By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON – The controversy over the appearance by the head of Planned Parenthood at Jesuit-run Georgetown University April 20 became the background to a standing ovation.
Cecile Richards was greeted warmly by more than 400 students, most of them women, at Lohrfink Auditorium. She was introduced by Helen Brosnan, a senior and president of the Georgetown Lecture Fund.
Student Amber Athey, a member of Georgetown Right to Life, tweeted, “According to head of GU lecture fund, hosting an abortion provider is ‘in the spirit of a Jesuit university.'”
The student-run Georgetown Lecture Fund has examined other hot topics this spring including sponsoring a talk via Skype from Russia by national-security whistleblower Edward Snowden and holding a panel discussion on the Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse with Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, an advocate for abuse victims and a harsh critic of the U.S. church, and Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, who helped prepare a 2004 report on abuse prevention for the U.S. bishops.
Richards’ one-hour appearance, billed as “a conversation,” earlier had been strongly criticized by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, who wrote that “students, faculty, and the community at large are all impoverished, not enriched, when the institution’s Catholic identity is diluted or called into question by seemingly approving of ideas that are contrary to moral truth.”
The event ran without incident, with only a small protest outside the auditorium by Georgetown Right to Life, a protest outside the campus by the Pennsylvania-based American Society for Tradition, Family and Property, and with heavy security, including District of Columbia police officers to supplement campus officers.
Although it was closed to news media and accessible only to students with university IDs, Planned Parenthood later released a transcript of Richards’ remarks. Much of what Richards and students said during a brief question-and-answer session was relayed through occasional tweets, including how well the CEO was received, and Students for Life also released a transcript of one exchange.
“I love that Georgetown students are the kind of people who don’t have to agree with someone to listen to her thoughts,” Richards said.
She praised an unofficial student group, Hoyas for Choice. “I’m so proud of all you are doing to make sure the students of Georgetown have access to reproductive health care – 10,000 condoms distributed last semester. Because of you, someone somewhere is having safer sex.”
The typical Planned Parenthood patient, she said, “is in their 20s and makes less than $18,000. For many, we are the only medical provider they see in a given year. Patients come to us for birth control, breast exams, cancer screenings, well-woman visits — and safe and legal abortion.”
Referencing the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, Richards recalled Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke’s appearance at a 2012 congressional hearing on the moral objections raised by religious employers to the requirement.
She said Fluke became “a national heroine by standing up for the rights of university students everywhere to get access to birth control, Planned Parenthood mobilized thousands of people to come to Washington and lobby, and students dressed up as giant birth control pill packs and rallied on college campuses.”
Catholic and other religious employers’ fight against being told by the government they arrange for contraceptive coverage even if they morally oppose such coverage has reached the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in June on the case, known as Zubik v. Burwell.
“Fully one-third of the wage gains women have made since the ’60s are solely because of access to birth control. So if we want to finally close the pay gap — we need more access, not less,” Richards said.
Members of Georgetown Right to Life complained that Richards was dismissive of anything spoken by pro-life students. In her remarks, she cited the Guttmacher Institute’s finding that “the majority of teenagers outside metropolitan areas aren’t getting basic information” about sex education.
A member of Georgetown Right to Life, whom Students for Life did not name, asked her about the institute’s data that indicated that 94 percent of pregnancy services at Planned Parenthood clinics consist of abortions, while about 6 percent are sonograms and less than 1 percent are adoption counseling. “How can you say that when a woman walks into your clinic she has a choice?”
“We are not the Guttmacher Institute, but that’s OK,” Richards responded. “But what I am saying actually, is that I would really encourage you to come visit a Planned Parenthood center. What you will find, what I believe you will find, and you can call me if you don’t, and I am serious about that, is a health care organization that provides women the full range of reproductive health care and preventative services.”
Richards drew loud applause when she concluded, “It’s really incredible to me that a lot of the legislation that has passed, and even some of the things I am hearing now in this presidential campaign, are based on the idea that women are not smart enough or able to make their own medical decisions. Women make hard decisions every single day.”
She called the recent series of videos by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden “fraudulent,” adding, “Planned Parenthood has never sold fetal tissue and never would.” The videos show Planned Parenthood officials discussing fees related to fetal tissue, but the organization says they are standard reimbursement fees charged to researchers. But last fall Richards announced the organization would no longer accept the reimbursements.
Daleiden and his partner, Sandra Merritt, have been indicted by a Houston grand jury for using deceptive means of accessing employees and clinics of Planned Parenthood, and in California, Planned Parenthood also is suing him and his Center for Medical Progress for allegedly inciting violence and causing an increase in threats at its clinics.
There were no outbursts outside from members of Students for Life, who were occasionally joined by adults, including a woman wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “The Pill Kills.”
At one point, a woman walking by announced, “Thank God for Planned Parenthood!” A male protester shouted back, “The body inside your body is not your body!”
Richards later tweeted to Brosnan: “You’re my hero — thanks for challenging the status quo. It was an honor to be with you!”
That evening, Students for Life sponsored Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who resigned in 2009 to become a pro-life activist, at the university’s Dahlgren Chapel. Johnson operates a ministry for former abortion workers called And Then There Were None.
Johnson described her Planned Parenthood work as “one rationalization after another,” and finally quit when she saw that her clinic’s abortion quota for 2009-10 “had actually doubled.”
“To the abortion industry, if a baby is unborn, then it magically becomes tissue … something that is easily discarded,” she said.
Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.