Politics & Policy

An Atheist, an Ivy League Student, and a Nun Walk into a Pro-Life Conference

Campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)
The theme of this year's conference at Yale was 'Science and the Pro-Life Movement.'

They didn’t really need the caffeine, but the group of assorted Ivy League students clustered around fresh pots of coffee last Saturday morning, chattering excitedly with friends and new acquaintances.

Many had traveled long distances from the most prestigious colleges in the country to get here, Yale University, for the sixth annual Vita et Veritas pro-life conference. Some students even worried that they were risking future job opportunities by their public witness to unborn life but came anyway.

Hailing from the likes of Harvard University, Wesleyan University, Providence College, the University of Notre Dame, Hillsdale College, and Yale itself, students listened intently and challenged the speakers with pointed questions.

“At Princeton, we’re definitely in the minority,” Tommy Martinson, a sophomore studying computer science told me about the school’s pro-life students. “Unlike for some other people, the status of a minority isn’t like a victim badge. We don’t get many kickbacks.”

However, “people are respectful of different opinions,” Martinson said, adding that he has been able to have fruitful discussions with his peers about whether there is an “intellectual reason to believe that life begins at conception.”

“It’s not religious or hyper-dogmatic; it’s principle, it’s reason, and it’s rigorous.”

“I tend to be pretty hopeful that most people don’t have their minds completely made up about it,” Martinson said. “I have never been shouted out or called a bigot or a woman-hater or misogynist because — before having these conversations — I’m friends with these people.”

“And it’s a winning argument, because it’s the one with the most love,” the middle child of eight siblings added.

“I like to approach things from the pro-life-feminism angle a lot,” said another Princeton student, who asked not to be named and comes from a “slightly more liberal” background.

“There’s a lot of people in between that haven’t made up their minds.”

There are some “disheartening moments, when your peers are calling you out about something that is not a true reflection of who you are,” the student continued. “But I think hearing some of what I heard this morning about how all these advances in biotechnology and even just ultrasound imaging are proceeding . . . is really hopeful for the future — [including] the fact that one day women might be able to have live images and videos of the babies developing in the womb. I think that will convince a lot of people in the long run that this is a life worth keeping.”

The pro-life group at Princeton fundraises for crisis-pregnancy centers and sets up displays to show people the different stages of fetal development, among their other activities.

The conference’s emcee, Vienna Scott, said Yale’s pro-life club is a place “on campus for people with minority views to meet each other, to talk about their views, to have those views validated and explore deeper.”

“It can be hard especially when most of us live around pro-choice people, in our own suites, our own environment, but those relationships aren’t defined by that single issue,” the Yale class of 2021 undergraduate told me. “We definitely try to avoid being the angry pro-lifers, because that’s very alienating.”

“For all of the crazy rhetoric that’s out there and mainly true about our university, it doesn’t represent the full breadth of student life,” she added about Yale’s left-leaning reputation.

“People on this campus go on to be world leaders,” Scott added, and the human right to life “should be foundational in shaping our future leaders.”

The theme of this year’s conference at Yale was “Science and the Pro-Life Movement,” a focus that defied the stereotype of mainly religious pro-life activism.

Several staunch atheists attended, one of whom was a featured speaker.

Kelsey Hazzard, a pro-life lawyer and atheist, delved into philosophy and science in her talk, making the case that abortion violates human dignity.

“The pro-life movement is a human-rights movement,” the leader of Secular Pro-Life said. “For decades, abortions advocates have smeared the pro-life cause as a narrow religious crusade.”

“We must cultivate a diverse movement of people of every faith — and none — to secure the right to life for the most defenseless members of the human family,” she told the audience, which included doctors, mothers, students, priests, nuns, and professors.

The eclectic nature of the group catalyzed several amusing interactions. A buoyant Sister of Life handed a Jewish Princeton student a holy medal, which he politely held onto until she sprinted away to her next lucky victim.

Writer Leah Libresco, a convert to Catholicism from atheism, gave a talk about fertility health and shared that she has had four pregnancies, each of which ended in a miscarriage.

“During my third miscarriage, my doctor managed to neglect both me and my baby in her approach to treatment,” Libresco recalled, describing an ectopic pregnancy for which her doctor prescribed an abortion.

“This was definitely not what I wanted,” she said. “I refused treatment, kept up the blood tests, and my husband and I were able to say goodbye to our baby in God’s own time.”

Stanford University neurobiology professor Bill Hurlbut, Bioethics Defense Fund president Nik Nikas, and Columbia University medical-ethics professor Melissa Moschella also spoke, offering philosophical, ethical, and medical arguments for why abortion should not be accepted.

A recurring theme at the conference was the fight to stop selective abortions, which frequently target babies diagnosed in the womb with Down syndrome.

The latest data suggests that over half, 67 percent, of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome before birth are aborted.

Three-month-old Theo’s mom, Rachel Scott, who is also conference emcee Vienna Scott’s mom, said that her tiny son has brought them nothing but joy since he was born with Down syndrome.

“He’s my little cuddle buddy, and I love him dearly,” she told me. “I have no idea what the future is going to hold, but I know who holds his future.”

“He is just every bit a child worthy of breathing air, experiencing life, crying and laughing, and enhancing the world around him just by his presence,” she said. “It will be a learning curve just as it is with any child.”

Two years ago, the Scott family, who live in Nashua, N.H., adopted a 14-year-old girl from China.

“He has the most beautiful hands,” their new daughter said about Theo.

Theo’s diagnosis ahead of his birth allowed his parents to prepare themselves and their other children mentally and emotionally for his arrival and gave them time to research the best ways to care for him, his mother said.

“I was in a really dark place about this,” Scott shared. “I had experienced working with kids with special needs, but I found that my giftedness was not with children with Down syndrome. So we adopted several children, and I said to my husband, I will adopt anything, deaf, blind, spinal bifida, you name it, except for Down syndrome.”

“And God was like, ‘We’ve got to iron out that crease.'”

The mom of eight recalled a story about an airplane that gets diverted from Italy to Holland.

“Someone had sent that to us as a reminder about that sometimes life detours and takes us where we don’t want to go, and I looked at my husband in the midst of all of this and I said, ‘We’re not going to Holland. We’re going to Siberia!'”

“I just wish I could talk to my old self and say, ‘Self, it’s going to be okay! It’s not Siberia!'” she laughed.

Scott participated in a study while she was pregnant, taking Prozac to boost Theo’s development, which she is hopeful nudged his health in a positive direction.

“Normally babies born with Down syndrome have very low muscle tone. He does not,” she said.

Another voice for baby Theo was Karen Gaffney, a pro-life activist who herself has Down syndrome.

In her keynote speech, she assured the room that those with her diagnosis can achieve “novel accomplishments.”

“Another thing you should know about me is that I am a swimmer,” said Gaffney, who has a regular high-school diploma and an Associate of Science degree from Portland Community College. “I will outlast you in time and distance any day of the week.”

“You might be wondering why we call it Down syndrome. Why not Up syndrome? Or something more positive than Down syndrome,” she said with a mischievous smile.

She summed up the reason for the entire weekend perhaps better than anyone else.

“Our lives are worth living. Our lives are worth learning about. Our lives are worth saving.”

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