Liberal bishop to speak about abortion

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop from Newark, N.J., whose traditionally liberal views have often ruffled feathers among Christians, will speak here later this month about his views on abortion, after Students for Choice secured funding from the Kaleidoscope Fund and a national advocacy organization to bring him to campus.

The group originally sought funding from other sources, including the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, before it received money from the Kaleidoscope Fund, which was created by President Ruth Simmons in 2005 to foster intellectual diversity on campus. The fund has previously sponsored lectures by conservative thinkers including author Dinesh D’Souza, National Review managing editor Jay Nordlinger and Feminists for Life of America vice president Sally Winn.

The lecture will take place March 18 at 7 p.m. in List 120.

Students for Choice is aiming to have students look at abortion in a different light, said Amelia Plant ’10, one of the group’s leaders. Spong’s views cannot be easily summarized as for or against abortion, Plant said.

“I like to think he’s pro-thinking about choice,” she added.

In a 1981 essay called, “A Plea for Wisdom,” Spong wrote that abortion was a “grave act that touches the essence of life’s sacredness” that “should be undertaken only for serious causes.”

“Abortion is a reality that cannot be treated lightly or disposed of quickly,” he wrote.

The lecture fits with the goals of Students for Choice, which has no religious affiliation, Plant said. “We’ve for a long time wanted to reach out to a broader audience,” she added.

Assistant to the President Marisa Quinn, who oversees the Kaleidoscope Fund, said the fund gives money primarily for events that could not be funded through other means. As groups apply for funding, she looks at “how much trouble they receive” while trying to get money, she said.

Although Quinn reviews applications for money from the Kaleidoscope Fund, the final decisions lie with Simmons, she said.

Quinn said Spong would bring a “diversity of opinion” to Brown.

“We don’t tend to have too many religious figures on campus,” she said, characterizing Spong’s views on abortion as “somewhat controversial.”

When Students for Choice decided to bring Spong to campus, it began its search for funding to cover his speaker’s fee of $3,000, plus travel expenses. The group initally received $100 from the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, $250 from the Office of Institutional Diversity and $1,500 from Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a national advocacy group.

SYRF hosted a panel discussion on abortion last year with leaders from various faiths. Kaile Wilson ’10, who works as an intern for the national organization, applied for the funding over winter break. She said she received a check in early February from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, SYRF’s parent organization.

Although it did not cover Spong’s entire fee, the group was “pretty pleased” about the contribution, she said. “I was ready to go back to national and kind of grovel for more money,” she said. Students for Choice then looked to the Office of the Chaplain for additional funding, but was denied, Plant said.

There was a simple reason the office was unable to give the group money, according to University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.

“We don’t have any,” she said.

But there were other reasons, too, Nelson said. Her office “wouldn’t have sponsored (the lecture) for fear of alienating someone whose voice we might not even have ever heard,” she said. She added the office must be an “inclusive” place, adding that Spong is an “extremely bright guy with a lot of broad-ranging thoughts and ideas” who promotes “pluralism within the tradition.” But because the chaplain’s office has no distinct tradition, she said, there is a “real need to be careful.”

She said it would have been “careless on our part” to have sponsored the lecture.

Associate University Chaplain Henry Bodah, who is Catholic, agreed. “The whole abortion thing is very controversial,” he said. “The funds are very limited, and the chaplain’s office has to be seen as chaplains without taking sides.”

Neither Nelson nor Bodah said they objected to Spong’s lecture, even funded at the University’s expense.

“This is a university. I don’t see why anybody should be excluded a priori,” Bodah said.

Nelson said the chaplain’s office helped to endorse the group’s proposal to the Kaleidoscope Fund. She said Spong would enrich the discussion about abortion. The idea that choice is blind support for abortion “doesn’t describe anyone I know,” she said.

In the end, the Kaleidoscope Fund gave Students for Choice $1,500, which covered almost all of Spong’s fee. The group also received $100 from the Office of the Dean of the College for publicity.

Students agreed that Spong’s lecture will raise interesting questions and present an unusual perspective.

The lecture will provide “a lot of food for thought,” said Wilson, who added that the left must court the religious right if it is to win more reproductive rights.

Christina Cozzetto ’10, the leader of Students for Life, said she was “not thrilled about” Spong’s lecture, but said she thought it would “definitely make people think.”

She said that she did not take issue with the lecture’s funding, adding that it made “complete sense” for the Kaleidoscope Fund to be used for speakers like Spong.

Even so, she added, “his arguments are never going to hold water with me.”

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