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Two clergymen walk in front of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Catholic University of America campus.

Catholic University of America terminated a lecturer’s contract because of remarks about abortion made by a guest speaker in her class.

Ken Cedeno/Corbis News/Getty Images 

Melissa Goldberg, a psychology lecturer at Catholic University of America, invited a doula and community health worker to speak to her Lifespan Development class. A week later, the university announced that Goldberg had been fired.

The speaker, Rachel Carbonneau, described working with women undergoing abortions and transgender clients during the class in response to students’ questions. A student recorded Carbonneau’s comments and leaked them to conservative news sites, and news of the class spread across right-wing and Catholic media outlets.

Peter Kilpatrick, president of the Washington, D.C., institution, wrote in a Jan. 30 letter to students and employees that campus leaders started gathering information about what happened from Goldberg and her students the day after Carbonneau visited the class. University administrators didn’t have access to the recording at the time. Kilpatrick said the university received media inquiries shortly after Carbonneau’s comments.

“While we were unable to confirm what exactly was said in the class, we did determine that the speaker’s views on life issues and on the anthropology of the human person were not consistent with our mission and identity as a faithful Catholic university, and that she should not be allowed to address the class again,” Kilpatrick wrote. “Now that we have clear evidence that the content of the class did not align with our mission and identity, we have now terminated our contract with the professor who invited the speaker.”

“As a Catholic institution, we are committed to promoting the full truth of the human person, and to protecting human life from conception to natural death,” he added.

Goldberg could not be reached for comment. And university leaders declined via a spokesperson to answer questions about the investigation and termination process.

Felipe Avila, a second-year nursing student who publicized the recording, said in an email that the university has employed instructors with “anti-Catholic curricula” before, so he thought the university might dismiss his concerns about Goldberg’s class if he didn’t go to the media.

“To protect myself from potential retaliation, I felt external pressure was necessary to ensure a just outcome for this egregious lecture,” he said. “I was pleased with the university’s swift response and adherence to its Catholic founding. The outcome of the university investigation ultimately reinforced the college’s unwavering commitment to its Catholic identity.”

Avila currently serves as director of digital media for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses and as a student spokesperson for Students for Life of America, a national antiabortion organization.

Not all students were pleased with the decision to fire Goldberg.

“I never expected that the university would do something like this. I never expected it in a million years,” said a student leader of Crdinals for Choice, a student abortion-rights group that launched in the fall. (The group uses “Crdinals” instead of “Cardinals,” which is the university mascot, to avoid implying university sponsorship.)

The student, who requested anonymity, described feeling “heartbroken” for Goldberg and the students who enjoyed her classes.

The student, who wasn’t enrolled in Goldberg’s class, said it’s understandable why the university took a hard-line stance, but Goldberg’s termination and the chilling effect it could have on students and staff members with opposing views is “wrong, and I hope that as a student here, as a proud student here … that things can change."

What Happened

Carbonneau, director of Family Ways, a team of doulas in the Washington, D.C., area, said she felt positively about the discussion when she left Goldberg’s classroom that day.

“It was, I thought, a wonderful discussion, very eye-opening,” said Carbonneau, who previously attended and worked as a graduate instructor at the university.

She said she opened the conversation by saying she was there to facilitate open discussion on any topics students wished, “from cervical mucus to circumcision.” She spent roughly the first 50 minutes of the 75-minute class discussing social determinants of health, the opioid epidemic and racial inequities in health care, among other topics related to perinatal health, she said. Abortion only came up when a student asked her about it.

Before answering, she recalls taking “a pause to see what the sense from the classroom would be, if this was something that we were open to discussing, and nobody objected to proceeding with the discussion.”

In the 10-minute recording, Carbonneau can be heard responding that she’s “an abortion doula, as well” and has had “the honor and the privilege of working with families that have had to make the hardest decision of their entire lives,” including “people that are having what we would consider an elective abortion in sort of the legal language but are still not electing to do that as a birth control consideration.”

“Me and my team of doulas … we come from the perspective of protecting life, and that looks like a lot of different things,” she told the class. “Because if your quality of life means you now can’t care for your older children, then what? If your quality of life means now you don’t have access to your own reproductive care, then what? … We have these ectopic pregnancies—you could lose your uterus, then we can’t protect future life.”

She also answered a question about her use of the term “birthing persons,” explaining that her team sometimes works with transgender clients, including “some men that have given birth,” which she called “seahorse births.”

