Controversial Activist Abby Johnson Invited to Virtual Campus: “What it Means to Be Pro-Life” Under Debate

Images courtesy of Cardinals for Life, SGA, and College Republicans 

By Shannon Rose Miekka

Over the last seven days, Catholic University has been through a whirlwind surrounding one Zoom event’s controversy, cancelation, and revival.

On Tuesday, February 9, Cardinals for Life had planned to host activist Abby Johnson for a webinar titled: “What it Means to be Pro-Life: Why Choosing Life Matters.” But everything changed in the final 24-hours leading up to the event.

Former Director of Planned Parenthood turned pro-life activist Abby Johnson has a unique perspective on the abortion discourse. In 2009, she resigned from her position, and today, she runs an anti-abortion ministry. Her story sparked the 2019 film Unplanned based on her book and earned her a spot to speak at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

The Petition that Sparked the Fire

One week before the event, CUA Students started a petition voicing disagreement against the Abby Johnson event. In one day, the petition reached 1,000 signatures.

“This is extremely important because we do not want to send out the wrong message to members on our campus or elsewhere, nor do we want to give a platform to someone who has explicitly expressed views contrary to our call to respect the dignity and life of all people,” the petition reads. 

“Abby Johnson, in recent videos and Twitter posts, has expressed beliefs and values that do not embody the Church’s or Catholic University’s consistent life ethic, including egregiously racist remarks and arguments,” the authors continued.

“Abby has proven that she is anti-abortion, but not pro-life,” a supporter wrote.

A supporter signed “because a racist, anti-vaccine, Bishop and Pope-bashing pundit should not be the face of the pro-life movement, especially not at a pontifical university.”

“There are many other pro-life speakers who promote a consistent life ethic and recognize Black lives in and outside the womb,” another comment reads.

The petition reached 2,000 signatures on Monday, February 8– the day before the CFL event was to be held.

Why the Controversy Around Abby Johnson’s Appearance?

Johnson came under fire this summer following statements she made about her biracial adopted son. People have criticized her presence at the insurrection on January 6, as well as her views and public comments regarding the LGBTQ+ community, the Black Lives Matter movement, Pope Francis. More information about the controversies surrounding Johnson’s claims can be found here.

Catholic University Organizations Voice Their Stance

As the petition (as well as several outside publications opposing the event) gained traction over the weekend, members of the CUA community called on-campus organizations to voice their stance on hosting Abby Johnson.

On February 5 Catholic U Campus Ministry posted a letter from Rev. Jude DeAngelo, OFM

“Unfortunately, Johnson’s recent rhetoric and involvement in actively voicing her opposition to racial justice movements harms a large portion of our student body,” Fr. Jude’s statement read.

Fr. Jude wrote that the event will continue with the hope that Abby’s story could be powerful enough so that Catholic University’s community could overlook her political stances and understand that CFL’s mission was to “work on behalf of the pre-born.”

“I can only tell you that the Cardinals for Life have insisted to Abby’s team that she has been invited to this campus to tell her conversion story and not to convince others of her views on race or her most recent views on the USCCB. The Cardinals for Life do not endorse those positions.”

Several other CUA Organizations voiced their opposition, including the Black Students Alliance (BSA), CUAllies, the Filipino Organization of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), and CatholicU College Democrats.

“We promote the diversity of thought and freedom of expression on our campus. Racism is not protected by this standard,” the College Democrats statement read.

“We believe it is absolutely necessary to point out that Abby Johnson actively rejects the consistent life ethic, the individual’s right to life,” the BSA Leadership team wrote. “She has proven to be solely anti-abortion rather than pro-life, having yet to embrace life at every stage and of every identity.”

Here is a list of the published statements made by Catholic University groups:

Redline, February 7

BlackAtCUA, February 7

Project Arts, February 6

CUA Campus Ministry, February 6

Cardinals for Life, February 9

The Day Before Johnson’s Event

On February 8, the SGA Diversity and Inclusion Initiative announced an event titled Recenter, Refocus, Remind: A Conversation on the Consistent Ethic of Life to be held at the same time as Johnson’s planned webinar. 

Co-hosted by BSA, the Student Organization of Latinos (SOL), and FOCUS, the SGA Initiative invited Dr. Ansel Augustine and Ms. Leticia Ochoa Adams to speak. Dr. Augustine and Ms. Ochoa Adams are two prominent Black voices in the pro-life community.

Possible Cancellation of Johnson’s Webinar

Due to the controversy surrounding Abby Johnson’s appearance, it was unclear whether CFL’s event would go on as planned.

Johnson believed her event was originally canceled due to her support of Donald Trump:

Source: Abby Johnson: ProWoman, ProChild, ProLife |February 8, 2021

The Tower could not confirm the existence of a “Catholics for Choice” group affiliated with CUA.

The Resignations of Cardinals for Life Officials

Senior Christina Ciola commented on Abby Johnson’s post: “Hi Abby, I was a member of the @cuacardinalsforlife and have just resigned with Anna due to their choice to cancel your event. We were pressured by our liberal University Chaplain and the majority of our board caved to his pleas to cancel… all but Anna, myself, and one other member Christopher who are infuriated by this choice.”

The resignation of former CFL President Anna Stephens was confirmed by an article published by the Daily Caller on Monday night, which obtained the resignation letter she sent to President Garvey.

