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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

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Bishop condemns speaker series, dozens of ND students ask University to apologize

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who presides over the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, publicly denounced a “Trans Care + Abortion Care” virtual dialogue hosted by Notre Dame.

The University’s gender studies program and Reilly Center's minor for health, humanities and society co-sponsored the contentious lecture on March 20, as part of a larger reproductive justice lecture series.

The following day, March 21, Rhoades wrote that the lecture contradicted Notre Dame’s mission in a statement published in Today’s Catholic, a newspaper for the Diocese.

Rhoades called the lecture an “explicit act of dissent” from the University’s “commitment to promoting a culture of life.”

Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins, and Ash Williams, a self-proclaimed abortion doula from North Carolina, spoke during the lecture.

As an abortion doula, Williams “provides physical, emotional or financial help to people seeking to end a pregnancy,” according to NPR.

“My goal is to get people the best abortion they can have because I know that it is possible,” Williams told NPR.

In his statement, Rhoades pinpointed Williams as one reason to oppose the lecture. Rhoades acknowledged that a Catholic University should allow for a diversity of viewpoints; however, he made a distinction between academics and activists in this case. 

“Williams is not a scholar or even a prominent public intellectual,” Rhoades wrote. “The Gender Studies Program and the Reilly Center (and other units on campus supporting them) are simply providing Williams — a person who literally facilitates abortions — a platform for unanswered pro-abortion activism.”

Rhoades’ statement gained national attention, especially in Catholic media circles. In response, a group of 66 Notre Dame students, some of whom attended the March 20 Zoom lecture, sent an email to University officials, asking for an apology for the lecture.

The reproductive justice series is a new academic endeavor established in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Reilly Center director Robert Goulding said in an email. 

In regard to the March 20 panel, Goulding said “the speakers in that event did not portray both positions” and “were unequivocally pro-choice.” Still, he emphasized that not every event in the series has concerned abortion. 

The series’ most recent event addressed the forced adoptions of indigenous children, a topic Goulding said is “controversial and profoundly [connected] to the theme of reproductive justice.” Yet, the lecture received very little negative attention and low attendance outside of Reilly Center and gender studies academic circles, Goulding said.

Barbara Green, the director of the Gender Studies Program, defended the lecture saying it did not approach the abortion issue in a binary manner.

“The events in the Reproductive Justice series are rooted in scholarship and social movements that understand reproduction and reproductive politics in complex, sophisticated ways that cannot be captured by the labels ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life.’ Instead, the series invites the Notre Dame community to zoom out from the issue of abortion — and from intractable ‘pro-choice vs. pro-life’ debates — to the wider frame of Reproductive Justice,” she wrote in an email. 

Earlier this semester, the Reilly Center organized two events with pro-life faculty and a visiting speaker on bioethical issues, Goulding said, but the events had low attendance despite large efforts to publicize them.

“I’m not going to pretend to be surprised that our critics of one pro-choice event didn't make the effort to attend, but I am a little disappointed,” Goulding said, adding there seems to be “an element of selective outrage” at Notre Dame.

Goulding said following negative publicity for the March 20 panel on social media, the organizers received more than 100 new registrations from outside the University community. Organizers severely restricted audience participation as a result and eventually disabled the chat box and emoji reaction functions, an action Goulding called frustrating.

“I had really wanted, and expected, this to be an event where students would be able to raise questions and objections from any viewpoint, and that just wasn't possible,” he said.

Collin Funck, a senior in Stanford Hall, organized and sent the email asking for an apology, copying those students who signed on to its message. Funck gathered supporters by posting about the email in Right to Life and other Catholic GroupMe channels. The students voiced their desire for a lecture that included a stronger Catholic, anti-abortion message.

“This event overwhelmingly supported abortion with a failure to counter abortion, gender ideology, or even include student voices in light of Catholic teaching,” the email said.

The email further stated that the webinar “promoted anti-Catholic views with zero condemnation or reproach from the University facilitator who uncritically supported these views as a University representative.”

Those who attended the panel received an ex-post email that included a list of events that reflect the University’s pro-life commitment. Students who signed on to the email asking for an apology said that effort was “a bandage over a gaping wound.”

Goulding said the emailed resources served as one method to acknowledge the anti-abortion viewpoint, alongside the selection of both pro-life and pro-choice questions by the event’s moderator.

Funck sent the email on behalf of himself and his co-signers on March 24. He sent a follow-up message on April 11, but as of April 28, has not received a response. Funck sent the messages to gender studies and Reilly Center program leaders, as well as to Fr. Dan Groody, associate provost for undergraduate education. University spokesperson Dennis Brown said he was not aware of this email.

Rhoades recently visited Notre Dame, celebrating Mass in the Basilica Saturday, April 29, and Sunday, April 30, according to his public weekly schedule.

Ryan Peters contributed to this story.