Medical school students walk out on anti-abortion speaker at University of Michigan

The medical school students had filed a petition to remove the anti-abortion keynote speaker from the annual ceremony earlier, but the dean denied the motion

Johanna Chisholm
Tuesday 26 July 2022 15:58 BST
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U of M medical students walk out of white coat ceremony to protest anti-abortion speaker
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Dozens of medical school students at the University of Michigan staged a walkout this weekend in the midst of their White Coat Ceremony shortly after the keynote speaker – a known anti-abortion doctor – began their address.

Video footage of the annual ceremony held inside the Hill Auditorium at the Michigan institution showed Dr Kristin Collier, an assistant professor of medicine at the university and a self-proclaimed anti-abortion physician, beginning her address at the lectern as lines of white-coated students and some other guests began to file out of the building.

Students from the medical school had earlier filed a petition to the school’s dean, Dr Marschall Runge, to have Dr Collier, who is also the director of the university’s program on Health Spirituality & Religion, to be removed from the annual ceremony. They cited her comments as being “antithetical to the tenets of reproductive justice”.

“While we support the rights of freedom of speech and religion, an anti-choice speaker as a representative of the University of Michigan undermines the University’s position on abortion and supports the non-universal, theology-rooted platform to restrict abortion access, an essential part of medical care,” the letter reads.

“We demand that UM stands in solidarity with us and selects a speaker whose values align with institutional policies, students, and the broader medical community.”

The letter also shared anonymous quotes from students who had signed onto the protest, many of whom cited the selection of Dr Collier as leading them to “seriously doubt whether the school will continue to advocate for reproductive rights”.

“I’m already scared that I’ve chosen to attend school in a state where I may very well lose my right to a safe abortion, and the decision by UMMS to have Dr. Collier as a keynote speaker makes this even scarier,” one student was quoted saying the petition letter.

“I am attending UMMS in large part because of their progressive approach to health care and education, and the choice to have Dr. Collier as keynote speaker makes me question my decision,” another student wrote.

That petition, however, failed. Dr Runge wrote a letter in response to the “positive and negative feedback” he’d received in the wake of appointing Dr Collier as the keynote speaker and said that academic freedom trumped any qualms individual students might have over a person’s personal ideas.

“The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues, and Dr. Collier never planned to address a divisive topic as part of her remarks,” Dr Runge began. “Our values speak about honoring the critical importance of diversity of personal thought and ideas, which is foundational to academic freedom and excellence. We would not revoke a speaker because they have different personal ideas than others,” he closed, before adding that a forum on the “importance of diversity of thought” was being planned at the medical school, with more details being released soon.

Shortly after the White Coat cloaking ceremony had wrapped and the protesting students had exited the building, Dr Collier seemed to address the controversy around her keynote address in a tweet on Sunday without specifically citing it, writing: “truly grateful for the support, emails, texts, prayers and letters I’ve received from all over the world regarding the event that will happen today. i feel so bolstered by it. and for my team that have carried me daily thru this —I love you.”

During her address, which was preceded by the 168 medical students receiving their white coats and reciting the White Coat Pledge, Dr Collier again seemed to hint at the dispute that led up to her speech. Though, she never directly addressed the petition to have her removed from the docket.

“I want to acknowledge the deep wounds our community has suffered over the past several weeks,” said Dr Collier as her speech, which did not discuss abortion, began. “We have a great deal of work to do for healing to occur and I hope that for today, for this time, we can focus on what matters most: coming together to support our newly accepted students and their families with the goal of welcoming them into one of the greatest vocations that exist on this earth.”

In Michigan, patients seeking an abortion are required to receive state-directed counselling, which includes information designed to discourage that person from continuing with the procedure. Then they must wait 24 hours before they can receive it, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

While abortion is legal in the state of Michigan, since the overturning ofRoe v Wade last month, abortion advocates are concerned that the procedure could be made a felony because of a 1931 law that would outlaw nearly all instances of the procedure.

In April, Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Dr Sarah Wallett filed a lawsuit that sought to block the enforcement of the 1931 law from coming into effect in the state. In May, the Michigan Court of Claims granted a preliminary injunction in the suit.

Until a decision is made on the lawsuit, the 1931 law will not be able to go into effect, according to Michigan Radio. However, the Right to Life of Michigan, the Michigan Catholic Conference, and two prosecutors have asked the appeals court to remove that injunction, which would effectively ban the procedure.

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