Bishop calls ‘reproductive justice’ lecture series with abortion doula ‘scandal,’ ‘unworthy’ of Notre Dame university

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A 2017 photo shows the sign at the Douglas Road entrance to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. A lecture series on "reproductive justice" at the university was sharply criticized by Bishop Kevin Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in whose diocese the university operates. (OSV News photo/Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame)

(OSV News) — A lecture series on “reproductive justice” at the University of Notre Dame is advancing “activist propaganda” rather than “conducting a neutral inquiry or exploring the debates within this field,” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in whose diocese the university operates, stated in a sharply written March 21 column.

The university’s Gender Studies Program is holding an ongoing series titled “Reproductive Justice: Scholarship for Solidarity and Social Change,” which it claims “zooms out from the issue of abortion — and from intractable ‘pro-choice vs. pro-life’ debates — to the wider frame of Reproductive Justice.”

However, Bishop Rhoades, in an article in Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, criticized “the past and planned events in this series” as well as the speakers, stating “the voices featured (including abortion providers and advocates) consider abortion itself to be an essential tool for pursuing justice, equality, and fighting discrimination.”

A March 20 event in the series titled “Trans Care + Abortion Care: Intersections and Questions” featured Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Histories of the Transgender Child,” as well as Ash Williams, who was described on the event page as “a Black trans abortion doula” from North Carolina.

Williams, the event page said, “has been vigorously fighting to expand abortion access by funding abortions and training other people to become abortion doulas.”

Bishop Rhoades wrote that the series “appears to be an explicit act of dissent from Notre Dame’s admirable institutional commitment to promoting a culture of life that embraces and affirms the intrinsic equal dignity of the unborn, pregnant mothers, and families,” citing a 2010 institutional statement in which the university said it “recognizes and upholds the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”

In his article, Bishop Rhoades took particular aim at Williams’ inclusion in the event, as Williams “is not a scholar or even a prominent public intellectual” and was given “a platform for unanswered pro-abortion activism.”

“Not surprisingly, inviting an abortion doula to provide an unrebutted case for abortion has prompted a great deal of concern and criticism around the country and in our diocese,” Bishop Rhoades wrote. “I share these concerns and consider the decision to feature such a speaker on campus to be both intellectually unserious and unworthy of a great Catholic research university.”

The decision “to provide an unanswered activist’s case that abortion is a tool of justice for the marginalized,” Bishop Rhoades wrote, “is a grave mistake in judgment that creates scandal.”

The concept of academic freedom, Bishop Rhoades said, “is meant to create the space for free inquiry and intellectual exchange in service of pursuing and sharing the truth in charity.”

“But this lecture is simply a conduit for activist propaganda that is not merely wrong, but squarely contrary to principles of basic human equality, justice, dignity, and nonviolence that the Catholic Church, Notre Dame, and many others (including non-Catholics) have affirmed for millennia,” he said. The bishop argued a true understanding of justice requires “that we protect the weak and marginalized from violence — including the violence of abortion.”

“And true justice requires us all to join together to create a world in which mothers, fathers, children, and families are loved and protected,” Bishop Rhoades wrote.

Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble, a faculty member at the university, told OSV News in a March 21 email that he watched portions of the panels in the series and was “struck by the vehement hostility aimed at the rights of unborn children.”

“This blatant abortion advocacy programming is deeply inappropriate at Notre Dame,” Father Miscamble said, adding panelists did not mention “either the racist origins of the pro-choice movement or Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist views.”

“Nor was there any mention of Planned Parenthood’s continued targeting of minority communities,” he said. “Instead, panel members promoted abortion rights without qualification.”

Bishop Rhoades acknowledged that navigating academic freedom and freedom of expression as well as the values of a Catholic university can be complex “because alongside obligations to pursue truth for the sake of itself, advance knowledge, and educate students, there is the responsibility to explore the religious and theological dimensions of the questions … in a way that reflects the Catholic Church’s understanding of and commitment to the dignity of the human person, justice, mercy, and the common good.”

“Catholic universities regularly feature engagement with a diversity of voices, including sometimes those that are contrary to the teachings of the Church,” Bishop Rhoades wrote. “This is acceptable as long as the university remains faithful to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church, which is an essential characteristic of a Catholic university.”

Notre Dame’s Gender Studies Program, which is hosting the lecture series, did not immediately respond to an OSV News inquiry on the nature of the discussions they hope to have during the series, or what they hope students take away from the events. The university’s communications office did not immediately respond to OSV News’ inquiry.

At press time, the lecture series had four remaining scheduled events in the spring and fall.

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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