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Professors demand apology after Catholic college screens pro-life film 'Unplanned'

Principal says the film screening is 'consistent' with college's mission

Professors demand apology after Catholic college screens pro-life film 'Unplanned'

A scene from the movie "Unplanned," in theaters March 29, 2019. | Photo: unplannedfilm.com

Over three dozen faculty members of a Catholic college in Canada are calling for an apology after a film about a former abortion worker’s departure from the industry was screened on campus. 

Forty-three faculty members of the King’s University College at Western University in Ontario signed onto a letter criticizing the Catholic liberal arts university for allowing the pro-life film “Unplanned” to be shown to students.

“Unplanned” is based on the life of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic manager who created an organization to support those who decide to leave the abortion industry. 

Johnson has become one of the United States’ most well-known activists advocating for restrictions on abortion. The film depicts violent abortions, women bleeding and complications after taking an abortion pill. 

The film was screened on Jan. 9 free of cost to King’s University College students by the college's Campus Ministry, which seeks to facilitate campus life “rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition.” 

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The screening is part of the ministry’s “Veritas series for Faith and Culture,” which in the past has also featured events highlighting left-leaning causes and speakers such as Father James Martin

The college’s events calendar labeled the film as an “inspiring true story” that provides an “eye-opening look inside the abortion industry from a woman who was once its most passionate advocate.” In response to the event, pro-choice students and activists held a protest on campus. 

Last week, a group of professors that spans across disciplines signed onto a letter sent to Principal David Malloy, claiming that the screening of the film created “furor and fear” throughout campus. 

They claimed that the university’s handling of the screening was “inappropriate.” The faculty argued that the screening of the film did not meet the standards of the university’s mission to uphold “respectful and critical dialogue of difficult subjects in a scholarly, just and ethical manner.”

“The ‘Unplanned’ event did not meet the threshold of those elements within the Catholic intellectual tradition,” the letter states.

Specifically, the faculty took issue with comments made by Campus Ministry Director Rev. Michael Bechard to media following the screening of the film. He was quoted as saying that he hopes the film will send a “message to women that we are concerned about unborn children.”

The protesting faculty called on Bechard to issue an apology. 

“His position is hostile to women,” the letter reads. “Abortion is a safe and legal health service for women in Canada and is accessed by approximately one-quarter of child-bearing women. Women who have exercised their rights to reproductive care risk being stigmatized and traumatized by the ideological position presented both in the film and in the Director’s statement.”

They also called for the college to affirm that “faculty, staff, and students at King’s University College are not mandated to ascribe to all or any elements of Catholicism.”

"The public endorsement of an anti-abortion stance at King's University College by the Director of Campus Ministry is of great concern to the viability of our institution as we work to recruit and maintain excellent students, staff and faculty."

Bechard, a priest in the Diocese of London, told The Gazette prior to the screening that the goal of the film showing was not to persuade anyone’s opinions on abortion but simply to have a conversation around the issue. 

"It's part of our values and our mission statement to support life in all its stages, from conception to natural death,” Bechard said in accordance with traditional Roman Catholic teaching. “And we hope that this will begin to really challenge people to think about how we are responding to the many complex needs in our community.”

Despite his intentions, critics believe Bechard “underestimated the commitment to deep debate at King’s University College.” 

“Consequently, we have lost the opportunity to engage a highly inflammatory issue in an informed, deliberative context,” the faculty contended. “We have lost the opportunity to model to our students and the broader community the methods of inquiry and debate that are at the centre of the liberal arts."

David C. Malloy, principal of the college, responded to the faculty’s concerns in a statement posted to the college’s website. He explained that the film screening is “consistent with King’s mission to be a place where controversial topics can be presented and discussed.”

“King’s, like any other university, is where challenging political, social, and religious topics can be discussed in an environment that is respectful and safe,” Malloy explained. “Open dialogue and debate about uncomfortable truths is part of our mission. We are not advocating for any side of this debate but rather being a vehicle for the conversation.”

He said that “uncomfortable truth discussions are not designed to make people feel badly or hurt.”

“I regret that people in our community have experienced anxiety, stress and frustration as a function of this event. As Principal, I take responsibility for this and will strive to create a more open format for future events.”

Malloy added that while pro-choice advocates protested the film, they were invited to “participate before, during, or in the discussion period after film screening.” He said that no one was prevented from speaking during the discussion. 

“For example, the protestors used space on campus to make their protest signs prior to the event,” he said. “They also came inside the Student Life Centre (without signs or chanting) during the screening.”

The school created a “safe space” by having security present for the event, just like it has for past Veritas series events, he noted. Malloy assured that the presentation of the film and the belief that life begins at conception is a stance held by Campus Ministry, not the university as a whole. 

“King’s employees, faculty and students do not need to prescribe to the tenets of the Catholic Church,” he said.  “King’s does not have a position on abortion.”

While abortion may have become “safer” for women over the years, a study from 2018 shows that thousands of women are sent to emergency rooms each year due to complications with abortion. 

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