SU President Removes Planned Parenthood Reference—Deems it Incompatible With Jesuit Universities



In the Capitol Hill neighborhood there are two Planned Parenthood clinics within walking distance of campus.

President Fr. Stephen V. Sundborg S.J. is defending his decision to remove Planned Parenthood from a list of student resources as a growing number of students, staff and faculty are expressing concern and outrage.

In an interview with The Spectator, he cited the Catholic Church’s teachings as the reason for this decision.

Sundborg directed College of Arts & Sciences Dean David Powers to oversee the removal of Planned Parenthood as a student resource from its Advising Center’s website, which listed the organization as a “Health and Wellbeing” resource. He did so when he received a letter from Students for Life of America (SFLA), a national pro-life group, at the end of August.

SFLA has a regional affiliate at Seattle U, though in a statement to The Spectator they said while they do not question Sundborg’s reasoning, they had “no input” on the delivery of the letter to him.

Planned Parenthood is a national organization that provides low-cost reproductive healthcare, including birth control, STD testing, cancer screenings and abortions. Because the Catholic Church is officially opposed to abortion, Sundborg said that Seattle U could not actively promote the organization.

The official stance of the Catholic Church is that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

According to a 2019 Pew report, 56% percent of people who identify as Catholic feel abortion should be legal in “most or all cases.”

“There’s one thing about what a range of Catholics believe, think and so forth, and what the official teaching of the Catholic Church is publicly,” Sundborg said. “We’re a public Catholic institution, and therefore, that’s why I needed to make that decision.”

In their letter, the SFLA argued that Planned Parenthood has “no place on a Christian campus” as an “abortion corporation.” It also requested that the university enforce “stricter hiring policies” to ensure that its employees do not have ties with Planned Parenthood. Sundborg rejected this request, citing the necessity of “academic freedom.”

In his response to the letter, Sundborg thanked SFLA for bringing the Planned Parenthood listing to his attention and referenced a university policy that prohibits naming the organization as a resource.

The policy he referenced is the Non- Discrimination Policy, which states: “All University policies, practices and procedures are administered in a manner consistent with Seattle University’s Catholic and Jesuit identity and character.”

However, Sundborg later confirmed to The Spectator that there is no university policy that explicitly references Planned Parenthood, abortion or birth control. Thus, this decision comes from a “long-standing practice”—one established eight years ago when Sundborg made a similar decision to remove references to Planned Parenthood from the websites of the College of Nursing, the Law School and the College of Arts & Sciences.

In 2011 two pro-life groups— one of which was SFLA—reached out to Sundborg and informed him of three references to Planned Parenthood on the Seattle U website. Sundborg said that he used this time to consider Catholic doctrine and where the university would stand, and he ultimately decided to remove these listings.

“I have to draw the line somewhere. It’s a judgment,” Sundborg said. “I could have drawn it in a different place, but I drew it there eight years ago…I just continued so I was consistent with the decision that I made eight years ago.”

According to Sundborg, this “line” is why there are other listings on the resource guide that provide birth control, and why there are gay and lesbian staff, faculty, and administration at the university, both of which run contrary to doctrines from the Catholic Church.

Though Sundborg said he made this decision on his own, he said that he perhaps could have benefitted from input from other members of the community who are similarly dedicated to upholding Seattle U’s Catholic character.

“I sometimes do make these decisions a little bit alone. I have to look at the issue, and then I have to decide what I need to do,” Sundborg said. “I think that I would be helped if I could bring together a small group of people who were committed as Catholics to the Catholic purpose of Seattle University.”

Asked if he would be willing to hear input from non-Catholic identifying students affected by this decision, Sundborg said that while he would be interested to know what their opinion is, he needs informed Catholic viewpoints to make these kinds of decisions.

“I’d be glad to engage with them. But I don’t think I would have them directly advise me around decision around how to hold the Catholic character unless that was something that they were committed to,” Sundborg said.

Decisions such as this depend on the Catholic Church’s stance— not student views—according to Sundborg. He said that the central issue in the decision-making process is how he can act in conformity with Seattle U’s status as a Catholic university, and that acting to meet the views of the university’s students is a different issue.

Sundborg said a letter regarding his decision will be sent out in the coming week.

One of the fliers that was hung on buildings around campus on the morning of Oct. 8.

Student Response

Following this decision, some students, such as Event Coordinator for the Gender Justice Center (GJC) Leyla Gheisar, feel excluded from the university and see themselves directly affected.

“I actually go to Planned Parenthood for gender-affirming care,” Gheisar said.

After the transphobic comments made by Sundborg after the 2018 drag show and a housing policy that, up until last year, excluded trans people, Gheisar felt that the removal of Planned Parenthood as a resource was another act of harm towards trans people and other marginalized groups.

