Women's Health and Equality: Why We Supported Cecile Richards' Speaking at A Catholic University

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards speaks at an event to publicly endorse U.S. Democratic presidential
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards speaks at an event to publicly endorse U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Hooksett, New Hampshire, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Two weeks ago, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards spoke at Georgetown University, an event that drew criticism from some students, alumni and outside organizations, such as the Washington Diocese. There are three reasons why we, alumnae of the school who work on social justice issues, including reproductive justice and ending violence against women, applauded the school's decision to allow Richards to speak on campus.

Conservatives who oppose Richards do so in support of policies and beliefs that cause grave suffering. While millions of members of the Catholic community are dedicated to eradicating poverty and violence, the official hierarchy continues to demonstrate a profound unwillingness to acknowledge that women's agency and reproductive autonomy are absolute prerequisites to the most basic achievement of economic and social justice. A focus on "ending abortion," is only part of a movement that directly and materially contravenes sound and safe medical practice and international human rights. People are denied access to contraception, sexual health information, and life-saving emergency-related care. These policies not only endanger girls and women, but also LTGBQ children and adults. People are poorer, sicker, and more physically vulnerable as a result.

Last week, California's largest medical association, the 41,000-member California Medical Association (CMA), filed a motion in the state's Superior Court, joining an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit against Dignity Health, which is the fifth largest health-care system in the US. They did this because the directives result in women at Catholic hospitals, all women, being denied basic reproductive health care. Today, the ACLU and MergerWatch released new report, Health Care Denied, showing that in some states, more than 40 percent of all hospital beds are in a Catholic institution. The report is filled with case after case of dangerously degraded care for women. While a typical response to this concern is that people who don't want to go to Catholic hospitals don't have to, the reality is that many and, due to a growing number of mergers, increasing numbers, have no options. As Nicole Knight Shine explained earlier this week it is illegal to withhold medical care from a patient for non-medical reasons. Additionally, despite the fact that these health care systems are religiously affiliated and do not operate according to sound established medical guidelines, they continue to be federally subsidized. We are all implicated in supporting a system that undermines public health and women's safety.

Opposition to Richards' speaking and to her work is opposition to women's safety, health and equality. While anti-abortion advocates stress concern for fetuses and, paternalistically, the emotional-well being of mothers, they are loath to pursue policies that reduce the incidence of abortion or recognize women's self-possession, which includes, if need be, the right to regret, a feeling that fewer than 5 percent of women who have abortions report. If fetal concerns were truly priorities, then medically accurate and comprehensive sex ed and effective contraception would be priorities. They are not. That the US, despite positive change, continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world and today provides less comprehensive sex ed to students than five years ago, is largely the result of "anti-abortion" related social policies.

The anti-choice movement is possibly the most organized and significant backlash against women's rights and the changes in gender roles that they engender in the last century. Current religious and political positions on fetal life developed in direct response to women's liberation movements. Robust religious ideas about fetal rights did not develop into public policy until the late twentieth century when feminism illuminated both the exploitation of women, including as mothers, and the role that traditional, highly gendered and hierarchical family structures play in our subjugation. The political, social and economic nexus of this backlash resides in how society thinks about motherhood.

Abortion and birth control, by freeing women from compulsory reproduction at their will, challenge sweeping stereotypes about women's intrinsic natures and roles, threatening the highly deterministic gender frame of conservative worldviews. This is why the anti-choice movement so frequently portrays women who seek abortions and use birth control as "bad"-- licentious, immoral, shallow, irreligious, possible evil-- in other words, incapable of ethical decision-making and in need of guidance. This reasoning feeds legislation justified by arguments that women, incapable of proper self-governing, need protecting, from themselves.

A woman not only has moral, ethical and legal rights to self-determination, birth control and abortion, but by the dictates of the Church, the ability to follow her conscience. As a Catholic, morally she must. However, the practical premise and effective result of anti-choice positions is the portrayal of women as heartless murderers or incompetent children, either way incapable of sound reasoning and necessarily subject to the moral intervention of men. Anti-abortion and contraception arguments built on this denigration of women's moral personhood and humanity are unethical and unjust. They are an insidious and corrosive assault on women's dignity.

One third of all women seek out abortion at some point in their reproductive lives. Catholic women, 98 percent of whom report using contraception, are as likely to have abortions as women of other faiths or non-religious women. Seventy-three percent of women who have abortions identify as religious. In the US, 60 percent of women who decide to end a pregnancy are mothers, capable of reasoning, who are worried about their families and futures. It's insulting to suggest that women, as a class of people, are not fit to know what is best for themselves or are incapable of managing the consequences of their decisions.

Georgetown commitment, explained in a public statement, to protecting freedom of expression and intellectual rigor while understanding that the opinions of some campus speakers run counter to "the Catholic and Jesuit values that animate our university," is laudable and serves the best interest of students. Richards' appearance meant that they are talking and thinking about complicated, nuanced and challenging issues that will affect their lives profoundly. Those that disagree with Richards had the right to protest, which they exercised. The largely uncommented upon irony here is that, in demanding that Richards not be allowed to appear, conservatives were demanding the kind of safe space that they typically mock.

This week, the school newspaper, The Hoya, is reporting that there has been a "backlash" on campus in response to Richards' appearance. A proposal to change the format of the event, and turn it into a debate, was declined by the student lecture fund, which had worked for four years to get Richards on campus. Those seeking to "balance" the discourse assert that the Lecture Fund's refusal to alter the format shows a lack of commitment to real discourse.

In addition to the fact that "balance" is a difficult word to accept in good faith coming from supporters of an institution that ritually silences women, this argument ignores the appearance of anti-abortion speakers on campus during the same period. On the same day that Richards spoke, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson appeared on campus and, on the night before, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn appeared on a school panel. Her appearance is particularly reprehensible considering that Blackburn chairs the select committee established to harass Planned Parenthood. While Richards was grilled by Congress for more than four hours, this committee has failed to call under oath David Daleiden, the man now charged with misleadingly editing videos that have been implicated in clinic violence.

It was in part as students at Georgetown, in part as women raised Catholic, and especially as feminists, that we learned how important it is to fight for social equality. It was in part as students at Georgetown, in part as women raised Catholic, and especially as feminists, that we were imbued with the belief in our own humanity and capacity for moral reasoning. We believe that women are ethically competent adult humans, a status denied us by the official Catholic hierarchy's persistent anti-feminism and paternalism. Some ask if Georgetown should be allowed to remain affiliated to the Church; we ask instead why this Church claims to be a legitimate moral arbiter of these issues while treating women in these ways.

Richards received a standing ovation from students after she spoke on Wednesday, April 20.