Commentary Religion

On Abortion, Speech, and the Catholic Campus: Vatican Responds to Petition Against Georgetown

Erin Matson

A recent petition by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who's best known for writing The Exorcist—is aimed at forcing the university to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity, and it's been yellow-lighted by a Vatican representative.

In a move that could lead to repercussions felt far beyond a Washington hilltop, a Vatican official has lent credence to a petition started by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who’s best known for writing The Exorcist—to force Georgetown University to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity.

The petition, which has garnered about 2,000 signatures, suggests that the Vatican require Georgetown to implement the papal decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae. If not successful in addressing concerns, it calls for “the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in any of its representations.” The Vatican declined to do so, but still gave Blatty and his fellow hardliners a pat on the back. A letter from Archbishop Angelo Zani, who serves as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, referred to the petition as “a well-founded complaint.”

“Our Congregation is taking this issue seriously,” Zani wrote, “and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. According to the school’s website, “Jesuits have played a significant role in the growth and evolution of Georgetown into a global research university deeply rooted in Catholic faith. … The ideals and principles that have characterized Jesuit education for over 450 years are central to Georgetown’s mission and character.”

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So why does a group of hardline Catholics want to crack down on Georgetown? Well, outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke to the students in 2012, angering those who see the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on preventive care—and especially a requirement that says insurance companies can no longer discriminate against women by charging them additional copays for birth control—as morally equivalent to throwing flaming axes into a nursery.

What’s more, Blatty objected to students being able to choose from courses, including “Political Theology: The Case of Islam” or “Feminist Theology,” to fulfill the second half of Georgetown’s undergraduate theology requirement. And of course there is the matter of H*yas for Choice, an unofficial student group working toward increasing the availability of condoms on a campus that refuses to allow campus stores and medical facilities to sell them.

Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for the university, responded to the petition in an email to The Georgetown Voice. “Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,” she said.

It’s purely ridiculous to suggest that Georgetown is not Catholic, and it’s offensive. Blatty’s petition is an attack on Georgetown University as a whole: its students, its faculty, its administrators, its alumni network, and the community it serves. It is an attack on academic freedom, religious pluralism, and the free exchange of ideas. It is an insult to the very Jesuit ideals of the university, and the many practicing Catholics on campus.

This Is Personal

Full disclosure: I am an alum of Georgetown University, and I have a dog in this fight. I am keenly aware of how the school’s discriminatory policies hurt its women students.

Back in the dark ages of 2002, I was on a university student health plan and a modest student budget. I needed to fork over a $110 copay to refill my birth control prescription at a drug store off campus, even though I was paying my full premiums with the expectation that my health-care needs would be covered. I count myself lucky that needing to scrimp on my grocery expenses was the only consequence.

In 2012, I expressed my anger and embarrassment in an open letter to university President John DeGioia that a law student with polycystic ovarian syndrome in similar circumstances couldn’t afford to continue refilling her contraception, leading to the growth of a cyst and ultimately having an ovary surgically removed. (Georgetown has since accepted the Obama administration’s accommodation for religiously affiliated institutions that refuse to pay for the coverage themselves, and began to include contraceptive coverage in its health plans in August 2013.)

I say this as someone with deep respect for the university’s heritage and traditions: Georgetown could do massive good for its students by adopting more common-sense approaches to its “pro-life” identity at the ground level. As evidenced by the existence of groups like Catholics for Choice and regular polling of Catholic people, the hardline approaches taken by the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church on matters of sexual morality are hardly representative of the whole.

Today I am an active and engaged alum, regularly returning to campus to mentor women students, judge student debates, and participate in panel discussions about leadership and nonprofit management at the career center. Recently, I gave a talk about the underrepresentation of women and politics and the media as part of Choice Week 2014, organized by H*yas for Choice. So when the Washington Post asks a source in its story about Blatty’s petition “how a Catholic school could satisfy Ex Corde if it hosts people and conversations supporting abortion rights,” it is clear we are, among other things, talking about an effort to exclude real people who give freely of their hearts, minds, and wallets to their beloved Georgetown community—including me.  

Not “Pro-Life” Enough?

