Email Scandals, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Politics, Prostitution, Religion, Rudeness, Women's Issues

A Contraception Controversy — and an ATL Debate

The power to thwart God's will is at your local drugstore.

Who’d have thunk it? These days, contraception is a hot-button issue. On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Rick Santorum thinks that Griswold was wrongly decided. Inside academia, students are challenging the refusal of one Catholic university (including its law school) to let its health centers prescribe birth control.

Getting upset over inadequate access to contraception is one thing. What about getting upset — at a Catholic law school, mind you — over a discussion of birth control? Can you imagine what kind of comments about contraception could cause a law school community to get all riled up?

Let’s look at — and argue about — the email that caused students at one top-ranked Catholic law school to get their diaphragms all scrunched up proverbial panties in a wad. Even the dean had to get involved….

The school in question is Notre Dame Law School. It’s one of the nation’s leading Catholic law schools, along with Georgetown, Fordham, and BC. (No offense, Ave Maria.)

On Tuesday morning, an officer of the St. Thomas More Society at ND Law sent out an email promoting an event. It began:

Dear NDLS,

Have you ever wondered why the Catholic Church has such a problem with contraception? Why don’t any Protestant denominations oppose contraception? Isn’t this a very personal decision that should be left to the consciences of the couple? What about the problem of over-population? Isn’t natural family planning just Catholic contraception in disguise? Is there a connection between contraception and abortion? Same-sex marriage?

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 12:30pm in Room 3130, Professor Charlie Rice will present the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception and discuss the intrinsic links between contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Pizza will be provided.

This was followed by quotations about contraception from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Mahatma Gandhi. One of these quotations sent the entire school into an uproar.

Whose quotation? Surprisingly enough, Gandhi’s. The lawyer turned father of Indian independence once said this about contraception, as quoted in the Notre Dame email:

Contraceptives are an insult to womanhood. The difference between a prostitute and a woman using contraceptives is only this, that the former sells her body to several men, the latter sells it to one man.

Many at the law school went berserk over the inclusion of the Gandhi quote in a school-wide email. Also, because it went out over the ND Law list-serv, where messages must first be approved by a member of the administration prior to dissemination, some students viewed this quote as having the law school’s stamp of approval or support.

After the controversy erupted, the student who sent out the email — we’ll call this person “Contra Contraception” — sent out an apology email to the entire school. Dean Nell Jessup Newton also sent around an email saying warm and fuzzy things about the spirit of community at ND Law (and explaining the review process surrounding list-serv emails). We have reprinted these three emails on the next page, so you can read them in full and judge for yourself.

But did Contra Contraception have anything to apologize for? It’s time for an ATL Debate.


To those who objected to the original email: you are students at NOTRE DAME. You know, as in, OUR LADY? The Blessed Virgin Mary? A woman who most certainly did not use contraception?

(Not that such use would have prevented the arrival of Jesus, of course. We are all familiar with the Virgin Birth of Jesus — not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception, by the way.)

Notre Dame is a Catholic law school, people. It says so right on its website: “Founded in 1869, the Notre Dame Law School is the oldest Roman Catholic law school in the nation.”

If you wanted to attend law school in a Catholicism-free zone, you picked the wrong place. You should have matriculated at the Maurer School of Law (aka Indiana University at Bloomington). At the very least, you should have cast your lot with those free-wheeling Jesuits over at Georgetown.

(Kidding, kidding. I say this as a proud graduate of Regis High School, a great Jesuit institution.)

Look. No reasonable person could object to the teaching of Catholic moral doctrine at a Catholic law school. Yes, there are non-Catholics at Notre Dame, but remember — the event, sponsored by a student group rather than the school administration, was OPTIONAL. If you want to have protected sex with your live-in girlfriend at the precise moment that Professor Rice is delivering his talk, nobody is stopping you. (Offering pizza to hungry law students, while powerful, does not rise to the level of duress or coercion.)

UPDATE (6 PM): For the record, a commenter points out that sex outside of marriage would violate ND university standards of conduct. This further underscores Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic institution of higher learning.

So what are we left with? Much ado about a Gandhi quotation — one buried at the end of a long email, after quotations from the Catechism, a papal encyclical, Mother Teresa, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Honestly, I’m surprised that anyone read that far.

