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“But Georgetown is a Catholic school.”

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by Allix Hillebrand, MS3 at Georgetown University School of Medicine

If I had a dollar for each time someone said this to me, I would have enough money to pay for someone’s abortion. It is frequently followed by: “If you care so much about these issues, why didn’t you go to a different medical school?”

Medical Students for Choice is an unofficial student group at Georgetown University School of Medicine. This is because our ideas conflict with the university’s Catholic ideology. MSFC’s mission is “to create tomorrow’s abortion providers and pro-choice physicians.” This is especially needed at Georgetown, where we do not receive any abortion training unless students proactively request to rotate through a specific hospital for our Ob/Gyn rotation, and further, request abortion training at this hospital. Efforts to include abortion training in our curriculum have been stonewalled. Many of my peers would not learn about abortion if it weren’t for MSFC.

According to school policy, in an effort to encourage free exchange of ideas, MSFC is allowed to use on-campus spaces as long as they are reserved under the name of an individual student. MSFC is also barred from receiving any funding that other official clubs receive from the school. The medical school administration has no qualms with MSFC as long as we follow the policy.

In my experience here, most of the individuals who start a firestorm regarding Georgetown and its “pro-abortion” ties are not Georgetown students. They are also, for the most part, not Georgetown faculty, alumni, or donors. They are the greater American Catholic community, spearheaded by organizations such as The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) and the Cardinal Newman Society. One of their overlapping goals is to ensure Catholic dogma is followed by the many Catholic institutions across the country – including Georgetown University and its medical school.

Over 15,000 supporters of these organizations signed a TFP petition demanding the Georgetown MSFC chapter be “cancelled.” The petition included quotes about a papaya workshop before we had even hosted one and an additional article with details about the club, directly linking to my Twitter account. The news that there was a “pro-abortion club” at Georgetown quickly spread to other anti-choice news outlets: LifeNews, LifeZette, and the Cardinal Newman Society. The thousands of comments on Facebook included one person who said that Georgetown University should be swallowed into the “bowels of hell.” Someone else asked about arranging a bus to come to Georgetown to protest. Another said our club members should be shot. Facebook replied to my report of harassment and said it wasn’t a true threat according to their policy, so there was nothing they could do.

People soon started calling the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., demanding to know why such a club existed at a Catholic institution. The Archdiocese called the main campus at Georgetown, who then called the Dean at the School of Medicine.

Nothing really happened. We weren’t told to take our activities elsewhere or to stay quiet. Our club name was just quietly removed from the Georgetown “Student Clubs” website. TFP rejoiced in their “pro-life victory.”

Despite this harassment, the backlash from these Catholic organizations is not the central issue here. We are training to be physicians who treat patients of all backgrounds (not just Catholic patients). Catholicism, in my opinion, has no place in determining our medical education curriculum. I don’t care that according to Catholic ideology, contraception should only be used in the form of barrier protection to prevent transmission of STI’s, or that abortion is a sin. Women have and will always need contraceptive options to prevent and plan pregnancy. Nearly one million abortions were performed in 2014 alone. Many of our patients will have had abortions, and they will continue getting abortions. Many of my classmates, including myself, will become abortion providers.

On the one hand, the way Catholicism plays out in our education isn’t as horrible as it could be: our curriculum still covers contraception. Even at a more conservative school, it is 2017, and Georgetown would have little student enrollment if professors condemned contraception. And yet, when I helped organize an IUD insertion workshop for students with our Ob/Gyn Interest Group, we couldn’t advertise it on the official school activities calendar or club events email. 25 students eagerly attended this workshop on a Wednesday evening. A similar number of students spent a night learning how to perform first trimester abortion. This is clear evidence that medical students understand how important it is to learn these procedures, regardless of official Catholic policies.

I am not aware of any official policy that prohibits mention of these topics during pre-clinical lectures, but it is obvious that our professors aren’t sure where to draw the line. The one time that mifepristone (one of the medicines used in a medication abortion) was mentioned during our first year, the professor stated that it is “used for rape victims.” In our second year curriculum, mifepristone and misoprostol were mentioned once. During one of our second year infectious disease lectures, a clinical faculty member said “the c-word” instead of saying “condom.” Let me repeat that: in our professional school curriculum, where we are learning to become doctors, a professor felt uncomfortable using the word condom.

Of course, Catholicism has some redeeming qualities when it comes to medicine. One of Georgetown’s core principles is cura personalis, or care of the whole person. This Jesuit concept translates well toward medical education, where we hope to produce caring physicians that attend to each of their patient’s individual needs, as opposed to the production of physician robots. However, we cannot ignore the blatant constraints that Catholicism places on medical education at the expense of our future patients’ health.

As a medical student and future physician, I believe that I have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of my future patients and to facilitate abortion education opportunities for myself and fellow students. I shouldn’t be afraid of retaliation from the school when I stand in front of a room of students and call myself an “abortion rights advocate,” or when I meet with Virginia state legislators and testify on behalf of pro-choice bills. Patients will always need access to safe, legal abortion and contraception, and physicians must be prepared to meet this need.

Georgetown is one of six Catholic medical schools in the United States. In my opinion, as long as Catholic ideology continues to inhibit medical education, that number should be zero.