Inside The Fight For Abortion Rights On A Catholic Campus

St. Mary’s College has long had an anti-abortion club, but not an abortion rights one – until now.

Above: Megan King poses for a portrait on the campus of Saint Mary’s College on Oct. 22 in Notre Dame, Indiana. Credit: Evan Cobb for HuffPost

Two years ago, when Megan King enrolled at Saint Mary’s College, a private Catholic women’s liberal arts school in Indiana, she quickly noticed the college’s official anti-abortion club. It was hard not to.

The student group Belles for Life, which stands against “abortion, infanticide, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia,” had posters in the hallways promoting its events, and handed out stickers for students to affix to their laptops. Online, the group recruited volunteers for the annual March for Life rally in Washington, D.C.

“Walking around on campus, there was so much of one side being represented,” said King, 20, who was raised Catholic in Joliet, Illinois.

She had thought college would be a place of self-discovery, where students could test out ideas and challenge each other. But at St. Mary’s, she found, a woman’s right to an abortion wasn’t open to intellectual debate. King, who is a neuroscience major and calls herself pro-choice, wondered how many other students shared her views on abortion but were afraid to say so.

This semester, King decided to act. She, along with a few friends, are now fighting to start an official pro-choice club on campus — the first in Saint Mary’s history.

The club is intended to represent students who have differing views from the majority and don’t feel seen, King said. Its members include women who are no longer religious, such as King, and those who are deeply committed to their faith, like her roommate Isabella Dugas, 20, who identified as pro-life as recently as this summer. “I don’t necessarily like abortion, and I’m sure a lot of my friends who are pro-choice would agree, but we do support women making choices for themselves,” Dugas said. 

Isabella Dugas, a junior, poses for a portrait on the campus of Saint Mary's College on Oct. 22. 
Isabella Dugas, a junior, poses for a portrait on the campus of Saint Mary's College on Oct. 22. 

Their experience on campus is a microcosm of the friction within Catholic communities on the issue of abortion. While the Catholic Church opposes abortion outright, the lived experience of its adherents isn’t as black and white. The recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic, to the Supreme Court, has excited some within Catholic communities, while also alienating others.

More than half of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and most oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established the right to choose.

An in-depth study on American beliefs about abortion, released by the University of Notre Dame in July, revealed a nuanced portrait of believers. Of the Catholics interviewed, “Just shy of half indicate moral opposition; the remainder are split between no moral opposition and ‘it depends,’” the study said. Slightly more identified as “pro-choice” than “pro-life.”

Younger Catholics tend to see abortion as a complicated moral question that has been co-opted by politics, said Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, which emphasizes that church teachings leave room to support a liberal position on abortion.

“Especially on Catholic campuses, there’s no safe space to talk about those moral complexities,” she said. “That’s a shame because the Catholic tradition has some sophisticated things to say about reason and choice and conscience.”

The Fight For Representation

Saint Mary’s College is located in the shadows of the University of Notre Dame, and a partnership allows students to cross-enroll at both schools. Barrett, Trump’s choice to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, teaches at Notre Dame, and was a member of its Faculty for Life group for a number of years. 

In August, King and her friends took the first steps to start Belles for Choice, a counterpart to Saint Mary’s anti-abortion club, by launching a social media page and recruiting board members. 

Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Accurate information about reproductive health is particularly important for college-aged women, who may be having sex but not want to start a family. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 42% of women who obtained abortions in 2014 were between the ages of 18 and 24. Around one in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. 

“We were excited to bring people together and talk about safe sex and choice, and all the things that weren’t being talked about before,” she said. 

Before they had a chance to apply for formal recognition, King said, she was contacted by the college administration and asked not to use the name “Belles,” as it was affiliated with the college. The club is now going by Smicks for Choice. (“Smicks” is an informal nickname for students at Saint Mary’s.”) In order to be recognized by the school, the club needs to find a faculty member who is willing to serve as an adviser, a requirement which has posed a significant obstacle. 

“Asking a faculty member on a Catholic campus to advise a pro-choice club is like asking them to turn in their letter of resignation,” King said. “Professors have been keeping a careful distance, whether with support or disdain.”

As it currently lacks an adviser, the club has not yet applied for official recognition. In a statement, Gloria Jenkins, the interim vice president for student affairs, said that when it does, the proposal will be evaluated thoughtfully. The school will consider the intent of the club, its proposed mission and goals, she added.

“At 176 years old, Saint Mary’s is an institution firmly rooted in the Roman Catholic church,” she said. “At the same time, we hold dear our mission of offering students a life of intellectual vigor and social responsibility. We encourage our students to discover who they are in a safe, inclusive environment.”

A pro-choice bumper sticker sits on a basket of condoms on campus at Saint Mary's College.
A pro-choice bumper sticker sits on a basket of condoms on campus at Saint Mary's College.

While there are over 200 Catholic affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S., only a handful of pro-choice clubs on their campuses exist. 

The first known example of such a club began at Georgetown University in the early 1990s. It was originally called GU Choice, but now goes by H*yas for Choice and is not officially recognized by the school. These days, similar groups exist at University of St. Thomas, Minnesota; Seattle University; Loyola University New Orleans; Santa Clara University; Depaul University; Loyola University Chicago; and University of Notre Dame.

The risks for student organizers at these schools are high, said Christina Frasik, the co-founder of Student Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which offers resources to students who are fighting for abortion rights and related causes at their Catholic colleges and universities.

“Many student organizers have been fearful about losing campus jobs, losing scholarships,” she said. “They’re willing to do it because they care so much about this issue, but it’s always in the back of their minds, that they could really be putting their future at stake.” 

Reaction From Students

At Saint Mary’s, the response to Smicks for Choice has been mixed. 

As soon as they created the club, King said, older students reached out to warn them that in the past, publicly and proudly encouraging a pro-choice discussion was frowned upon.

“It all felt like a very hush-hush kind of deal, almost like those of us with pro-choice views have been swept under the rug and silenced for way too long at our own school,” she said. After Smicks for Choice printed door decorations and handed them out, some students reacted by making their own anti-abortion posters and taping them up, she added.

Still, overwhelmingly, student reaction to the club has been positive. 

“We’ve received messages from women who say that they now feel represented and they’re just as excited as we are about the club,” Dugas said. “We’ve realized how many women share the same beliefs as each other.” 

Dugas and King said they've gotten positive feedback from students about Smicks for Choice, which has 60 members already.
Dugas and King said they've gotten positive feedback from students about Smicks for Choice, which has 60 members already.

Recently, the club put a basket of condoms outside a dorm room for people to take as needed. Almost immediately, they were all gone. Around 60 people have joined the club to date. 

“You go to a Catholic school and you see the pro-life narrative all over and you just assume that you’re in the minority thinking a woman should have a choice,” King said. “It’s been great because there’s so many people who are like, ‘No, I’ve been wanting to see this! I’ve been wanting to be a part of a community like this.’” 

The club will keep working toward official status, she said, although she understands that the school might reject it.

“We are a club that aims to create bonds between students, we strive to educate and learn from one another, and we want to empower the people on this campus,” she said. “From our perspective it is hard to see how those goals don’t align with the college’s mission.”