On July 25, 2022, dozens of medical students at the University of Michigan School of Medicine walked out of the school’s White Coat Ceremony when the keynote speaker, Dr. Kristin Collier, an assistant professor of medicine, approached the podium. Dr. Collier is pro-life and has expressed her anti-abortion views in tweets and interviews. She was chosen as keynote speaker by a vote by the university’s Gold Humanism Honor Society. A petition with over 300 signatures from current and incoming students requesting that the university find a different speaker had failed before the ceremony.
My first reaction to reading about this act of protest by medical students was a sense of satisfaction and hope. These seemingly well-intentioned students were standing up for reproductive justice, the well-being of marginalized individuals, and people everywhere who are negatively affected by abortion restrictions.
On further reflection, however, my elation quickly dissipated. While Dr. Collier holds anti-abortion views, she is also a faculty member at the medical school and serves as the director of the Program on Health, Spirituality, and Religion. Although she has espoused, in her personal and political life, views that I believe to be antithetical to the health and well-being of many, she does not share this belief. She is acting in good faith when she states her opinions outside of the university. She did not raise the issue of abortion, nor did she speak of other contentious issues in her keynote address at the White Coat Ceremony.
In further research, I have found no evidence that Dr. Collier has brought her anti-abortion beliefs into her academic environment or into the curriculum at the medical school in any way. In fact, it appears that she has modeled humanism, empathy, and holistic care of the patient for her students, as evidenced by the fact that the Gold Humanism Society chose her to speak and by evaluations she has received from students. A letter written by Molly Fessler, a pro-choice fourth-year medical student in the wake of the walk-out, stated:
The students who walked out during Collier’s speech were exercising the rights granted to them by the privilege of democracy. I am glad that we welcome passionate activists to the medical profession. But in this case, I truly wish they had stayed to listen to Collier speak. She spoke of the importance of remaining human in the practice of caring for patient, the need to ask big questions about the world around us, and the necessity of practicing gratitude. We need more physicians willing to listen to people whose ideas and voices differ from our own. We will only find common ground if we engage with one another. We will only change opinions if we open ourselves up to hearing from those with whom we disagree. This is how we can create a healthy democracy, and this too should be part of our calling as physicians.
As a female physician who has spent much of her career advocating and practicing comprehensive health care for women, I am passionate about the need for access to reproductive health care, including abortion and reproductive justice. In the days leading up to the Dobbs decision, I attended rallies, wrote op-eds and letters to legislators, and donated generously to pro-choice organizations. There is nothing I want more than the restoration of reproductive freedom. But I still believe in the right to one’s personal opinions, beliefs, religion, and freedom of speech, as long as those rights are exerted in an appropriate setting.
We only hurt ourselves and thwart our learning and growth when we refuse to hear from those who differ. Perhaps some of the passion demonstrated by the group who walked out of Dr. Collier’s speech could be used in ways that are more respectful to individuals and the learning process.
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