Dozens of incoming University of Michigan medical students walked out of a White Coat Ceremony in protest over their keynote speaker’s anti-abortion views as the future of abortion in the Wolverine State hinges on a Great Depression-era law banning it.
In a viral video posted by Twitter user PEScorpiio from the ceremony to formally welcome the new medical school class, a slew of white coat-wearing students are seen jumping out of their seats and exiting Michigan’s Hill Auditorium as Dr. Kristin Collier begins her address. The protest against the assistant professor of medicine came after a petition with over 340 signatures circulated calling for another speaker.
According to the petition, Collier has shared several anti-abortion posts on social media, including one tweet in which she claimed her brand of feminism involved fighting for her “prenatal sisters.” The director of the University of Michigan Medical School Program on Health Spirituality and Religion, Collier also spoke at an April 2019 “pro-life feminism panel” hosted by the Notre Dame Office of Life & Human Dignity.
“Holding on to a view of feminism where one fights for the rights of all women and girls, especially those who are most vulnerable. I can’t not lament the violence directed at my prenatal sisters in the act of abortion, done in the name of autonomy,” Collier wrote in a May tweet, before comparing abortion to “oppression.”
As of Monday morning, the video of the protest before Collier’s speech—which did not revolve around abortion—had 9.4 million views and was retweeted more than 58,000 times.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the school’s medical program said Collier “was chosen as the keynote speaker for the 2022 White Coat Ceremony based on nominations and voting by members of the U-M Medical School Gold Humanism Honor Society, which is comprised of medical students, house officers, and faculty. “
“The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues,” the school’s spokesperson added. “Its focus will always be on welcoming students into the profession of medicine. 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.”
Collier did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. She did, however, tweet prior to the ceremony on Sunday that she was “truly grateful for the support, emails, texts, prayers, and letters I’ve received from all over the world regarding the event that will happen today.“
“I feel so bolstered by it. and for my team that have carried me daily through this—I love you,” she added.
While abortion is still effectively legal in Michigan, reproductive rights in the state depend at least in part on a temporary injunction issued by a Court of Claims judge in May that blocked enforcement of a 1931 state law criminalizing abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned last month. The injunction came after Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed a lawsuit challenging the previously irrelevant pre-Roe ban.
The protest comes just days after Jim Harbaugh, coach of the school’s football team that dominates campus life, spoke at an anti-abortion fundraiser in Plymouth, where he intoned, “I believe in having the courage to let the unborn be born.”
Officials at the self-styled progressive school in a liberal college town in a swing state took pains to double down on support for abortion rights.
“The University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine remain committed to providing high quality, safe reproductive care for patients, across all their reproductive health needs,” the school added in a statement. “This includes abortion care, which remains legal in Michigan, even following the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion.”
But hundreds of Michigan medical students believed the school is not taking a hard enough stance on abortion access, signing a petition opposing Collier as keynote speaker. Among the examples of her anti-abortion comments was a June interview the professor had with The Pillar, a religious news outlet, where she is described as “a committed Christian and avowedly pro-life.”
According to the petition, 100 incoming students, 248 current students, and over 70 community members signed on in demanding an alternate speaker.
“While we support the rights of freedom of speech and religion, an anti-choice speaker as a representative of the University of Michigan undermines the University’s position on abortion and supports the non-universal, theology-rooted platform to restrict abortion access, an essential part of medical care,” the petition states. “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.”
Despite the outcry for the university to stand by its previous statements, the school’s dean ultimately denied the request. In a letter to the school community, Dr. Marschall Runge explained his decision not to disinvite Collier, stressing the “critical importance of diversity of personal thought and ideas, which is foundational to academic freedom and excellence.”
Collier also seemed to briefly address the controversy on Sunday, ignoring the exodus of white-coat students as she said, “We have a great deal of work to do for healing to occur.”