Avila said the class contained “misinformation and other harmful, dehumanizing rhetoric,” including the implication that people with trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, have short life expectancies.

In the recording, Carbonneau noted that abortion can be a “hard moral and ethical decision” and asked the class, “Can a baby with trisomy 18 survive? Can a baby with trisomy 21 survive? Possibly, you hear about these miracle situations, but let’s also talk about the risk to the birthing person,” noting that some of her clients have children at home who need care, and by continuing the pregnancy, they risk hemorrhaging or having “a baby that’s not going to survive,” making these decisions “emotionally and socially” fraught for families.

Carbonneau started receiving death threats soon after news of the class surfaced.

“This experience was different from the Catholic University that I remember,” she said. “I understand that the Catholic church has a particular stance on abortion, and I understand Catholic University has a particular stance on abortion, but it wasn’t a taboo topic of discussion.”

The student questioning her on the recording addressed the topics with a tone of curiosity and even praised her use of “inclusive language.” Carbonneau noted that while she can’t say for sure, the voice of the student asking the questions on the recording sounds like Avila, the antiabortion student activist who leaked it.

The student leader of Crdinals for Choice said “there’s no doubt” it was Avila.

Avila said he was one of many students who asked questions to “better understand the scope of Carbonneau’s work.”

The Fallout

People on and off campus have either celebrated Goldberg’s termination or criticized the move as a violation of her academic freedom.

The student leader of Crdinals for Choice noted that when a student group invited conservative political commentator Matt Walsh to the campus in 2022, some students asked that he be disallowed to speak because of his past negative comments about racial minorities and transgender people. Kilpatrick responded in a message to the student body that “bringing in speakers that challenge us and push us to consider different perspectives is a hallmark of a thriving intellectual environment.”

The student said the contrast between that reaction and what happened to Goldberg sends the message that “the university prioritizes free speech when it’s convenient, when it aligns with their message.”

Avila said the class didn’t include opposing views on the social issues discussed and therefore “allowed one side to be hailed as the truth while disregarding the existence of a dissenting viewpoint.” He also believes the course syllabus should have noted that Carbonneau was an “abortion doula.”

Kilpatrick described the decision to fire Goldberg as the institution balancing allowing for diverse views in the classroom while upholding its core values.

“As a Catholic institution, we are committed to promoting the full truth of the human person, and to protecting human life from conception to natural death,” he wrote in his letter to students and employees. “In our rigorous pursuit of truth and justice, we engage at times with arguments or ideologies contrary to reason or to the Gospel. But we do so fully confident in the clarity given by the combined lights of reason and faith, and we commit to never advocate for sin or to give moral equivalence to error.”

Free speech rights advocates argue the university’s religious affiliation doesn’t excuse Goldberg’s swift termination.

Amanda Nordstrom, program officer for campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said religious colleges and universities do have the right to decide when an ideological stance trumps academic freedom. However, Catholic University of America’s Faculty Handbook explicitly promises faculty members academic freedom.

“They make all kinds of claims about upholding academic freedom rights, about free inquiry and faculty’s leeway to do scholarship and research and their course content,” Nordstrom said. And in doing so, the university attracts “students and faculty to campus who believe that they’re going to uphold that.”

She noted that the university’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also requires accredited institutions to demonstrate “a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression,” so there could be consequences to the university’s actions.

Mark Criley, senior program officer for the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at the American Association of University Professors, said in addition to academic freedom violations, it’s also unclear if the university gave Goldberg due process in the seven-day period between the class and her firing.

“Our standards call for an affordance of an adjudicative hearing before a faculty committee, with the administration bearing the burden of proof, of demonstrating that there really is adequate cause for dismissal,” he said.

He noted that Catholic University of America has been on the AAUP’s censure list since the 1990s, when the university barred a professor from teaching in its Department of Theology after the Vatican asked him to retract opinions in contrast with church doctrine. Goldberg’s case hasn’t reassured Criley that the university has changed its ways.

“Controversy is a crucial element of all inquiry, exploring difficult and challenging ideas,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that students go to college to get an education for as well as one of the services that an institution of higher learning provides, the opportunity for students to challenge themselves and challenge their beliefs.”

Carbonneau worries the university is doing a disservice to students who plan to work in public health fields by censoring conversations about the full variety of patients they’ll likely encounter.

“I wholly hold space for people to have differing opinions on what should be done or what choices should be made in a given context,” she said. “But if we can’t even engage in the conversation, we are graduating nursing students and sociologists and psychologists that are not prepared, not equipped, to handle factual reality.”

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