Fighting . . . for unborn human life

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

A month before the 2008 presidential election and a day after ND students chose Barack Obama over John McCain 52 to 41 percent in a mock election, students flooded into McKenna Hall to hear law professors Gerard Bradley and Vincent Rougeau answer the question, “What constitutes a sufficient ‘proportionate’ reason to justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate?”

Not surprisingly, given Bradley’s service on the Catholics for McCain National Steering Committee and Rougeau’s to Obama’s Catholic National Advisory Council, the pair took opposing views. Each spoke about moral considerations he believed best informed Catholic voters’ political choices on Election Day.

The evening discussion was the unheralded first event underwritten by the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, launched in September 2008 by the Center for Ethics and Culture. Elizabeth Kirk ’96J.D., an associate director of the center, says the fund emerged from discussions with William Dotterweich ’58, a long-time financial angel of the undergraduate Right to Life club and University benefactor who in 1991 created with his wife, Peggy, an endowed scholarship for deserving undergraduates in need of financial assistance, with preference given to minority students.

Kirk says the couple was “disappointed that pro-life activities on campus tended to originate solely with the student group” and sought to encourage a “more intentional, institutional witness to life issues” such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

Education in beginning-of-life issues is a primary goal of the fund, which will sponsor the academic events, research initiatives and curricular offerings familiar to many of the University’s centers and institutes. Kirk says she and her colleagues are thinking about how to reach students who are “lectured out” through retreats and activities that prepare them — in the words of the fund’s mission statement — “through personal witness, public service and prayer to transform the culture into one where every human life is respected.”

A major initiative is Project Guadalupe, a direct response to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.” One component is a high-level, interdisciplinary undergraduate course, The Gospel of Life, that will first be offered in spring 2010. A second, the two-week ND Pro-Life Summer Institute, launches next year and will introduce undergrads and young professionals to relevant biological, legal, moral and sociological issues.

The third piece is a two-year, interdisciplinary master’s degree program that will train candidates “to form the next generation of pro-life leadership” through scholarship and volunteer service in parishes, dioceses, schools, crisis pregnancy centers and policy groups. The program, tentatively projected to open in 2011, would be modeled on Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education teacher-training program.

David Solomon, the director of the Center for Ethics and Culture and philosophy professor who teaches a medical ethics course to as many as 350 students each autumn, says he’d eventually like the fund to support a research institute, where social scientists could provide peer-reviewed data and analysis on contested questions like the percentage of Down Syndrome children aborted each year on the advice of genetic counselors.

Notre Dame students are conspicuously pro-life, according to the University’s Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research. Slightly more than two-thirds express at least some opposition to legal abortion as incoming freshmen, more than double the percentage of peers who attend other highly selective private universities. Relevant exit data is unavailable, but Solomon and his colleagues believe those numbers soften before students graduate, making outreach to uncommitted and pro-choice students a top priority.

After the Bradley-Rougeau panel, the fund’s directors invited faculty and administrators to join students traveling in January to Washington, D.C., to attend the March for Life, an annual demonstration protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that constitutionally protected access to abortion.

In February, the fund sponsored a Bread of Life Dinner in the Oak Room at South Dining Hall. Several dozen students and faculty moderators ate together and discussed a talk by law Professor Carter Snead that linked respect for unborn human life with other social justice issues. “We didn’t want it to be just preaching to the choir,” Kirk says. “In fact, we limited the number of students who we know are in the pro-life group.”

The fund also covered expenses related to the ND Response Mass and Rally, a University-sanctioned protest of President Obama’s honorary doctorate and commencement speech.

It had already encountered controversy. In an April op-ed in the South Bend Tribune, theology Professor Jean Porter challenged the fund as an inappropriate University-sponsored foray into “direct political activism.” She wrote, “Once the University gives its official approval to an anti-abortion agenda, I suspect that any kind of real academic exploration of this question will become almost impossible.” Solomon’s published response argued that the fund safely toes a line distinguishing acceptable political engagement from partisan politics and described students as “eager to explore the intellectual grounds for their often unreflective views on abortion.”

Porter maintains that the fund’s directors should clarify whether the group will bankroll student campaigning on behalf of pro-life legislators, bills and judicial nominees.

Notre Dame faculty tend to keep partisan activity private, but many have testified before Congress and state legislatures on issues ranging from public funding for Catholic schools to invasive species to pension reform. “Universities are up to their necks in politics. What goes on at [ND’s] Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which I thoroughly approve of, is deeply engaged in the great cultural battles of our age,” Solomon says. “They’re not neutral on peace, and we’re not neutral on life.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.