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Pro-life task force hosts panel discussion on conscience clauses

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, December 3, 2009

Notre Dame is jumping into the public policy debate on conscience clauses today, in part due to the work of a special pro-life task force launched by University President Fr. John Jenkins earlier this semester.

The Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life and the Notre Dame Law School are co-hosting a panel discussion on conscience clauses from the perspective of a Catholic university at 12:30 p.m. today in the McCartan Courtroom of the Law School. The event may lead to the creation of a white paper on the topic, organizers said.

The event is just one of several things the new task force — which was formed partly in response to the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s Commencement visit last spring — is working on.

Task Force co-chair Margaret Brinig, professor of law and associate dean at the Law School, said that since the group started its work earlier this semester, they’ve spent time talking to various groups on campus — about 100 people in total.

“What we’ve done is worked in small groups and various people have had meetings with different groups,” Brinig said.

She chairs the Task Force with John Cavadini, professor of theology and director of the Institute for Church Life.

Brinig said the Task Force’s various groups are addressing various areas related to life issues, like pregnancy support and adoption, or, like today’s event addresses, conscience clauses.

In talking with groups on campus, Brinig said they’ve met with the gamut of students, faculty and administrators.

“We’ve met with a whole bunch of the various Right to Life [campus groups] but also with the president of the student body,” Brinig said. “We’ve talked to a number of the different department heads and deans and people like that.”

Brinig said the Alumni Association and various University administrators have been involved, as well as groups outside the University — including the locally headquartered Women’s Care Center, and other organizations in Washington, D.C., Seattle and St. Paul.

Discussions have produced various ideas about things the Task Force could work on or could recommend that other campus groups pursue, Brinig said, including undergraduate research initiatives, academic courses, service projects and conferences, among other ideas.

In an e-mail announcing the Task Force’s formation, Jenkins also wrote of his intention to participate in the national Right to Life March on Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C. Brinig said the Task Force is helping to coordinate the details of a Mass near the time of this event, and other related activities.

Brinig said the Task Force will exist at least for the remainder of the academic year and said the group will finalize a set of recommendations to present to Jenkins.

In the meantime, they have also undertaken events like today’s panel, which features three experts: Fr. Michael Place, chair of the International Federation of Catholic Health Institutions, O. Carter Snead, associate professor of law at Notre Dame, and Brinig.

According to a University press release, the discussion will concern ongoing legal developments and how Catholic teaching and tradition could inform efforts to protect the rights of conscience of health workers, pregnant women, taxpayers and other citizens.

Snead said organizers hope to attract a “wide and diverse audience” to today’s panel.
He said the event is intended to spur discussion and could also lead to a white paper on the topic.

The document would “offer suggestions for the contents of an ideal set of conscience … protections for individuals, institutions and citizens” related to questions of abortion and embryo-destructive research. 

The white paper would be written “from the perspective of a preeminent Catholic research university,” Snead said.