Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
[Editor: This post was updated at 8:30 p.m. Pacific time, to include coverage of Cardinal Wuerl's homily at a "Mass for Life" for university students at a parish church in Georgetown.]
Georgetown University had defended Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards' April 20 speech on campus as evidence of the Catholic institution's commitment to the "free exchange of ideas."
But take a look at Richards' speech here, and it is clear that election year politics brought her to Georgetown. She gave a plug for Hillary Clinton, attacked congressional efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and targeted recent legislation in Texas designed to raise standards at abortion clinics.
The Cardinal Newman Society challenged the university's free speech disclaimer:
"There was no academic benefit for students, ... Cecile Richards’ lecture at Georgetown was nothing more than a pep rally for Planned Parenthood and the terrible, evil work that organization is openly committed to doing."
Georgetown junior Reed Howard, who attended Richards' speech, told Religious News Service that the Q&A following the talk “represented a free exchange of ideas or a spirit of dialogue.”
Richards began by buttering up the crowd: "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!"
She lauded Margaret Sanger as a visionary crusader in the fight for access to birth control, and, by extention, legal abortion.
Following the brief, airbrushed history lesson, which ignored Sanger's notorious support for the eugenics movement, there came the plug for Hillary Clinton (who recently earned a rebuke form PP after referring to an unborn child as a "person" in televised comments about abortion):
"After years of stalling, it wasn’t until then-Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Patty Murray refused to vote on a new FDA commissioner until the FDA issued a ruling to allow emergency contraception over the counter. And now you can get it right off the shelf in any drugstore in America."
Richards segued to the Health and Human Services mandate, and extolled the role played by Sandra Fluke, a fellow reproductive rights crusader and a graduate of Georgetown Law School:
"A Georgetown law student, Sandra 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."
Dressing up as "giant birth control pill packs"? That should make every Georgetown grad proud.
The future looks bright, said Richards. She noted that unintended pregnancies were sharply down and new technology is in the pipeline. ("We are even in clinical trials for a self-injectable birth control shot that lasts three months", she said.)
But the 2016 election year afforded no time for complacency.
"Can you imagine the progress we could make if we weren’t constantly fighting Congress about access to Planned Parenthood?" she asked, presenting the nation's largest abortion provider as a force in myriad political movements, from Black Lives Matter to the campaign for gender pay equity.
Richards' appearance on Georgetown's campus rightly sparked protests from pro-life student groups. But it is telling that the negative response was not powerful enough to force a retraction of the invitation, as has been the case at many elite universities, where campus activists have increasingly denied a public forum to leaders and thinkers with unfashionable beliefs.
Georgetown's palid defense of Richards' speech reflects its watered-down version of Catholicsm. "Social justice" gets a nod, but there is little patience for inconvenient truths that once shaped the university's mission and made its graduates special.
No wonder Richards was given a full hour to promote unrestricted legal abortion as a matter of social justice, on par with the battle to end slavery.
"For the last century, Planned Parenthood has also been on the front lines of fighting for social justice," she said.
Last month, when the news of her appearance at Georgetown first surfaced, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington offered an implicit critique of the university's position, but did not call out Georgetown by name.
A Catholic university has a unique responsibility to present the teachings of Jesus Christ with power and clarity, he said. "In our present culture, we have seen an antagonism against Catholic teaching. It is precisely in these times that Catholic institutions of higher learning are called to continual self-examination to ensure an authentic Catholic identity."
So what to make of the fact that on the very same day that Georgetown hosted the president of Planned Parenthood, a sister institution, the Catholic University of America, submitted supplemental briefs in its high-profile legal challenge to the HHS contraceptive mandate?
Tonight, Cardinal Wuerl celebrated a "Mass for Life" for local area college and university students and alumni at Epiphany Catholic Church in Georgetown.
“The word ‘choice’ is a smokescreen behind which those killing unborn children take refuge. Every chance you get, blow that smoke away,” said the cardinal in his homily.
“Do not ever be convinced by the rhetoric of liberation that killing unborn, innocent children is in any way similar to the great social justice struggles that our nation has faced – many times enlightened by the Church’s social teaching. Whether it was the fight against slavery, racial discrimination, or unjust working conditions, the Church’s proclamation of the dignity of all human life was the center.”