In 1992, after much pressure from the Archbishop of Washington, and likely Rome, via a petition, then Dean of Students John DeGioia removed the university’s recognition of student-founded group GU Choice just one year after approving it. That decision led to the formation of the unofficial group H*yas for Choice as it continues today. Not being officially recognized means the group doesn’t receive tuition-backed student activities funds accessible to other groups and can’t use or rent tables, Laura Narefsky, a graduating senior and outgoing president of H*yas for Choice, told Rewire.

It also means that disclaimers abound. At my recent talk on the underrepresentation of women in politics and the media, Narefsky opened the session with: “The views and opinions expressed by members of H*yas for Choice are those of the individuals and our presence here and the fact that we are on the Georgetown University campus does not imply endorsement by Georgetown University or the Society of Jesus.”

That disclaimer has been around a long time, at least as long as the first meeting she attended as a first-year student in 2010. “As far as I am aware, that is not something other groups do,” Narefsky said.

Accessing space for events, meetings, and tabling is an issue, Narefsky told Rewire, noting that H*yas for Choice couldn’t use “the big lecture halls,” although a “Memorandum of Understanding: New Strategy for Speech and Expression Policy” released by the university on May 15 and obtained by Rewire says that “Classrooms and other Registrar spaces are places of dialogue and free exchange. The University will accommodate equally all students and student groups who wish to schedule an event or public meeting in classroom spaces subject to availability.” The review came after controversy earlier this year when campus police removed a table H*yas for Choice was using to distribute free condoms.

As for Blatty’s petition, Narefsky minimized its claims and support. When asked what she would say to those who allege that the campus has become intolerant toward people who hold “pro-life” views in accordance with church teachings, the emotion rose in her voice. “I would invite them very cordially to come and look at the crucifixes in every classroom and I would invite them to speak with the student body, which is more conservative [than many campuses],” she said. “I don’t believe the people who say Georgetown is hostile to pro-life values have ever set a foot on campus. It is blatantly untrue.” 

University Ideals, Vatican Hypocrisy

The Blatty petition, and the Vatican’s supportive acknowledgement of it, happens during a broader discussion about the role of free speech, and in particular controversial speakers, on campuses across the country. This commencement season, left-leaning students protested over the inclusion of various speakers, leading Condoleeza Rice to decline an invitation to Rutgers and Christine Lagarde to cancel at Smith, among others.

Liberal journalist Michelle Goldberg has criticized that tactic, telling Vox in an interview that “free speech and the free exchange of ideas and kind of open-ended intellectual inquiry – they’re values that are worth defending in and of themselves, full stop.” It is appropriate to see Blatty’s attack on Georgetown from the right in a similar vein, both against the general value of intellectual integrity and the specific aims of the school. Georgetown says on its website that “we provide students with a world-class learning experience focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs.”

How sad that Blatty and a small, vocal minority in the community aim to change that, and how hypocritical of a Vatican representative to give it any credence, especially when the Pope, a Jesuit, has urged the Catholic Church to focus more on the whole person and less on “small-minded rules.”

News Abortion

Study: Catholic Hospitals ‘Dump’ Abortion Patients, Often Refuse Referrals

Nicole Knight

"What doctors told us is sometimes for abortion ... there was a sense of, 'You're on your own,'" said Dr. Debra B. Stulberg, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Chicago.

The patient learned she had brain cancer in her first trimester of pregnancy. She needed chemotherapy and abortion care.

“I’ve got a woman whose life is threatened by brain cancer,” her doctor, an OB-GYN at a Catholic hospital, told authorities there. “I need to do a termination.”

Catholic hospitals follow religious directives that generally bar certain types of health care, including abortions, except when the patient is in imminent danger.

The hospital refused the treatment, telling the OB-GYN to refer his patient elsewhere.

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“They said, ‘Go take her to another hospital. Take her to another place. Those places are available to you. We don’t have to do it here…’,” the OB-GYN explained.

The case is among many contained in a new paper, “Referrals for Services Prohibited in Catholic Health Care Facilities,” which will be published in the September issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The study explores whether Catholic hospitals make timely referrals, provide complete and accurate health-care information, and supply emergency treatment when needed.

And it comes as Catholic facilities exert more and more control over U.S. health care, now accounting for one in six hospital beds nationwide, according to recent figures from the advocacy group MergerWatch.

“Until now, there hasn’t been a study asking about referral patterns in Catholic hospitals,” lead author, Dr. Debra B. Stulberg, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Chicago, said in a phone interview with Rewire. “We set out to ask OB-GYNs how the institution where they worked affected the care they provide.”