Was the Gandhi quote perhaps incendiary? Sure; but I still fail to see the problem. First, Gandhi is a revered figure in human history, and it’s interesting to see what he thought about contraception; until this incident, I didn’t know his views on the subject. Second, as far as I can tell, nobody is disputing that Gandhi actually made the quoted statements about contraception. Third, the writer of the email was simply trying to be provocative in order to grab attention, in the service of what he views as a worthy cause. As you can probably guess, here at Above the Law we have no problem with provocation to make a point.

In the end, the writer of the original email succeeded brilliantly: Contra Contraception baited his or her classmates, and they took the bait. They should have just ignored the email; instead, they flew into a tizzy. The resulting brouhaha caused the ND community — and now, of course, the readership of Above the Law — to take note of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception.

Well-played, Contra Contraception, well-played.

P.S. As for Dean Newton’s message, I would have preferred a “grow up, kids” message to the “can’t we all just get along” email that she actually sent. On the next page, where we reprint the full chain of emails, I offer my proposed revision of her message.


Is it reasonable to expect somebody at your law school will send around a dumb, dangerous invitation to an event opposing settled law just because you go to a Catholic law school? To me, that’s the primary question. Lat would have you believe that simply by dint of gong to a Catholic law school you’re inviting a certain amount of anti-woman religious teachings into your life, even if the particular dogma is far outside the mainstream practice of American Catholics. I disagree. I don’t care how super Catholic your law school is, I think it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of normalized messaging from a university that doesn’t sell itself as the American wing of the Vatican.

And make no mistake, the Catholic Church’s bizarre prohibition of contraception is one of the dumbest, most dangerous, and damaging dogmas in the long and complicated history of that institution. I’m not sure that God exists, but if there is one, I’m positive His immense will cannot be in any way flummoxed by a condom.

I’ll spare you a diatribe on how prohibiting birth control but allowing Natural Family Planning (there’s a freaking app for that) is a hypocrisy. But this particular hypocrisy is probably the most dangerous one the church is running. This is how people get AIDS. That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact. Not here, where most people ignore this dumb, dogmatic rule, but in poor countries where the Church still exudes incredible control over the lives of ordinary people, no contraception means no condoms means people get AIDS and die while the Pope in Rome talks about God’s will.

Against that, this kid wants to quote Gandhi? Maybe Gandhi did think that the world should suffer form overpopulation and AIDS because sexually liberated women were dangerous. If so… f*** Gandhi. He was wrong about that one. Saying that a woman who takes birth control is a prostitute is offensive. I don’t care if Jesus Christ himself said it — which I’ll note he did not.

So, is it reasonable to expect somebody at your law school will send around a dumb, dangerous invitation to an event opposing settled law just because you go to a Catholic law School? I don’t know, let’s try out some other emails dogmatic Catholics might want to send to the Notre Dame list-serv:

“Have you ever wondered why gays are an abomination? Do you worry that you could catch the gay just by sitting next to one in class? This evening, Professor Homophobe will be giving a talk about how gay people don’t deserve the full protection of the law. Pizza will be provided.”

“Do you wonder if it is your Catholic duty to defeat the Protestant blasphemers you meet in your daily life? Do you know why God wants you to be a warrior in his crusade against those who don’t accept the Pope as the head of their church? Tonight, come hear Professor Leo X explain how Martin Luther burns even now in the eternal lake of fire. Nails will be provided in case you want to put up your own manifesto on the houses of non-believers.”

“Are you a woman? Did you know that you are unclean during menstruation? Tonight, we’re having a pizza party. If you are on your period, please stay home, because nobody should have to risk touching you.”

Yes, if you dig around in the Bible long enough or listen to everything the Vatican says, you can find any number of “teachings” that would be totally inappropriate to put into a list-serv email. “Catholic” law school or not, there are some things that should be left for Sundays. The prohibition on contraception is dumb, dangerous, and offensive.

It’s too bad that this is the stuff we end up focusing on. There is a lot of lovely stuff in the Christian Bible where Jesus is just kind of running around being good to people and loving people. Even if you don’t believe, you wish that the people who claim to speak for him would focus on the love part, not on the planet destroying, AIDS inducing stuff.

P.S. Don’t forget to check out the original emails, as well as the email that Lat thinks Dean Newton should have sent instead of what she actually sent, on the next page.

(hidden for your protection)

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