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Pro-life talk but not pro-life ethic

| Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Last week, approximately 600 students, faculty, staff and alumni represented the University of Notre Dame at this year’s March for Life. Despite the unusual cold and vast amounts of snow (by D.C. standards, at least), the Notre Dame community demonstrated its commitment to life as beginning at conception. Roughly two months ago, the University re-filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana for relief from the HHS Mandate. This is a case about religious liberties, but at the heart of the matter is Notre Dame’s commitment to the unborn and the teachings of the Church that celebrate life, whenever it comes and whatever its form.
In its November 13, 2013, “Special Message” on the HHS Mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterated their opposition to the mandate and celebrated the Church’s long-standing practice of providing and advocating for “accessible, life-affirming health care” (usccb.org, U.S. Bishops Issue ‘Special Message’ on HHS Mandate at Conclusion of General Assembly). They grounded their concerns in the Church’s commitments to “feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young.”
I have often heard criticisms of the “pro-life” movement by members of the “pro-choice” community that construe pro-lifers as only caring about life at conception and as stopping to care about that life once it has been born. Such critics point to a perceived comparative lack of vigor about the rights of the elderly, disabled, homeless and orphaned. To the extent that this criticism is true, it is well-deserved: a healthy respect-for-life ethic must be carried through to support and value life in all of its stages and forms, no matter if the work becomes less glamorous or harder because of social inequalities, racism and systematic poverty (to name just a few complicating factors).
At least at one time, it would have been harder to levy this criticism at Notre Dame. When I heard of the University Life Initiative called the “Pregnant and Parenting Student Assistance Fund,” I was thrilled. This fund, to me, was a demonstration that Notre Dame was interested in following through with its commitment to support life; it was a sign the University was interested in engaging with students in the challenging and resource-intensive task of raising the life that often can be so easy to create.
Simply put, the assistance fund existed to support undergraduate or graduate students who faced intentional and unintentional pregnancies. Recognizing “pregnancy and parenting present challenges of fitting in as well as keeping up with academic demands,” in its mission statement on the University Life Initiatives website, the University committed itself “to working with pregnant and parenting students to find ways for them to continue their education at the University.” For many students, this meant they received financial assistance for diapers, formula and childcare — costs that are not provided for in the typical financial aid award or graduate student stipend. This fund was a blessing to many students, some of whom I know here at the University and some of whom have graduated in recent years.
But this fund is no more — it has assisted its last pregnant or parenting student. In the words of the fund administrator, “no funding remains,” and the University has “decided not to move forward with actively seeking donations for the fund at this time,” according to an email from Peter Horvath, student services program director of the Notre Dame Law School, to me dated Jan. 23, 2014. I learned the fund had been discontinued when I went to apply for assistance for myself, my spouse and our child.
At one time, the University saw this fund as deeply connected to its mission as a Catholic university. It was a very concrete way for Notre Dame to follow through with its promise to support life. From the University Life Initiative’s program description on its website: “Notre Dame is committed to life and to offering students resources that support a student’s choice of life — both during the pregnancy and after the child’s birth.”To be fair, Notre Dame does offer limited additional resources for pregnant and parenting students, including counseling, academic support, housing accommodation for undergraduates and limited financial assistance for those with unintentional pregnancies. But none of these programs offer the same flexibility to meet individual needs as the assistance fund, and many of the resources offered by Notre Dame are not available to graduate students or those who became pregnant intentionally. By closing off this avenue of support for many of its own families, Notre Dame opens itself up to criticisms that it is interested in the pro-life talk but not the pro-life ethic. By encouraging students to be open to life but not supporting them once that life has arrived, Notre Dame finds itself in a position that is too close to hypocritical for comfort.
As a graduate student mere months from graduation, whether or not this fund is ultimately re-endowed is unlikely to impact my own life story. But my hope in writing this is that future students who are pregnant or have children can benefit from the University’s wealth of resources as they nurture the lives entrusted to them. In our transition out of Advent, through Epiphany and now into Ordinary Time, let us not forget the story of Our Lady, who prepared to mother in the worst of circumstances, and who, I think, feels as deeply for mothers and families as she does for the unborn. May she continue to watch over young families in need of assistance, even if her University has decided to do so no longer.

Elizabeth Pfenson is a third year law student at the University of Notre Dame Law School. She can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • ndls

    Thank you for writing this article. I think your criticism of the school as moving toward a non-pro life ethic is long overdue. Did you happen to catch the lecture at NDLS about the inequities of the school? about how female faculty members who have children are routinely passed over for promotion? about how insuring a child on our health insurance is practically not feasible? about the exorbitant rates for paying child care, and the lack of time given to female students who do happen to get pregnant? talk is cheap, and for all their endowments, notre dame is cheaper.

  • Jebediah

    Great article. This is quite hypocritical. Between the crosses on the quad, bussing people to DC for the march for life, HHS lawsuits, the university sure puts in a lot of effort and money to pro-life causes. But clearly this is only for the publicity and to please alumni, there is no real commitment. Like many other pro-life organizations, they don’t really care about quality of the lives they are advocating be born. Just need to create more serfs to pay money for ND foozball games.