YDS student groups set stage for respectful dialogue on abortion

By Alison Donohue  ’12 M.Div.

Something exciting is afoot at Yale Divinity School. A handful of deeply committed YDS students on both sides of the abortion issue have refused to succumb to the stalemate-inducing rhetoric around the historically polarizing subject.

Things began to get interesting last November, when the Community Life Committee (CLC) conferred official club status on the YDS Right to Life Fellowship (RTLF), making it the first officially recognized pro-life or pro-choice group on campus.  That prompted Seminarians for Reproductive justice (SRJ) to also apply for official club status, which was granted just a few months later.

“There has been pro-life and pro-choice action on the Quad since I have been here, but only recently did those groups apply for official recognition and funding,” observed Dean of Students Dale Peterson.  “Conferral of official status is granted to a student group, Peterson offers, “as long as the club lives within the mission statement of the school.”

So why now?  In Peterson’s opinion, it was simply a matter of someone stepping forward.

In his first year at YDS, Craig A. Ford, Jr. ’12 M.A.R., president of the Right to Life Fellowship, observed what he calls “the conspicuous absence” of a Right to Life group, “especially given the vast variety of other clubs at YDS.” Ford had been active in Notre Dame’s Right to Life chapter while an undergraduate student and wanted to “create a circle of compassion and justice where the issue can be discussed.”

Under Ford’s powerful leadership last year, the Right to Lifers applied for and won club status, launched a fundraising campaign that increased their small CLC budget tenfold, and sponsored their first on-campus event.  Importantly, it was not an event on abortion, but rather on capital punishment. “We wanted to make a good faith effort to demonstrate our willingness to engage the entire spectrum of the pro-life ethic,” Ford said.

Though an active presence for many years at YDS, functioning largely as a group within the Yale Women’s Center, SRJ has not until now occupied official space at YDS—ironically, in some measure, due to the entrepreneurial spirit of it’s pro-life counterpart.

Rachel Sommer ’12 M.Div., the SRJ president, joins Ford in recognizing the delicate ground they tread, yet is committed to seeking common ground wherever it can be found. She explained, “The Right to Life Fellowship is full of compassionate, intelligent people whose approach to their mission ought to serve as an example to many in the pro-life position whose views are limited to the legalization of abortion. RTLF appears to genuinely want a world that is more accommodating to women who carry out their pregnancies.”  

This genuine interest in the well being of women is intentional on the RTLF’s part.  Ford noted, “Where people see a discourse of control [in the abortion conversation], one that eliminates agency and autonomy, we want to be aware of the negative things that have happened to women, and make ourselves credible dialogue partners.”

In fact, as Sommer reports, “The leadership of the two groups has been in conversation, and they have invited our participation in initiatives where we share common ground, like the desire to see families with young children receive more assistance and welcome, both from government and charitable institutions.”

And yet all know such mutual respect and hospitality will be difficult to maintain.  “There is tension at points and complementarity at points,” noted Peterson, “but everyone has to learn to live with divergent views.” 

Perhaps nothing will test the groups’ capacities to engage in respectful dialogue as much as the October 17-21 lecture series sponsored by the RTLF, “Abortion & Feminism.”  In fact, there has already been some defacing, by persons unknown, of RTLF posters for the event.

Guests for the lecture series include Sally Winn, co-founder of Democrats for Life, and the Sisters of Life, an order of Catholic nuns whose charism is to “protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”   Although not officially involved, the SRJ will surely be present. Said Sommer, “We don’t do ourselves any favors by just assuming what pro-life leaders have to say. We want to hear it ourselves, and potentially challenge it in a productive dialogue.”

In a divisive socio-political-religious climate, YDS and its intrepid student leaders are poised to offer a new way forward in the abortion conversation, modeling for other communities how mutual respect, openness to growth, and authentic humility can provide the foundation for fruitful dialogue.

Posted: 10/03/2011