Georgetown University Holds First Official ‘Respect Life’ Forum

The event originated with Georgetown faculty and received the public backing of the president’s office.

Panel at Oct. 2 pro-life event at Georgetown University. EWTN host Catherine Szeltner is shown introducing the speakers.
Panel at Oct. 2 pro-life event at Georgetown University. EWTN host Catherine Szeltner is shown introducing the speakers. (photo: Courtesy of Georgetown University)

WASHINGTON — At Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University, Cardinal Donald Wuerl took the podium and told a packed room of approximately 300 students and other guests about a visit he had paid some years ago to a young mother who had given birth to sextuplets. She described to him how each infant already showed different personalities.

“How precious were each of those infants, as all babies are, not simply upon their birth, but beginning with their conception in the womb, made in the image of God and thus demanding of respect and protection from that very first moment,” the cardinal said. “But this is not always the message of our society. It certainly is not what is being heard by at least two generations of our fellow citizens.”

The Georgetown University Oct. 2 event, titled “Lives Worthy of Respect,” provided an opportunity for a new generation of young people to hear the Church’s message on the dignity of every human life — and this time backed officially by the university on a campus where legal abortion enjoys strong support.

Earlier this year, the Cardinal Newman Society released a 124-page dossier documenting how Georgetown institutionally has allowed its campus to play host to advocates of legal abortion, such as Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the architect of the contraception mandate, and has brought a substantial number of legal abortion supporters and advocates onto the university’s board and faculty over the years.

In his keynote speech — delivered one day after a 64-year-old gambler slaughtered almost 60 people in Las Vegas and wounded hundreds of others — the cardinal told his audience that modern culture’s mentality of “choice” has come to fruition, in that “human life is increasingly held cheap, as violence stalks our communities, suicide is on the increase nationwide, and, in some states, instead of saving lives, there are physicians who help to end lives.”

He added, “Once you accept the thesis that it is all right to kill human life before it is born, or as it nears its end, or for some other reason, at almost any time, you accept two premises: that we, human beings, have the ultimate say over all life and who gets to live and that such a decision is ultimately arbitrary.”

Georgetown’s respect-life event also featured Helen Alvaré from George Mason University School of Law; Tony Lauinger, vice president of National Right to Life and member of Georgetown’s Class of 1967; Sister of St. Joseph Mary Louise Wessell, founder and program manager for the Tenant Empowerment Network (TEN) at Catholic Charities; and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio. It was moderated by Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics and professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Georgetown President John DeGioia, who coordinated the official event out of his office, opened and closed the event and told the audience gathered that they were all called to reflect on the tradition that animates the Catholic and Jesuit tradition of Georgetown.
“We are the beneficiaries of a profound spiritual and moral tradition that has been shaped over the course of two millennia,” he said.
DeGioia noted that the university was responsible for this tradition, for “ensuring that it is present to us,” and for imagining ways to bring it to life. He thanked all the various groups on campus by name that promote the Church’s teaching on human life and dignity and quoted St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae on how “every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.” He continued that the Holy Father made a pressing appeal for each and every person to “respect, protect, love and serve life — every human life.”
“Each of us is asked to heed this call,” DeGioia said.


‘Positive Response’

Donovan told the Register that he and his colleagues at the Pellegrino Center thought the university had the opportunity for “Respect Life Month” to make a strong public witness to the university’s Catholic faith and Jesuit ideals.

“We received a lot of very positive responses, both to the concept and the execution,” he said.

Donovan said they planned the pro-life event to show how doctors, lawyers and other advocates of human life are making the case that all lives are lives “worthy of respect.”

At the same time, Donovan said all the speakers showed how the term “pro-life” is far more encompassing than “anti-abortion,” as it reflects the care for all human life, from conception to natural death.

He added, “Each panelist was saying that message in a slightly different way to a slightly different segment of the population.”Mary Forr, director of the Department of Life Issues at the Archdiocese of Washington, told the Register that the archdiocese was glad Georgetown held this event.

“It was a beautiful way to showcase a number of people who really are champions of the pro-life movement,” she said. “There is a strong group of people — both students and professors — at Georgetown who are fighting to get the pro-life message out.”

Forr said the event also served to thank the student-led Georgetown Right to Life, the Catholic Women at Georgetown, the Georgetown organizers of the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life after the March for Life, Donovan and the other leaders at the Pellegrino Center, and many others “for all that they do and to encourage them to continue working for a culture of life.”


