‘Abortion doula’ at Notre Dame speaker series adds to Catholic concern
Denver, Colo., Mar 4, 2023 / 11:43 am
In the wake of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision overturning the pro-abortion rights Roe v. Wade ruling, several bodies at the University of Notre Dame are hosting an event series dedicated to “reproductive justice.” The series has attracted criticism for its decidedly pro-abortion slant: an “abortion doula” with a tattoo of abortion equipment is one of the speakers at its next event.
Critics say the series conflicts with university policy requiring the presentation of Catholic teaching at such events.
“We have a series that so far has been dedicated to opposing the Dobbs decision and promoting the pro-choice position, as opposed to the Catholic position, at one of the leading Catholic universities in the country,” William H. Dempsey, a Notre Dame alumnus and president of the Sycamore Trust, told CNA March 3.
“There have been no panelists who have explained the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and responded to what’s been said by the opponents of Church teaching,” he said.
Sycamore Trust is a group of Notre Dame alumni and supporters concerned about Catholic identity at the university. The group claims more than 18,000 subscribers to its distribution list.
The series at the university, titled “Reproductive Justice: Scholarship for Solidarity and Social Change,” is sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s gender studies program and the university’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values. Several other bodies within the university and several external groups also provide support.
The latest event, “Trans Care + Abortion Care: Intersections and Questions,” is scheduled to be held on Zoom on March 20. It aims to address “the intersections between trans care and abortion care” followed by questions and answers with the audience, according to the website of the university’s Gender Studies Program.
One speaker is Ash Williams, described as “a Black trans abortion doula, public intellectual, and abolitionist community organizer.” Williams is based in North Carolina but is a decriminalizing abortion resident at Project Nia, a Chicago-based advocacy group that favors “restorative and transformative justice” instead of criminal incarceration.
National Public Radio profiled Williams in an October 2022 report. As an abortion doula, the report said, Williams “provides physical, emotional, or financial help to people seeking to end a pregnancy.”
Williams, who identifies as a transgender man, has had two surgical abortions and has a forearm tattoo of a tool used in the abortion procedure known as a manual vacuum aspiration, National Public Radio reported. Williams praised the abortion procedure, saying “it’s one and done. It’s quick.”
Another speaker at the upcoming Notre Dame event is Jules Gill-Peterson, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University who has argued that “transgender children” are not a new phenomenon.
The reproductive justice series’ previous events included two in-person panels on the end of Roe v. Wade in fall 2022. On Feb. 17, the series presented a virtual panel on the topic “Reproductive Health Disparities and Injustice.”
The series receives support from multiple other programs and academic bodies, including Notre Dame’s departments of American studies, anthropology, English, film, television and theater, history, political science, and sociology. The neighboring St. Mary College’s Department of Gender and Women Studies and the Indiana University-South Bend Women’s and Gender Studies Program are also supporters, as is the South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center.
CNA sought comment from the University of Notre Dame, its Department of Gender Studies, and the Reilly Center but did not receive a response by publication.
According to Dempsey, the failure to express the Catholic position on abortion is “contrary to the policy of the university” set out in the Common Proposal of Chairs of the College of Arts and Letters and then university president Father John I. Jenkins, CSC. The 2006 agreement places on academic departments and their chairs the responsibility to provide a forum for multiple viewpoints and, where relevant, “appropriate balance” to present Catholic views.
“When a panelist or panelists expresses views contrary to important Catholic Church teaching, the obligation of the sponsoring department is to ensure that the Catholic Church’s position is presented,” Dempsey said. “That has not been done.”
He deemed it “an empty gesture” to claim the reproductive justice panels are balanced by other pro-life events on campus. For Dempsey, this failure to follow policy means that the sponsors support the expression of positions contrary to Church teaching. It means “that an important component of the university is itself opposed to Catholic Church teaching.”
“The Dobbs decision has opened a severe fault line at the University of Notre Dame, as I expect it has in Catholic institutions across the country,” Dempsey told CNA. Though a “significant” number of Notre Dame faculty oppose Church teaching, that was largely irrelevant under Roe v. Wade. For Dempsey, the newly open divisions “undermine the Catholic identity of the university,” a situation that would be prevented if the university required departments to follow the terms of the Common Proposal.
“The Church’s position on abortion is that it is the highest order of evil to take the lives of innocent human beings,” he emphasized. “As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said, this is the preeminent issue in American public life today.”
He supported the exploration and even expression of views contrary to Catholicism on campus, “provided that the position of the Catholic Church is given equal treatment, so to speak.”
The university was the focus of major controversy among Catholics when it hosted the strongly pro-abortion rights President Barack Obama as a speaker for its May 2009 commencement ceremonies. Following the controversy, the university launched multiple pro-life initiatives.
Ken Hallenius, communications specialist at the university’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, told CNA the center does not comment on events sponsored by other university departments.
Hallenius said the center has sponsored “multiple pro-life events, lectures, panel discussions, and conferences” in the last year. Its upcoming events include the Notre Dame Vita Institute, an intellectual formation program for pro-life leaders, to be held on campus June 11–16. On April 29, it will present the Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal to Princeton law professor Robert P. George.