At the University of Michigan this week, dozens of medical students walked out of the school’s White Coat Ceremony, a formal occasion to mark the students’ move from preclinical studies to clinical practice. Those who walked out did so in protest of the keynote speaker, a popular and well-spoken professor who happens to be pro-life.
Dr. Kristin Collier is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, where she has been part of the faculty for 17 years. She is director of the school’s Health, Spirituality, and Religion program and is “enormously popular” with “enviable” patient ratings, according to the dean who introduced her.
At no point in Collier’s speech did she mention abortion. Her talk focused on the importance of humanizing both doctors and patients, remembering that people are not machines and health means more than the absence of disease. It’s a shame that some close-minded students missed it. And it’s concerning to see that some in the next generation of doctors can’t bear to be in the same room as someone with pro-life beliefs.
The University of Michigan responded to the controversy in a written statement to NPR, defending Collier’s position as speaker. “The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues,” it said. “Dr. Collier never planned to address a divisive topic as part of her remarks. However, the University of Michigan does not revoke an invitation to a speaker based on their personal beliefs.”
Dr. Kristin Collier, model pro-life professional
Collier was chosen for the speech, according to the university, by votes from a medical school honor society. Despite being in the minority as a pro-life professor, Collier has commanded much respect from her students and colleagues.
“I’m as pro-choice as you can get,” one former student tweeted after the incident. “But [Collier’s] personal beliefs never came up during our humanism courses. I learned so much from her without religious tinting. She’s a great doc and great professor.”
While Collier’s anti-abortion stance does not come up much at work, she has expressed her views on her Twitter account and in a Catholic newsletter. She tweeted in May, “Liberation that costs innocent lives is just oppression that is redistributed”—a line that has received greater awareness since shared by the New Wave Feminists.
At The Hill, Jonathan Turley writes that what happened to Dr. Collier is part of a larger trend of abortion supporters silencing pro-life advocates to avoid looking more closely at the issue. “It’s not enough to be pro-choice,” he writes. “Now you must be anti-pro-life” —in other words, the First Amendment may be bypassed because there’s some larger social obligation to silence people with pro-life views.
“Ironically, until four years ago, Collier was ‘a pro-choice atheist’ who admitted that she had ‘great animosity towards those who held either pro-life views or deeply held religious commitments.’ When she held those views, she was a celebrated professor with a long line of publications in peer-reviewed journals. She then had a conversion on the issue after speaking with a senior faculty colleague, Dr. William Chavey, a professor of family medicine who was pro-life—and she quickly became persona non grata.”
Speaking with The Pillar, a Catholic news and analysis newsletter, Collier discussed her conversion to Christianity and her change of heart on the issue of abortion, which she used to support. A month before the student protest, she worried that the medical establishment left little room for pro-life physicians.
“One would hope that we can have ongoing discussions in the profession,” she said, “and allow for a diversity of opinions on this issue in the spirit of wanting a trueness of diversity within the vocation that should be large enough to accommodate all.”
Maintaining standards of education and quality care despite political disagreements
Vinay Prasad, an associate professor at UCSF medical school, shared concerns about the Michigan students’ actions, and what it means for medicine, on the Substack website Common Sense with Bari Weiss:
“I do not share Dr. Collier’s faith or her views on abortion. But ultimately, the decision of students to walk out of the lecture because they disagree with the speaker on another topic has no limit. In medicine, abortion is an important life or death issue. So too is universal health care, immigration and school closure. All these topics have the highest stakes. And all are controversial. If students walk out on speakers discussing unrelated issues, where does it end? Would they learn about the nephron from a nephrologist who favors strict immigration limits? Could they learn how to perform CPR from an instructor who lobbied to keep schools open during Covid-19?”
Prasad continues: “Most concerning, what does it mean for American patients, if their future doctors cannot sit through a speech by a beloved professor who has a different view on abortion? Could you trust a physician knowing that may judge you for holding views that they deem beyond the pale? . . . I worry deeply that we are not preparing our future doctors for practicing medicine on real people in the real world. Medicine has to meet patients where they are; often that means caring people and working with people with whom we disagree. We can’t walk out on that.”
One hopes, for the sake of well-formed medical professionals and their future patients, that this recent news presents an occasion of reflection on that point.