On 20 April 2016, the Lecture Fund, a student-run group at Georgetown University, pulled off a truly historic event. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, came to speak about the future of reproductive rights and campus organizing in the context of TRAP laws, the Supreme Court, and other topical reproductive justice issues.
Ms. Richards’ appearance on campus was hard-fought. As a Jesuit university, Georgetown, despite nominally supporting “a forum for the free exchange of ideas” even when those ideas “run counter to the Catholic and Jesuit values that animate [its] campus”, clearly disapproved. For example, anti-choice groups on campus successfully petitioned university officials to move the event from the historic and spacious Gaston Hall, which can hold over 1,000 people, to another auditorium, which holds only 400. The reason? Mass is sometimes performed in Gaston Hall on special occasions.
Lines of students trying to enter the event stretched out from the building’s entrance into the stifling heat of the brick patio outside. Did everyone who wanted to have the ability to enter, as they would have had the event been held in its original location? It’s impossible to say, but the interest in seeing Richards was a resounding demonstration of the general body’s stance on this issue. The University is out of step with its students, and Ms. Richards’ warm welcome was further proof of this indisputable fact.
The contents of Ms. Richards’ speech were passionate and inspired. She spoke about her life of organizing, from working to end apartheid in South Africa to protesting the construction of a power plant in New Hampshire to serving as deputy chief of staff to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to commending young people on “leading the charge” in speaking out to achieve a more progressive society.
Most importantly, she talked about intersectionality, thanking Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012, and affirming the “enormous debt of gratitude” we all owe them. She commented on the way race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity inform one’s access to reproductive health services. Because people of color are disproportionately low-income, they often face barriers to cancer screenings and STI treatment. Black women die of breast cancer at much higher rates than white women, and HIV is a leading cause of death among Black and Latina women. As we’ve all heard repeated time and time again, Planned Parenthood does more than provide abortion care, and reproductive justice includes more than abortion access for wealthy white women.
Ms. Richards’ audience responded raucously to her speech, cheering every few sentences. Perhaps the largest break for applause mid-speech happened when she commented, “I can’t wait until the day H*yas for Choice is a recognized group!” H*yas for Choice is an unaffiliated reproductive justice organization at Georgetown, and this fall, I will serve proudly as Co-President. HFC has existed without access to university benefits or funding for 25 years, and the Lecture Fund secured us reserved seats at this event, another indicator of Georgetown’s reluctant shift toward becoming a more progressive university.
In the hours after the event, criticisms of the event flew thickly on social media. Anti-choice students complained bitterly that the event had been hopelessly one-sided, that Ms. Richards hadn’t taken enough questions from their own people – never mind that she had only taken four questions and fully half were from Georgetown Right to Life students, and that Georgetown should have required an alternate perspective be present on the stage. In response, H*yas for Choice published this fantastic opinion in the student newspaper. “Pro-life spaces are not our spaces,” it reads, continuing, “listening is a part of conversation…we will not apologize for our views or the spaces in which we present them….If pro-life students find themselves in a pro-choice space, we invite them to sit with discomfort.”
My last comment on Ms. Richards’ appearance is on the way this event can help launch a new long-term campaign for better health care on campus by reenergizing the general student body and student activists alike. I co-wrote an article in another student newspaper that coincided perfectly with Ms. Richards’ address. It provided the results of a survey where Georgetown students could anonymously submit stories trying to navigate reproductive health care at the student health center. The results were abysmal: students were unable to get birth control prescriptions, despite University assurances, and many could not even get an existing prescription refilled. Others experienced STI misdiagnosis or sex-negative, homophobic, and transphobic health providers who shamed students seeking care.
I’m proud of the Lecture Fund for bringing Cecile Richards to campus, and I give grudging respect to Georgetown University for not disrupting the event any more than they did. But, of course, speaking on these issues is only half the battle. Particularly at Georgetown, we need to move past a vision of reproductive justice that exists solely of abortion advocacy and passing out condoms. Thank you, Ms. Richards, for coming, and I sincerely hope we use this success as a mechanism for launching a new sexual health campaign on campus.