Campus Conversations: Sexual health, abortion conversations spark intense debate on one Catholic campus, remain hush at another
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series titled “Choice on a Catholic Campus,” discussing sexual health, reproductive rights and religion at Fairfield’s two universities, both Catholic.
FAIRFIELD — A Planned Parenthood informational booth was one among a breadth of displays at a Fairfield University student-run event earlier this year. They had come before to little disruption.
But this year, the clinic’s representation drew condemnation and calls for balanced representation of the tense political debate surrounding the clinic and abortion rights at large. An administrator and Society of Jesus member added to the dissent. He told the campus newspaper, The Fairfield Mirror, the event disgusted him so much he could barely speak straight and called it a sign the university was becoming secular.
On a March 3 post on the newspaper’s Facebook page, Director of Restorative Counseling Rev. Michael J. Doody, a former campus ministry director, defended his comment in the Mirror article and engaged in intense debates, primarily with young alumni. Some parents and other community members thanked Doody for his comments, while several students felt alienated by his conduct.
“I am happy to provide sex Ed at the college level,” a Facebook account for Michael J. Doody posted on The Fairfield Mirror’s Facbook page.
Doody, continuing to comment under a posted article about a student-run safe sex and consent event, wrote, “If women want to sell penis cookies in public, they should preview them with their fathers and grandfathers. I was not happy to see them marketed outside my office!”
The administrator took issue with one group’s sale of phallic cookies but also called the sale of condoms in the student center “offensive morally,” naming condoms “fornication aids.” After he commented that problems would not arise “if people (here) lived chaste lives,” another commenter pointed out chastity was not a requirement for admission.
“But it is an ideal we aim for as a Catholic University,” read the reply from Doody’s account. “It is what we hope for in our students. We are not a secular school. We do not want to be a secular school. If you do not feel comfortable under the Catholic tent, go somewhere else. What is your problem. If you do not want Catholic values, go to UConn. Have a great time. We Jesuits did not sacrifice our lives to make this University a valueless swamp.”
Doody declined an interview because he is in Europe for the summer and subsequently did not respond to a request for specific comment.
The strong statements on Facebook left some students uneasy.
“It got much more hostile than it had to be...It wasn’t appropriate and it was very upsetting to a lot of our peers,” said Alec Lurie, a 19-year-old student from Long Island, N.Y. who will be a co-president of College Democrats next school year.
At the center of the torrent of dissensions was “Let’s Talk Sex,” a sexual health fair launched in late 2014 by College Democrats and since held annually. Planned Parenthood has staffed a booth each year, alongside various student groups offering sexual or women’s health resources or advocating for safe sex, consent and women’s health causes.
Doody was not the only one to have a strong reaction to this year’s event and, some noted, it was more intense than years past. Students for Life created their own display in protest, passing out over 150 purple ribbons so students could show their solidarity with the group’s “Pro-life” campaign.
Incoming leadership explained they were comfortable with Planned Parenthood’s presence but believed it important to have Hopeline Pregnancy Resource Center present to offer a contrasting point of view. The local organization aids women with unplanned pregnancies and offers services different than those of Planned Parenthood.
College Republicans towed a tougher line, condemning Planned Parenthood’s presence on campus in a statement issued on the student group’s Facebook page.
“The Fairfield University College Republicans formally condemn and disassociate from the choice of the Fairfield University College Democrats to invite Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, to our Jesuit campus,” read the Feb. 27 statement. “As a matter of principle, conservatives, Republicans, and the Catholic Church unilaterally stand in defense of life from the moment of conception until natural death, and as such we vehemently oppose the appearance of scandal and tacit approval this organization’s presence creates at our Catholic university.”
Haley Falls, a 19-year-old Fairfield University student and communications director for the Connecticut College Republicans, explained the Fairfield chapter issued the statement on social media to spread its message swiftly and because the group believes “Planned Parenthood had no business being on our campus.”
A representative from Planned Parenthood emphasized differing views should be heard but that criticism should be fact-based. The College Republicans’ statement offered a contested statement — that other federally-funded centers could fill the wake if Planned Parenthood were defunded. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has assessed the impact of defunding would include more unplanned pregnancies because of decreased access to birth control, and experts have said other community health centers could not care for the thousands of patients Planned Parenthood serves.
Planned Parenthood of Bridgeport, the clinic closest to Fairfield, provides services largely to people that are not on private insurance: 78 percent are on Medicaid, Medicare or are self-pay patients, meaning they have no insurance.
“I think that everyone has a right to their opinion and I’m very respectful of that,” said Pierrette Comulada Silverman, vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. “I think, for me, the one thing I would just want to say is making sure people are putting out factual information about what we are as an organization.”
