Over the weekend, incoming students at the University of Michigan’s medical school walked out of their white coat ceremony—the annual induction of the new medical school class—to protest the anti-abortion keynote speaker, Kristin Collier, an assistant professor at the school. A video featuring the walkout shows dozens of students and other audience members getting up and leaving when Collier takes the stage, and it had drawn over 625,000 likes and 11.5 million views as of Monday afternoon.
Collier has previously shared truly terrifying, nonsense tweets, including one “lament[ing] the violence directed at my prenatal sisters in the act of abortion” immediately after news leaked that the Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade. Just imagine being a student who’s had an abortion, whose abortion may have made getting into medical school possible, being forced to endure a speech from a woman who thinks you’re a murderer.
“In the conflict around the choice of keynote for the White Coat Ceremony, we saw an opportunity to utilize our position as future physicians to advocate for and stand in solidarity with individuals whose rights to bodily autonomy and medical care are endangered,” the students who organized the protest said in a statement to Jezebel on Monday evening. “The class came together in an amazing way, especially for not having met one another prior to this event.” They added that when polled, “a majority of the incoming class were against or strongly against the selection of Dr. Collier,” including those who didn’t participate in the walk-out: “We felt their support and are grateful for the different ways that the class showed up,” which included “wearing pins” and “working in the background on the petition.”
A petition circulated in the days leading up to this weekend’s ceremony has received signatures from over 100 incoming students and 250 current students at the medical school. It states that Collier’s “comments are antithetical to the tenets of reproductive justice as restrictions on abortion affect women of color, other marginalized women, and trans people disproportionately.”
Further, the letter calls “abortion access” an “essential part of medical care,” and refutes attempts to dismiss their protests as opposition to free speech:
“This is not simply a disagreement on personal opinion; through our demand we are standing up in solidarity against groups who are trying to take away human rights and restrict medical care. … In order to ‘do no harm’, we must be unambiguous and consistent in our commitment to all aspects of human rights. Doing so is essential in building trust within our own community and with future patients.”
Despite this brave stand taken by students, they’re already facing predictable, condescending responses from the school. First, the University of Michigan declined to revoke its invitation to Collier, stating: “The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues. Dr. Collier never planned to address a divisive topic as part of her remarks. The University of Michigan does not revoke an invitation to a speaker based on their personal beliefs.” In a subsequent letter to the school, the dean, Dr. Marschall Runge, stressed the “critical importance of diversity of personal thought and ideas, which is foundational to academic freedom and excellence.”
Abortion, to faculty, is a “controversial issue,” a “divisive topic,” a matter of “personal thought and ideas”—not a life-affirming, sometimes life-saving health service. To them, anti-abortion ideology—in a swing-state with a pre-Roe law banning abortion—is a perfectly legitimate thought experiment, not a matter of whether the government can force people to give birth, or force doctors to penetrate pregnant people with ultrasound wands for purely political reason. Doctors are being threatened with prison-time; people who experience pregnancy loss, or self-manage abortion, or even educate others about self-managed abortion, are at greater risk of being criminalized than ever.
The entirely predictable, entirely preventable horror stories of post-Roe America have been pouring in for weeks: a 10-year-old rape victim forced to travel out-of-state for care, subsequently reduced to a prop by anti-abortion politicians and media; pharmacists denying people life-saving medications deemed abortifacients; hospitals denying rape victims plan B; a Louisiana woman forced to endure an excruciating delivery for a dead fetus—months after Texas’ abortion ban forced one woman to remain pregnant with a dead fetus for two weeks. Homicide from abusive partners is the leading cause of death for pregnant people, and experts say abortion bans worsen this. The U.S. has already long been in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis disproportionately impacting communities of color, worsened by abortion bans. This isn’t just “personal thought”—anti-abortion policy is upending the medical system. And the University of Michigan is a literal medical school.
In medical schools across the country, there’s already a shortage of available training for abortion providers that will inevitably get worse without Roe, further contributing to the decimation of abortion access. The school claims it “remains committed to providing high quality, safe reproductive care for patients, across all their reproductive health needs,” which “includes abortion care.” Yet, honoring an anti-abortion activist with the keynote speaker position validates the very stigma and disinformation that have led to abortion being banned—and the current ensuing health crises as a result.