Students at Georgetown University said that while a speaking invitation to the head of Planned Parenthood could have been an opportunity for honest dialogue, it was instead nothing more than a platform in favor of abortion and contraception.
Lilly Flashner, a junior at Georgetown who attended Cecile Richards’ April 20 lecture, told CNA that the event was a “rally for people who already agreed with her.”
“It was definitely not the free exchange of ideas,” as would be proper at a university, Flashner said. “There was no free discourse.”
“If they had had a debate, that would have been ok; but this was incredibly one-sided. That was frustrating for me.”
Richards was invited to speak at the Georgetown University by the Lecture Fund, a student organization that exists to invite outside speakers to campus for debate and discussion.
Previous lectures have been given by President Barack Obama, PayPal cofounder Peter Theil, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, and ballet dancer Misty Copeland. Lecture Fund events always include a question-and-answer period from the student body, typically around 30 minutes.
But in this case, Flashner said, the question-and-answer period for the student body was cut to 10 minutes, which allowed for four questions, with event organizers using the remainder of the time to ask personal questions of Richards.
The university drew heavy criticism, with thousands signing a petition protesting the lecture, and the Archdiocese of Washington saying that Georgetown was showing an “unawareness of those pushing the violence of abortion.”
Georgetown University defended the invite, saying that students are allowed to invite speakers to campus and the school “encourages the free exchange of ideas.” The university said that it does not endorse every speaker and some speakers represent views that are contrary to its “Catholic and Jesuit identity.” It also decided to move Richards’ lecture from the historic 700-person Gaston Hall, which is also used as a religious space for some Holy Days, to a smaller lecture space.
Richards’ speech focused on expanding access to abortion and artificial contraception, saying that this is necessary for the advancement of gender and racial equality. Richards also discussed her own life and experiences as an activist for Planned Parenthood and similar organizations, as well as current controversies such as legal battles over the HHS mandate and laws in Texas mandating health care requirements for abortion doctors.
In addition, Richards mentioned the role then-Senator Hillary Clinton played in making emergency contraceptives available over the counter, and returned to the topic during the question-and-answer section to explain Planned Parenthood’s support of Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
Responding to the invitation, Georgetown students scheduled their annual Life Week to coincide with Richards’ speech. During the week of April 18-22, students organized talks on euthanasia, healthcare alternatives to Planned Parenthood, memorials for victims of abortion, a talk by former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson, and a Mass for Life offered by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.
In addition, a talk by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chair of the Select Investigative Panel on Planned Parenthood, was organized by campus pro-life groups and co-sponsored by the Lecture Fund.
Teresa Donnelan, a senior at Georgetown, said that while both Richards’ talk and the pro-life panel were co-sponsored by the Lecture Fund, she does not think the events were of comparable prominence or promotion on campus. “I think it’s conciliatory,” she said of the group’s support for a pro-life event.
Donnelan told CNA that while she believe in the importance of free speech and discourse, the event “could have been more creatively handled.”
She suggested that Richards could have spoken alongside a pro-life speaker, or that a panel debating Richards’ position could have immediately followed her talk. “There really is more that could have been done to make this more of a dialogue.”
Sophomore Michael Khan, president of Georgetown Right to Life, said that while he was “encouraged by the pro-life students themselves,” he wished that Georgetown would do more to emphasize life issues and support pro-life students as part of the university’s emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching.
Kahn also suggested that the university could better enforce existing policies where events “gravely contrary to Catholic moral tradition and teaching” are denied funding. “She was paid have a platform on our campus, to speak unchallenged about her pro-abortion views,” he said of Richards’ talk.
Flashner commented that Richards “wasn’t prepared for people to disagree with her,” and presented the lecture as if Georgetown University and all young people at the talk agreed with her positions. When she did receive a challenge from the audience, Richards resorted to insults and “talking down to” the student who asked the question, she said.
Julie Reiter, a junior, asked one of the four questions permitted after Richards’ talk. She pointed to a report from the Guttmacher Institute — formerly a semi-autonomous division of the Planned Parenthood that is now an independent organization — which found that 94 percent of Planned Parenthood’s “pregnancy services” are abortion-related, and less than 1 percent are adoption-related.
“How can you say that when a woman walks into your clinic, she has a choice?” she asked. “From the outside, it would not appear that this is complete health care if one choice is so favored over the other.”
Richards told Reiter, “The Guttmacher is not Planned Parenthood, but I appreciate whatever statistics you’ve come up with,” prompting crowd members to applaud and laugh and Reiter.
She then encouraged Reiter to visit a Planned Parenthood clinic and stressed that women are “best suited to make their decisions about pregnancy.”
Reiter told CNA that she was shaken by Richards’ answer: “Her response was a chuckle and a laugh.” Reiter also observed that while her statistics from the Guttmacher Institute were questioned and mocked, Richards herself had cited the Guttmacher Institute as a source earlier in the lecture.
“She got her first challenge and she laughed at it,” Reiter said of the experience. “I don’t think she took it seriously or that there was a dialogue.”