Tara Borton, a first year law student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, thought Planned Parenthood was a fine place to fulfill the public service requirement for graduation. She was set to start there on May 12.
But then she ran smack into abortion politics and Catholic doctrine. She’s also ignited a bit of firestorm at St. Thomas.
St. Thomas is a Catholic university, and the church has an issue with Planned Parenthood because it is a leader on abortion rights. So the student committee that oversees public service choices grudgingly gave her permission work with Planned Parenthood as long as she stayed clear of anything related to either birth control or abortion.
But even before she heard about that decision Law School Dean Thomas Mengler stepped in and nixed the whole thing. He’d received a flood of protests from others at the school objecting to the committee’s decision. Any volunteering for Planned Parenthood is unacceptable, he said in a letter to the committee and the school.
“Volunteer service at Planned Parenthood, whatever the nature of that service, advances the mission of Planned Parenthood, an organization whose mission is fundamentally at odds with a core value of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Borton has calmed down some, she said, “but when I read that email I was really upset.” She understands his point — that allowing her to volunteer for Planned Parenthood makes it look like the school is endorsing its mission. “But I think that’s totally off base,” she said. “I think that much it’s more of an academic detriment to the school than it is protective of Catholic identity.”
Besides, Borton is not Catholic. She is what her mother calls “a recovering Catholic,” she said. It’s not right for the school to impose Catholic doctrine on non-Catholic students, she said.
She chose St. Thomas law school in part because she believed in its social justice mission, which is closely tied to its Catholic identity, she said. “But my idea of of social justice is working at Planned Parenthood.”
Borton said she’s worked as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood before. “I like the work they do with (sexually transmitted infections) and contraception. They do male services, too,” she said.
Mengler said there is precedent for his decision. Nine years ago then school president Father Dennis Dease denied an internship to an undergraduate student who wished to volunteer at Planned Parenthood to help victims of acquaintance rape. But Father Dease said no for the same reasons as Dean Mengler. “Planned Parenthood is a leader in the abortions rights movement,” and “opposition to abortion is one of the core values of the Catholic faith,” Mengler said in his letter.
Mengler predicted that not everyone at the law school would agree, and he was right. A group of 80 students signed a letter objecting to his decision, saying among other things:
“The future of our school’s reputation in the legal community, as well as in the community at large, depends on the law school continuing to attract not only those Catholic students who agree with the Church’s teachings on the issues of abortion and contraception, but also those who respectfully disagree.”
Moreover, the students said, the dean does not have the right to overturn the decision of the student committee that approved Borton’s volunteer plan.
Mengler also said that of course anyone can volunteer anywhere on their own time. Bortons said she’s scheduled to met with Mengler today, and plans to ask him to find a compromise.
Planned Parenthood said in a news release:
“St. Thomas appears to be out of step with many of it’s own students and the majority of Minnesotans. This decision illustrates a disturbing and dangerous lack of tolerance on the part of leadership at the school.”
And it said that at least a dozen people from St. Thomas have volunteered at Planned Parenthood in last five years, but none from the law school.
It’s a controversy that raises a lot of interesting questions about the freedom students have to choose their own way, and the conflict inherent in being a world class law school and the edicts of the church. Oh, and contraception and sexually transmitted diseaases. Let’s not forget those.
What do you think? Should Dean Mengler back down? Is he right to enforce the views of the church on the students? Is it likely to scare away prospective students?