“I am writing today to inform you that I am resigning from my position as President of Cardinals for Life at the Catholic University of America, effective immediately, because of how I was pressured, against my conscience, by the University Chaplain in his capacity as adviser to Cardinals for Life, into making a decision to postpone indefinitely an event with Abby Johnson.”

Former CFL President Anna Stephens did not respond to The Tower’s requests for comment. 

CUA Republicans Pick Up Abby Johnson

College Republicans announced on Monday, February 8: “The Catholic University of America College Republicans will be hosting pro-Life warrior Abby Johnson (@prolifeabbyjohnson) tomorrow night, at 7:00 PM.”

“We understand that this is a decision that is bound to upset many students, and it’s not one that we came to lightly,” the post read. “Our members have placed their trust and faith in us to advance their beliefs, and even when unpopular, we will continue to do so.”

Cardinals for Life did not release a statement until after the event was picked up by CRs. On Tuesday, the organization publicly announced the event’s cancellation, stating understanding that “our classmates are not hurt by her Pro-Life message, but by the way she has expressed her opinion on sensitive issues such as race, Covid-19, and the USCCB,” the statement read.

“Thank you to the College Republicans for having a backbone and hosting me against enormous pressure from the university chaplain to cancel me completely!” Abby Johnson posted

The Show Goes On, Renamed “Fight for Life”

In his introductory remarks, President Clegg called it a “big and very consequential night for College Republicans.”

“The decision to host Ms. Johnson was an obvious one,” Clegg claimed. “If freedom of speech doesn’t apply to controversial speakers, it doesn’t apply at all.”

The event went smoothly, as Johnson detailed her experience working for Planned Parenthood and her mission of helping ex-employees find a relationship with Christ.

Johnson did not address the controversy of her presence, but one question mirrored the divide between the two simultaneous Zoom events.

Is pro-life different from anti-abortion?

“In my opinion, the pro-life movement needs to be focused solely on ending abortion,” Johnson answered. “For example, I personally am against the death penalty… Is that a pro-life issue? For me, it’s not.”

“There are some people in the movement who would say… women deserve the death penalty if they have an abortion,” Johnson also said. “I would say those people are anti-abortion and not pro-life.”

According to Bishop John Stowe, this does not align with the Catholic Church’s stance.

“Pope Francis tells us we can’t claim to be pro-life if we support the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border, if we support exposing people at the border to COVID-19 because of the facilities that they’re in, if we support denying people who have need to adequate health care access to health care, if we keep people from getting the housing or the education that they need, we cannot call ourselves pro-life,” Bishop John Stowe said.

The Aftermath: President Garvey Releases an Additional Statement

On Wednesday, February 10, President Garvey released a statement simply titled “Speech on Campus”.

“Two events run by student organizations offered different, complementary perspectives on being pro-life,” Garvey began. “I attended both, and I was impressed by the poise, thoughtfulness, and constructive attitude the students displayed.”

“Those who objected to her appearance by and large agreed with Ms. Johnson about abortion, the president addressed. “But they pointed out that she held other views – about race, politics, and the Covid vaccine – that were offensive and inconsistent with Catholic teaching.”

“Our students showed the wisdom of our fairly liberal speaker policy,” the President concluded. “The challenge, as one speaker correctly observed, is to ensure that we conduct our debates in a way that does not disrespect others. I saw a lot of respect in both events last night. I hope to see more, not fewer, conversations like those.”

College Republicans President Blayne Clegg Sits Down with The Tower After His “Recording-breaking” Event

The Tower spoke with the President of College Republicans Blayne Clegg on February 10, the day after he moderated Johnson’s event. Clegg detailed how the event fell to his organization. 

“In the days leading up to the event, it was becoming increasingly clear that the public pressure campaign that was launched by various groups on campus was going to be successful,” Clegg explained. “I was fortunate enough to be able to pre-empt any public release of information that this event was going to be cancelled so as to prevent confusion. I worked with the faculty advisor Professor Michael New, who got me in touch with Abby Johnson. I had a phone call with Abby Johnson and offered for her to come speak the next day.”

When asked whether he shares Abby Johnson’s belief as to why her event was nearly cancelled, Clegg agreed with President Garvey’s Wednesday statement.

“The [student groups] were pretty unanimous about the reason why the event needed to be shut down,” Clegg answered. “If that was due to accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, you name it, they accused her of everything in the book. It’s not… my place to opine on whether or not those things are true, obviously, to assume that if they are true, that I support them would be ridiculous and without evidence.”

So why was Clegg compelled to carry on the event? The new CR President has been clear that he finds it “especially important to give unpopular people platforms.”

“I support [the Student Government Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative] having their event and I support them doing whatever they want,” Clegg said. “This is an entirely consistent worldview that I hold here: I want more people to be able to speak on more things and not less.”

When asked if he would be okay with a pro-choice speaker coming to campus, Clegg was resolute.

“Yes,” Clegg answered. “Absolutely.”

All three speakers from Tuesday night’s events— Abby Johnson, Dr. Ansel Augustine, and Ms. Leticia Ochoa Adams—are anti-abortion. But the matter that remains up for debate: are all three pro-life?

“We can debate that until the cows come home, but I don’t care,” Clegg believes. ”I don’t care, because this was not about abortion. This was about free speech.”

“I’m fighting for an entirely different set of issues right now, because we can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time,” Clegg said. “I’m as pro-life as it gets. But I’m also as pro-free speech and pro open dialogue as it gets as well. And this was an opportunity to advocate for the latter, as opposed to the former.”

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