Debate in 2017
Several Fairfield University students described growing tension in political discussions surrounding abortion rights and Planned Parenthood this school year. Planned Parenthood — whose funding has been recently threatened by President Donald Trump and Republicans controlling Congress — had not produced a similar level of backlash on campus before.
“This hyper-polarized environment is really making it difficult for anyone to feel like they can talk to anyone,” said Jessica Romeo, a 22-year-old from New Jersey who graduated last month. She was among the leadership of the Reproductive Rights Talk and Action Group, a student group advocating for abortion rights founded last fall.
“There’s not as much goodwill anymore,” she said.
Citing Trump’s election in the fall, a founder of Let’s Talk Sex and 2017 graduate called College Republicans’ and others’ responses similarly regressive.
“I’m not particularly surprised,” said Riley Barrett, a 22-year-old from Oregon, “because I think a lot of people feel empowered to voice opinions they wouldn’t have in the past.”
Over the past school year, however, College Democrats did see a “huge uptick” in enrollment with incoming freshmen, according to Lurie. He believes the student body is becoming ever so slightly more liberal with time. But he still sees liberal students as an eternal minority at the university.
Because of Fairfield’s dedication to Catholicism, Lurie said, abortion is “probably one of the most divisive topics on campus” amongst both the student body and university staff and leadership.
Students for Life’s Fairfield chapter has a dozen regular members but its email list includes about 80 students, according to next school year’s co-presidents Katie Curry and Lauren Hart. Both rising juniors believe all campus events that address the topic should include both students for and against abortion rights and sense students are roughly divided on the issue.
“I think people talked more about (abortion),” Curry said of discourse following Let’s Talk Sex in March and ensuing similar events, “and you were able to hear from people on both sides of the argument — like people really speaking out about it — so I think that was really interesting because you don’t sit in our dining hall and ask, ‘What do you think about abortion?’”
While interim president Lynne Babington denied a 200-signature student petition for access to contraceptives on campus issued at Let’s Talk Sex and University Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer Anderson evoked the school’s Jesuit mission in explaining the denial, Anderson cited the same mission to praise campus discussions.
The Jesuit educational mission, she described, encourages open dialogue, critical thinking and robust debate.
“We encourage students to have proactive and awareness types of events, so from a university standpoint we would encourage students to take advantage of either third party or people who are well-equipped to talk about sexual health,” Anderson said. “Planned Parenthood has come onto campus for the past three years and beyond just the contraceptives, they offer a lot of services to women as it relates to both reproductive health and women’s services. The university would welcome them.”
Abortion is a small part of the services the clinic offers, she noted, and Fairfield would encourage representatives to educate women on the vast health services it provides.
Across town, students describe the hum of conversations about abortion as more subdued.
Bridget Hughes, a 2017 Sacred Heart University graduate and former College Democrats president, called the university more conservative than the average college due to its position as a Catholic university and the importance of religion to the school community.
But the school, she described, tilts “non-political,” and College Democrats’ main mission was to encourage students to become politically engaged at all.
“We are really not a political place,” Hughes said.
Debates on abortion, she added, are rare. When political conversations and abortion debates occur, it’s often in the classroom as civil debates spurred by professors encouraging academic discussion.
A 21-year-old rising junior who identifies as pro-life called discussions at Sacred Heart similar to those across the country. On campus, most of the discussions Elizabeth Connell has about abortion are one-on-one individual conversations. She senses the majority of students lie somewhere between definitive for or against stances on abortion rights.
“I think there’s a mix of individuals. I definitely think it’s a conversation college campuses should have not just on the pro-choice side but also on the pro-life side,” Connell said, “and seeing both options — what exactly is personhood — and really opening up the conversation because I don’t think we do open it up all that much.”
Hughes, a Fairfield native, said the school’s Republican club counterpart is bigger than its Democrat group.
“I think Sacred Heart’s an odd place, and I say that with so much love for this school. But it is an unusual place,” she said. “I think it is students who are more conservative — and not even more conservative in a libertarian sense but in a social conservative way that isn’t necessarily seen among my generation, the millennial generation. I think it is interesting interacting with those students as someone who is a lot more liberal. You have to learn to talk to them.
“Sacred Heart’s good about forcing that conversation,” Hughes continued. “It’s not always comfortable and it’s not always easy, but I think they do a good job of encouraging that kind of dialogue so that we do know how to talk to each other. We don’t leave the school feeling like we’ve been in a bubble for all four years.”
Fairfield University declined interviews with Babington, health staff and religious university leadership for this series. Susan Cipollaro, associate director for Media Relations and Content Marketing, did not respond to specific requests for comment on administrators’ roles in campus debate and Doody’s personal engagement.