Planned Parenthood council member delivers pro-choice perspective

On March 5, Irish 4 Reproductive Health, an unofficial student group advocating for “reproductive justice,” hosted an event on campus featuring a Planned Parenthood National Council member. The speaker, Katherine Watson, is a Professor of Bioethics at Northwestern University. Watson advocates for abortion as “a moral, political, and social good,” and works to encourage better public discourse surrounding abortion. At the event, entitled “Ordinary Abortion,” she discussed the contemporary abortion debate through the lens of her recent book, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion.

Watson explained that she uses the term “ordinary abortion” in order to shift the emphasis back to the vast majority of abortions that occur in ordinary circumstances, instead of the extreme cases utilized by both sides of the abortion debate to “trigger our emotions or our sympathy.”

She expanded her sense of the word “ordinary” by explaining that abortion “is ordinary in the medical sense in that it brings a woman’s body back to what I refer to as ‘baseline.’” “[T]he baseline state of her body in the course of her entire life is to not be pregnant. And so that’s kind of what we go to medicine for, and say, ‘Bring me back to baseline,’” she said.

Watson explained that she decided to write Scarlet A following a lecture she gave at a National Abortion Federation conference concerning “the ethics of abortion at different gestational stages.”

To her surprise, Watson noted, the abortion doctors at the NAF lecture expressed they had not heard a pluralistic perspective like her own that was open to different viewpoints about the point up to which it is okay to abort. She said, “To me that’s so normal… I think because of stigma, they had participated in the siloing of this medical speciality [abortion] and I started thinking ‘well maybe I should write a book about this.’”

Watson used her experience at the NAF conference to explain her understanding of the values practitioners of the abortion profession hold: “I have never seen more babies and breastfeeding at a conference. I think that people forget that people go into this field cause they’re baby-lovers. They are OB/GYNs or family medicine physicians who are really invested in healthy babies, women, children, and families, and they see abortion care as part of that.”

Watson used the term “abortion beneficiaries” to refer to those who have benefited from abortions, asserting, “It’s also children that benefit [from abortion]… There’s this category of children who are living better lives because their mothers and fathers are making decisions about how many children they have financial and emotional and other resources to parent.”

Among “abortion beneficiaries,” Watson included, “everyone in this room who hasn’t lost a sister, a mother, a colleague, a friend, to an unsafe abortion.”

Watson discussed “masterplots,” which she defines as “the idea of a story that a culture tells over and over and over again.”  For example, an abortion masterplot is the common conception that abortion is a difficult decision. She explained that she believes this “masterplot” is problematic because it implicitly says that abortion ought to be a difficult decision, which to Watson, “involves a normative statement about the moral status of embryos and fetuses.” She explained that only 52% of those who procure an abortion view it is a difficult decision. Thus, in her view, to characterize the decision as difficult is to neglect the remaining 48% of cases which must be included in the discussion so that the narrative matches the reality and honest discussion can occur.

Later, Watson critiqued positions which promote contraception but condemn abortion as inconsistent, but praised the coherence of the Catholic viewpoint, saying, “In the Catholic tradition I am familiar with the conjugal act is always meant to be open to procreation, so that is one beautiful and consistent position.”

Watson stated she believes abortion should “remain a constitutional right.” She said that while it is “painful and difficult” to engage in debate on abortion, this is something that should be appreciated in the United States. Watson noted, “That is what makes our country so unique: that we don’t live in a theocracy—we don’t live in a world in which there is only one way to speak or be.”

She asked the question: “We’re going to disagree, but how can we do that respectfully and productively and lovingly in a world that builds toward flourishing?”

Watson finished by encouraging the audience to be politically involved regarding abortion: “At a moment in which the constitutional right to abortion is under attack, and the access [to abortion] in terms of state legislatures is under attack, to be silent is to facilitate that limitation.”

In the question and answer session, Professor of History Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., challenged Watson by arguing it is problematic to have pluralism in defining personhood, and explained this would allow abortion up to the last day before birth.

Watson responded: “I think there’s legal personhood and moral personhood. So there’s no one in the universe who would have an abortion one day before they’re due, it just doesn’t exist, not a thing.”

Father Miscamble asked her about the sixth month mark of pregnancy in response, and requested her personal view on the matter.

Watson admitted viability is something “I struggle with a lot,” and explained her views on abortion before viability. She said, “It’s actually scientifically inaccurate to say that one-celled organism has everything it needs to become a person. What it also needs is to live inside a woman’s body for a minimum of six months, or else it can’t survive, and so just… logically and scientifically they cannot be considered as separate from one another.”

She explained that within her pluralistic model, if a woman believes that the previable fetus in her womb does not have personhood, then “allowing her to make [the choice for abortion] feels morally and ethically and legally appropriate,” since “she’s the one who’s gonna have to live with that consequence.”

Watson explained her understanding of the consequences of illegal abortion: “a law that forced her to carry that to term unwillingly is a law-forced childbearing, which essentially renders her in involuntary servitude to a person as defined by law.”

Junior Brennan Buhr said of the event, “The speaker attempted to present herself as a balanced witness on this issue, but it was clear that her approach was not value-neutral like she claimed. She simply assumed ‘ordinary abortion’ as a fact of social life and claimed that we need to be building our ‘values’ recognizing that preexisting fact, which is simply not a neutral argument and cedes a great deal to the pro-abortion argument. The way I view the abortion issue, the value of human life should not be subject to social science statistics.”

Initially the Department of Anthropology was advertised as a co-sponsor for the event, but the University asked them to rescind their co-sponsorship. The department did not serve as an official co-sponsor, but still provided the space for the event.

Paul Browne, Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications for Notre Dame, told the Rover, “I4RH is not recognized by the University and as such may not host a speaker here. If a University department acts as a de facto sponsor, then it should ensure that a forum is provided in which multiple viewpoints and voices on controversial topics can be heard, and that an appropriate balance among viewpoints is maintained.”

Browne added, “At Notre Dame, when a significant issue in the Catholic tradition is touched upon, Catholic teaching should be respectfully presented either at the same event or subsequently.”

Alyson Cox, a Notre Dame law student and representative of Jus Vitae, asked the chair of the Department of Anthropology, Professor Agustin Fuentes, if Jessica Keating from the McGrath Institute for Church Life could speak at the “Ordinary Abortion” event “to provide a Catholic pro-life counterpoint.” Irish 4 Reproductive Health was informed of this request. They told the Rover they offered to “reserve the first question or comment of the discussion for Jess Keating.” There was no agreement reached regarding including Keating in the discussion.

Irish 4 Reproductive Health said of their event: “There are students and employees at every level of this University who have personal beliefs that are opposed to certain Catholic teachings. It would, in fact, be highly inappropriate for a premier institution of higher education like Notre Dame to disallow intelligent and highly regarded individuals whose personal views do not conform with Catholic doctrine from discussing their research.”

University administrators have expressed that they are working on “clarifying” policies and practices regarding lectures on controversial topics, including what it means to sponsor an event.

Ellie is a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy. She is fond of coffee shops and thunderstorms. You can reach her at