How Religious Colleges View the Dobbs Decision

Some religious colleges are celebrating the demise of federal abortion rights while others are taking a more nuanced stance. A rare few are condemning the Supreme Court’s decision outright.

June 28, 2022
Activists outside the Supreme Court hold up signs, one of which says "Roe Is Dead."
Antiabortion activists demonstrate outside the Supreme Court.
(STEFANI REYNOLDS/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)

Conservative religious colleges are taking a victory lap after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade. While many secular institutions issued condemnations of the decision, conservative religious colleges are celebrating a win against abortion rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday issued a 6-to-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to reverse the long-standing federally protected right to obtain an abortion. Some conservative states with so-called trigger laws have already outlawed abortion, literally changing the rules around reproductive health in moments Friday morning.

But among religious colleges, the response has not been uniform. While conservative institutions are celebrating, more moderate or liberal religious colleges have issued neutral statements, and some have even condemned the ruling.

The Victory Lap

Liberty University, the evangelical university in Virginia founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1971—shortly before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973—is among the religious universities noting their long-standing opposition to abortion.

“Today, on behalf of Liberty University, I want to express our gratitude to Almighty God for the landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. While this does not effectively end abortion in America, it is a monumental step in the direction of protecting life and placing that decision squarely in the hands of the American people,” Liberty University president Jerry Prevo said in a statement released Friday. “For nearly 50 years, Liberty University students, faculty, and staff have prayed, volunteered, and advocated for the life of mothers and their unborn babies. The Liberty student body has led the way and marched year after year, prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court, and committed their lives to pro-life causes. As Liberty University president, I am proud that we are now officially training the first Post Roe-v-Wade generation of leaders who will be Champions for Christ to continue to advocate for the life of mothers and their unborn babies.”

Liberty University has hosted numerous antiabortion speakers and events over the years; bused students to Washington, D.C., to support Supreme Court nominees who opposed the right to abortion; and revoked recognition of its Democratic student group because the organization’s stance on abortion and other issues clashed with university doctrines.

Liberty did not respond to a request for additional comment.

Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic institution in Ohio, also marked the news Friday in a statement from its president and faculty members celebrating the fall of abortion rights.

“I am delighted the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, a ruling that has wounded the soul of our country. Roe never had solid legal grounding, and I am pleased the justices had the courage to rectify the error and strike it down. I am also well aware that this decision does not mean the end of abortion in our country, and so, we who are pro-life still have much work to do, continuing to aid mothers in difficult circumstances and being instruments of healing for those who have lost a child through abortion, ” Father Dave Pivonka, FUS president, said in a statement.

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A university spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed by email that students formed a pro-life club in 1973, in the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade, which continues to be one of the most active organizations on campus. Over the years students have protested abortion in numerous ways, including by holding prayer vigils and protests, as well as by blocking the entrances of abortion clinics. The university is also home to the Tomb of the Unborn Child, where seven fetuses are buried.

“Our statement reflects the Catholic and Franciscan values of Franciscan University of Steubenville and our deeply held conviction of the sacredness and dignity of all human life,” Franciscan University of Steubenville spokesperson Lisa Ferguson wrote.

The Catholic University of America likewise celebrated the ruling.

“Today, in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court formally overruled Roe v. Wade,” Catholic University president John Garvey said in a statement. “This landmark decision changes our thinking about abortion in two ways. It rejects the unholy idea that there is a constitutional right to kill unborn children. And it returns responsibility for judgments about the permissibility of abortion regulations to the elected representatives of the people. Some state legislatures have already adopted plans for promoting abortion more enthusiastically than ever; others will greatly restrict the practice. Our national debates about abortion are not over. They have just moved to a different forum. Now we will all have a say in deciding how best to care for mothers and children. That is a great privilege and a great challenge.”

He added that since “unplanned pregnancies are a part of life,” Catholic University intends to “convene a working group to look for ways we can be more welcoming to mothers and babies.”

Treading Lightly

Other religious institutions were less direct. The Reverend John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, offered a seemingly neutral statement.

“As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is committed to the sanctity of all human life, and I have for many years joined with others in advocating for the protection of unborn life. We acknowledge the divisions among people of good will on the question of abortion, and the controversy that has endured in our nation for the past fifty years,” Father Jenkins wrote. “I hope that today’s Supreme Court decision, which returns the question of abortion to voters and their elected representatives, will provide an occasion for sober deliberation and respectful dialogue. We must work with those who share our views and particularly with those who don’t, as we examine the profound and complex moral, legal and social questions involved. We urge everyone to bring to these discussions a generous spirit and, above all, strive to establish laws, policies and programs that ensure equality for women and support for mothers and their children.”

Asked about the message, a Notre Dame official offered little elaboration.

“Anticipating the court’s decision, Father Jenkins wrote his statement after speaking to several people. It arose less from an institutional strategy, than from his reflection on what is needed in our nation at this time,” Dennis Brown, spokesperson for Notre Dame, said by email.

Seattle University, a Jesuit institution, issued a statement that seemed to straddle both sides.

“Our community, like the American polity as a whole (including the American Catholic community), is made up of people with a wide range of perspectives on yesterday’s decision. Some are celebrating Dobbs as a long overdue victory for the protection of vulnerable human beings,” Seattle University president Eduardo M. Peñalver wrote. “Others are mourning an erosion of the autonomy of those experiencing unwanted or unsafe pregnancies or those whose rights may be undermined in the coming years by the sweeping scope of the Court’s reasoning. We recognize this diversity of perspectives in the belief that reasoned and respectful deliberation can bring us closer to a truth that honors the dignity of every person.”

A spokesperson did not provide additional information on Seattle University’s stance.

A Rare Condemnation

Emory University, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church—and located in Georgia, where abortion could soon be banned—issued a statement disagreeing with the Supreme Court decision.

A statement from Emory president Gregory L. Fenves called the ruling “a painful regression.” Fenves also warned of the challenges to come, including for Emory’s obstetrics program.

“The Supreme Court ruling will affect legislation in many states, including Georgia,” he wrote. “As a university and as an employer, Emory is highly likely to face new limits on the reproductive health care coverage we can offer our students, faculty, and staff. We are working closely with partner organizations throughout the state to review and adapt to these changes. We are also collaborating with national associations to make sure health care students, residents, fellows, and providers can continue to train in—and practice—world-class obstetrics at Emory.”

An Emory spokesperson declined to elaborate on the university’s statement.

Unpacking the Responses

Colleges, like businesses, have brands to worry about. And how colleges communicate about this Supreme Court decision—among other issues—signals what they value as an institution. Messages are tailored to their constituents: employees, alumni and current and prospective students. For some religious colleges, their statements on the Dobbs decision could be easily linked to the values they’ve long espoused. Others struck a more nuanced tone, trying to appease diverse constituencies.

Erin Hennessy, a vice president at TVP Communications, noted that religious institutions aren’t monolithic, and neither are the constituents they serve. For example, some religious colleges may have to consider both conservative, older alumni and younger, more liberal students.

“As colleges and universities think through immediate and longer-term responses to the changes brought about by the reversal of Roe and [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey, they’re going to be leaning on their mission, their relationship with their religious body and their knowledge of what their students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors expect from them,” Hennessy wrote to Inside Higher Ed via email. “It’ll be a tough balancing act, and I expect we’ll see just as many religiously affiliated institutions step carefully here as we will see those who strike an outright celebratory tone.”

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