A Troubled Past

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that promotes fidelity to the magisterium in Catholic education, told the Register that it was “refreshing to find some university support for a pro-life event” at Georgetown. But he added it was “hard to square that with the enormous damage that Georgetown University has done to the Church and to the pro-life cause for many decades by honoring, partnering and even hiring abortion advocates and giving free rein to the ‘H*yas for Choice’ group on campus.”

In January, the Cardinal Newman Society released its dossier on Georgetown. Reilly said it shows Georgetown has had deep problems throughout the institution, noting that some of Georgetown’s board members made large financial contributions to Emily’s List, which funds political candidates who will defend legal abortion, and that the university has hired faculty members who worked for abortion businesses, Planned Parenthood or NARAL.

The report also mentions how the university’s law school relaxed its ban in 2007 on internships with organizations institutionally opposed to the Church’s teaching, such as abortion groups, and even had Emily’s List as a recommended employer on its career center website.

“Change has to come in the form of institutional commitment,” Reilly added, pointing to The Catholic University of America as an institution that made strides in its Catholic identity under leadership committed to that goal.

“This event might be an olive branch, but it’s not evidence of a conversion.”


Other Campuses

Catholic academic institutions generally have made uneven efforts in projecting institutional commitment to the entirety of the Church’s teaching on human life and dignity.

Seattle University, for example, saw administrators order posters taken down featuring a rosary and an intrauterine device that had been put up by a nursing club to promote its talk for a pro-abortion speaker. The administration’s solution in the end was to postpone, not cancel, the pro-abortion event, until other “viewpoints and perspectives” could be included.

In some cases, students believe their advocacy for contraception or abortion is consistent with their university’s core values. Despite DePaul University’s policy against distributing condoms and contraception, a student representative of an unofficial abortion-rights group told a Chicago news outlet in October that a number of professors openly encouraged group members for promoting a text-based contraception-distribution system and that the students felt the campaign was a “very Vincentian act.”

Even when university administrations finally draw lines in the sand regarding abortion coverage, such as Santa Clara University or Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, they can lead to enormous blowback when the faculty is dominated by a majority committed to abortion.

The lack of institutional commitment to intentionally backing the Church’s vision can also have an impact on student clubs that try to promote the Church’s teaching on human life and dignity.

Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins told the Register that many of the organization’s student chapters encounter a “dualism on Catholic college and university campuses.”

“On the one hand, we find a passionate support for ​preborn children and their mothers from many students and real courage to confront the popular culture that Planned Parenthood tries to dominate,” she said. “On the other hand, too often, the students have to overcome resistance from school leadership.”

“Sadly, the pro-abortion bent of a lot of institutes of higher learning is just as prevalent at many Catholic schools as at any other college or university, as there often doesn’t seem to be a requirement for university staff to actually believe in the tenets of our faith,” Hawkins said. “But students are on fire to make a difference, and they are.” 


First Event of Many?

Pro-life student leaders at Georgetown said their respect-life event showed support for the pro-life movement is a lot stronger on campus than they realized. “I think it had a pretty positive impact,” Flo Martinez, board member of Georgetown Right to Life, told the Register.

Martinez said the event publicly underlined how the Jesuit ethos of cura personalis, the care of the whole person, is grounded in care for human life from the moment of conception to natural death.

Havens Clark, the president of the pro-life club, told the Register that the event provided an opportunity to banish common misconceptions among Georgetown’s students, such as that the pro-life movement only cares about babies and not the mothers. The club actually espouses the Church’s entire teaching on the inherent dignity of human life and works with other groups to oppose sexual-based violence and the death penalty.

Clark also praised the university’s strong official backing of the event, which “really opened the doors” for the campus to have a better conversation on the dignity and value of human life.

“They were reminded that though most of the students seem ‘pro-choice,’ the university itself does support us in our pro-life activities,” Clark said. “I also had a number of people, who heard of the event, come up to me and say that they were pro-choice, but they supported having a dialogue on campus.”

Donovan acknowledged that Georgetown has received a lot of negative Catholic press in the past for pro-abortion  campus activities, including the student-run Lecture Fund inviting Planned Parenthood’s Richards to speak in 2016. The decision outraged the Archdiocese of Washington, which publicly called on the university to “renew efforts at Georgetown to re-assert its Catholic identity [and] build what that holy pope [St. John Paul II] called a ‘civilization of life and love.’”

Donovan said the campus has many good pro-life leaders and activities going on that have not received much public attention. He hopes to see that start to change.

“Many people have said to me they would like to see this event replicated on a regular basis,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to making it happen again.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.