Catholic University Faculty Push Back Against Pro-life Group’s Event on The Pro-Life Response to Rape

Autumn Doersching - 20 Apr 2021

Post by Emily Stumpo, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

On Good Friday, members of Knights for Life at Marian University, located in downtown  Indianapolis, were surprised to receive news that a faculty member in the Department of Psychology had emailed the entire list of faculty department chairs, staff and administrators to lambaste the pro-life event. The faculty member characterized the event as intending to mislead people making a pro-life event  part of sexual assault awareness month. His position was that it was insensitive to survivors of sexual assault to exclusively talk about those survivors who became pregnant after their assault and that the group shouldn’t be holding the event, or at least should vastly change its content. This was a bit of a shock coming from a faculty member at a Catholic school, particularly as the email was sent on Good Friday, during the Triduum, and only 4 days before the event. Given the urgent nature of the issue, Knights for Life president and Marian University student Mary Carmen, who is currently also interning for SFLA, reached out to me as her regional coordinator, and Regional Director Michele Hendrickson, for advice.  

Mary Carmen explained that the group had taken several steps to ensure the event would be respectful and considerate to survivors while also addressing unplanned pregnancy in cases of rape. The group contacted the Counseling Department asking if they would like to speak, co-sponsor, or have a more active role in the event, given its sensitive nature. Additionally, the group asked Department Chairs if they would offer extra credit and/or mention the event in class for anyone interested, and made arrangements for a counselor to be present at the event for anyone who might need someone to talk to during or after the event. The department refused to work with Knights for Life, indicating that they had to remain “neutral” and were too busy to co-sponsor events. 

Given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, Knights for Life was excited to deliver a hopeful and empowering message to campus by hosting their first event that would address sexual assault and rape related pregnancy. The response of the counseling department, and the later addition of the intimidation effort by a member of the faculty was deeply disappointing.  

In Mary Carmen’s own words. . .    

When we read the email we were shocked; No one expected such an action from a faculty member, let alone the Department Chair of Psychological Sciences and Counseling. Our club’s name was publicly tainted, humiliated, and falsely accused of not caring about the mental health of sexual assault survivors, demeaning and stigmatizing their experiences, pushing our own agenda and not contacting “expertise” to be at the event. Our club regularly deals many obstacles because of the sensitive nature of abortion, and I understand that people have differing views. But a faculty member publicly insulting our club’s event and questioning its motives went too far.  

Knights for Life cares deeply about survivors of sexual assault. We never demean, stigmatize, or shame people who have experienced trauma. Our organization’s purpose is to help women who are facing a difficult situation of an unwanted pregnancy, and we exist to eradicate the stigma and pressure that force so many young women into having an abortion. We have always cared about the difficult and challenging circumstances relating to unwanted pregnancies and seek to provide real help and support for these women on our campus and in our community. This event focused specifically on the issue of pregnancy resulting from rape because we understand that, though it may be a minority of women, the lives of these women still have dignity and should be addressed. We want to ensure that women, especially people on our campus, are aware of local organizations that provide help to women who have experienced this trauma and are abortion vulnerable.  

After our flyers were repeatedly ripped down for this event, and after this professor’s email was sent to discourage faculty and students from attending, we are proud to say this event was the largest attended student event on campus this year, aside from athletic games. A total of 129 students and faculty attended in-person, and the lecture hall was standing room only. We had 87 club members and 42 new people who had never attended a pro-life event before, many of them nursing students, medical students, and faculty. Hearts and minds were changed, compelling questions were asked, and for that we are forever thankful.  

I received multiple emails from professors thanking our club for our humility and perseverance despite the setback. They were pleased we put on such an important event and handled ourselves professionally. I had a powerful conversation with a medical student about the safety of abortion and was able to send him videos of Dr. Levatino for further understanding. He thanked me for taking the time to speak with him and our club had inspired him to be more passionate about this issue as well. The Dean of Students and Provost of Marian University both responded promptly to this situation and have spoken with the professor about his inappropriate actions.” 

Hosting an event for the entire campus that sought to compassionately walk with survivors of sexual assault, particularly in the case of a resultant conception and answer one of the most common challenges to the pro-life position, Is abortion justifiable in cases of rape? was an incredibly courageous decision on the part of Knights for Life. Anyone who has participated in pro-life activism knows that this is one of the most difficult challenges to answer because of its intensely personal nature and the horrific violence of rape. Unfortunately, these personal stories of sexual assault survivors have been exploited by Planned Parenthood, by NARAL Pro-Choice America, and by the media at large to suggest that abortion is necessary, sometimes even making pro-lifers question their own position. The situation of rape-related pregnancies is used by those who seek to keep abortion legal and to challenge the assertion that preborn human life should be protected in all situations. This is an incredibly Catholic perspective, and I was so deeply disappointed to encounter this type of response from faculty and staff at a Catholic University.   

Marian’s administration, however, behaved admirably. Once Knights for Life contacted the Dean of Students, the group was allowed to provide an email response to go out to all of the faculty. Mary Carmen and her executive board wrote an extensive email addressing the concerns of the faculty member, (relevant passages below), with help from Michele and me. Unfortunately, they received another uncharitable response from the same faculty member. The Dean of Students spoke personally to the faculty member and the event was allowed to go forward. I made room in my schedule to attend the event in support of the students. My colleague, Julia DeLuce, SFLA Regional Coordinator of Florida and a sexual assault survivor and advocate, was one of the speakers. The event also featured, Dr. Donna Harrison, an OB/GYN whose impressive credentials made her uniquely capable of addressing the topic with the sensitivity it deserved. The panel also included representatives from O’Connor House, a maternity home north of Indianapolis, and the Hope Center, a live-in program for survivors of sexual assault. Both programs regularly encounter women who become pregnant after sexual assault and provided insight into the best ways to help women in crisis.   

The effort Knights for Life put into their programming filled me with pride as a regional coordinator, watching one of the groups I support take on this incredibly difficult topic with such grace and in the face of unexpected resistance. While we anticipated pushback at the event due to its contention lead-up, everything went smoothly and over 120 people were in attendance, including many of the faculty in the department that of the professor who had publicly accused the group Mary Carmen and I stayed up late that evening, reading emails from faculty members who attended and were impressed by the way the subject was addressed, and of the way Mary Carmen and her group handled themselves.  

I am grateful that the university administration did the right thing in allowing Knights for Life to host their event and spoke to the professor about his actions. However, it is deeply disappointing that at a Catholic university, a faculty members would make baseless accusations about the intentions of a pro-life club on their campus and blast it out in such a manner rather than approach the group to address his concerns with them directly. His actions appear to be aimed at cancelling the pro-life event rather than forwarding productive dialogue and building a culture of life on Marian’s campus, both to aid all survivors of sexual assault and assist women on campus who conceive an unplanned child for any reason. Our groups on campus encounter bias and discrimination of this kind so frequently that I ought to be used to it by now, but it remains one of the more difficult situations I encounter while serving my student groups. Watching them be maligned and attacked for stating the simple fact that all human life is valuable and deserves protection, regardless of the difficult circumstances surrounding that life, is a unique burden and I am so proud of Knights for Life and all of our courageous pro-life campus warriors. 

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