumstances while 17% thought it should be illegal in all circumstances.
Such a poll comes as no surprise to Collett. Like Myers, she has seen academic hostility.
Collett recalled talking to the dean of a well-known law school. The dean said that she “could not” hire a pro-life professor at her school. The irony, according to Collett, was that the dean was a black woman. Especially given how much discrimination the black community has suffered historically, Collett said, she was shocked to hear this woman's blatantly discriminatory statement.
“I wanted to say to her, ‘Do you hear what you are saying?’” Collett said.
Because of the prevailing bias against pro-life academics in colleges, many young professors are counseled to “wait until they get tenure” before they publish anything that is pro-life, according to Collett. But since what is published early in a professor's career tends to be what he or she continues to work on, such work results in very little pro-life work being published.
Although such advice is given with good intentions, it is “warping,” Collett said. And then there are the “hostile” members of the academic community who are outraged by any pro-life publication.
Other secular university policies also contribute to an anti-life culture, Father King said. He warned that as long as colleges maintain current lax dorm policies that encourage casual sex, there will be no complete end to the perceived need for abortion.
“Many colleges have dorm policies that encourage recreational sex,” Father King said, and so abortion is seen as “a necessary backup as long as you have that whole culture.”
Signs of Hope
Despite its trials, Father King and others see signs of hope for UFL. And Teresa Collett said she thinks that the multidisciplinary approach of UFL is one of its greatest strengths.
“The interdisciplinary approach is a great advantage,” she said. “We have lawyers, philosophers, theologians, doctors and historians” who can fill in the gaps in their colleagues' backgrounds, she said.
In addition, Father King pointed out that UFL can give professors the tools they need to discuss pro-life issues in an academic setting.
“Some professors won't speak up about an issue unless they feel confident [about their knowledge of the issue],” he said, and UFL's multidisciplinary approach facilitates that in a unique way.
And the message seems to be getting out despite the hostility.
“Fourteen years ago, 64% of college freshmen were pro-abortion; last year it was down to 51%,” Father King said. That, he said, is indicative of the fact that there is “more openness to the pro-life cause than there was 15 years ago.”
Another positive development he cited is that the word most commonly associated with abortion in a recent survey of young women was “pain.”
That, he said, indicates that “these girls had friends who had undergone psychological or physical pain as a result of [abortion].”
As Father King is preparing to send out the proceedings of the last two conferences free of charge to more than 700 libraries, he is also looking forward to next year's UFL conference with special anticipation since his university, Georgetown, will host the event the weekend after Memorial Day 2003.
Until then Father King said that he wants people to know what he told the crowd at the March for Life: “Several hundred university professors see what you see [about abortion], and we are going to tell the truth.”
Andrew Walther is based in Los Angeles.
Views on Abortion
Ivy League Professors
E Legal under any circumstances – 37%
E Legal only under certain circumstances — 59%
E Illegal in all circumstances — 1%
E Don't know/refused — 3%
Luntz Poll January 2001
E Legal under any circumstances — 26%
E Legal only under certain circumstances — 56%
E Illegal in all circumstances — 17%
E No opinion — 1%
Source: Gallup. August 2001