In 2011 and 2012, Stulberg and her co-authors conducted in-depth interviews with 27 OB-GYNs who were working or had worked in Catholic hospitals.

The OB-GYNs came from a diversity of faiths and hailed from all parts of the country; 17 were female, ten were male. And while the qualitative nature of the survey means the responses cannot be generalized across Catholic hospitals nationwide, the survey reveals a referral process plagued by reports of inconsistencies and treatment delays.

Survey respondents described cases where they felt that referring a patient to an outside provider put the patient’s health at risk.

One OB-GYN found it “nearly impossible” to treat heavy vaginal bleeding because of the hospital’s ban on hormonal contraceptives.

“Say you have…a 45-year-old who comes in [at three in the morning] with heavy bleeding and irregular periods. The most common approach to stopping her bleeding is to give her high-dose birth control pills for a short period of time. So, that became very difficult…’cause they didn’t have them in stock. I won’t say it’s impossible to get them, because like the head pharmacist knows where there’s three secret packs, and if you happen to manage to find the head pharmacist at [that hour], you can. But it’s nearly impossible to get birth control pills to treat heavy bleeding.”

OB-GYNs described broad inconsistencies in how hospitals handled referrals, with some hospital administrators and ethicists encouraging or tolerating referrals, and others actively discouraging referrals. Sometimes doctors kept referrals hidden. Respondents reported that patients needing abortion care were given less assistance with a referral than those requesting other prohibited services.

In one instance, a secretary tried to block an abortion care referral.

“What doctors told us is sometimes for abortion … there was a sense of, ‘You’re on your own,'” Stulberg told Rewire. She said the disparities in referrals can delay medical treatment and reinforce abortion stigma.

By referring patients for abortions rather than allowing the doctors to administer the prohibited care, some respondents felt the hospital “dumped” or “punted” the patients.

“It tells women that this care is not standard. It’s something we do on the side, under the table,” Stulberg said. “Imagining myself in those patient’s shoes, I might feel really abandoned by my doctor.”

Respondents reported that they received mixed messages from hospital authorities when the facility’s moral teachings were pitted against its financial interests.

For example, Catholic doctrine prohibits handling eggs and sperm for in-vitro fertilization procedures, but a respondent said a Catholic hospital system skirted the ban by opening an off-site fertility clinic.

As the OB-GYN explained, “Now, they’re getting a little crafty with how they get around it, and they go off-campus [to provide such services]. So we actually do now have…an infertility specialist, who is starting up an in vitro fertilization clinic off-campus…. We had somewhere to send them anyway before—it was just out of the system—but now the system wants the business.”

The authors call on policymakers to require Catholic hospitals that refuse to offer care to refer patients to providers and to inform patients beforehand about the limits on treatment at religiously run facilities.

“Having consistent procedures and help to access abortion will reduce the chance that the patient will be given the run around and have her care delayed,” study co-author Lori R. Freedman, assistant professor in the departments of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at University of California-San Francisco, told Rewire in a phone interview.

The recommendations are in keeping with ethical guidelines from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which advises health-care providers with religious objections to abortion care to notify patients beforehand and to refer them to abortion care providers.

The study builds on research published in Contraception by a team that included Freedman and Stulberg. They found that Catholic hospitals’ ban on tubal ligations caused unnecessary second surgeries and erected barriers to care for patients with low incomes.

“You really want women to find safe and compassionate providers as soon as possible,” Freedman told Rewire. “Delays…are not good for women.”

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Burden Is Undue: What I Have Learned and Unlearned About Abortion

Madeline Gomez

For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

Thirteen years before I was born, the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, for all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack.

In the past six years alone, states have enacted 288 provisions restricting access to abortion care. Three years ago, the Texas state legislature enacted HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill. And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled two provisions of that law are unconstitutional.

I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.

In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.

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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.


I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.

I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.

I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.

I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.

I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.

I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.

I am 22 and my friend—the first I know oftells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortionsshe will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.

I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.

I am 26 and in my home state of Texas, Wendy Davis is filibustering an anti-abortion bill with two pink tennis shoes on her feet. I watch her all night, my heart swollen with pride at hundreds of women screaming in the rotunda, refusing to be ignored. Despite their efforts, Texas HB 2 will pass. Within three years, over half the abortion clinics in Texas will close.

Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announcedbut it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.


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