One group of students wrote a petition for Sundborg to reverse his decision, that began circulating on the evening of Oct. 7. After just 12 hours, it had over 300 signatures. After 24 hours, the petition had garnered over 650 signatures.

Allie Schiele, a senior political science and criminal justice major, was among the group of students who created the petition. She said that the letter to Sundborg and petition would be the easiest way for Seattle U community members to be informed and take immediate action. The group’s goal is for the university to recognize that removing the listing poses an “extreme danger to the welfare” of the students.

“It seems like President Sundborg wants this to go away quickly and wants it to be shut down,” Schiele said. “It seems like such a small issue, but it’s really not. The fact that he is not being swayed over by what I consider to be a large collective voice of the university is frustrating and makes me more likely to do something about it.”

Schiele believes the university is not taking the concerns of the students seriously.

“One of the core values of [our] university, which can be found on the website, is that they put the good of the students first,” Schiele said. “Decisions like this make me question the values and make me question decisions that go over the head of the students and contradict the needs of the students.”

Another student from the group, Tara Vindla, a senior strategic communications and political science major, intended for the letter and petition to be an outlet for the outrage she felt after hearing about the university’s decision.

“How can we organize? How can we rally around a cause that we care about so deeply?” Vindla asked.

Vindla recognizes how unlikely it may be for Seattle U to revoke its stance on the alleged policy, but finds hope in community-wide support through the multitude of signatures garnered.

“The students, faculty and staff are in a similar mindset with each other and we do not support this decision,” Vindla said. “We can call out our authority figures in our university for making a decision that obviously does not reflect the views of the faculty, staff, and students and alumni.”

An unknown group distributed a set of fliers throughout campus buildings on the morning of Oct. 8, expressing disapproval for Sundborg’s decision. Some fliers were removed by a member of Sundborg’s office, who said that because the fliers were not previously approved by the Center for Student Engagement, they could not remain posted.

The Student Government of Seattle University will hold a Public Forum on Planned Parenthood for students to voice their concerns or thoughts on the decision on Oct. 9 at 6 p.m.

Additionally, Women and Gender Studies, Triangle Club and Gender Justice Center will be co-hosting a community conversation regarding Sundborg’s decision and “other urgent issues facing the Seattle U community” at noon on Oct. 10.

Faculty Response

University administration did not inform faculty of Sundborg’s decision to remove Planned Parenthood’s reference, and as such, many faculty members learned of the decision from campus word of mouth and were outraged that no faculty were consulted prior to the decision.

Jim Clune, an instructor in the communications department, said that the removal indicates a breach

in trust between the administration and students. Sundborg’s decision runs contrary to the university’s Jesuit approach to inform and enable students to make decisions on their own.

“When they remove Planned Parenthood from options that women can take advantage of for their own health, it’s a form of censorship, and it’s showing they don’t trust their students,” Clune said.

The campus community has also lost trust in the university’s dedication to its Jesuit mission of social justice and serving vulnerable populations, according to Clune.

“People trust that Seattle University as an institution, stands for social justice, right? And [that it] supports organizations that support vulnerable, underserved and low-income women and as well as their students,” Clune said. “I think that it’s violated a little bit of that trust that we trust the University to really wholeheartedly fulfill that mission.”

Academic Assembly (AcA), a governing body that represents all faculty at the university, met on Monday, Oct. 7, and tabled a motion on the idea of creating a petition through an external organization. According to Provost Shane Martin, the assembly chose not to act immediately in order to allow faculty members the time to develop their views.

They plan to establish discussions with the campus community about this topic and the nuances of Planned Parenthood’s relationship with Seattle U. For now, the topic has been tabled until Oct. 14.

“My own view is when we have these kinds of issues in a university, we have to respond first and foremost as an educational institution. And I think conversation, dialogue is critical,” Martin said. “There’s a range of perspectives on this, people will agree and not agree with some, We have to get basic information and facts out there. And I think this campus has to educate itself and talk and learn.”

AcA Vice President of Faculty Handbook Kirsten Thompson believes student, staff and faculty retention is contingent upon the university’s choices to embrace the diverse community and social justice values included in the mission.

“It’s not about requiring faculty or students to agree with or endorse specific Catholic beliefs, but rather to engage with the mission of educating the whole person and empowering leaders and fighting for social justice,” Thompson said.

Thompson wants the campus community to ask themselves what it means to learn and work at a Jesuit university that takes pride in its mission of educating the whole person and challenging long-held beliefs.

“Many of us would challenge and contest this,” Thompson said. “Decision-making has to go through consultative procedures, and with the consent of the governed, and that was not done in this case.”

As a student directly affected by this decision, Gheisar spoke to the ways Seattle U is causing harm.

Gheisar said that making these resources available is critical to assuring students that they are welcome at Seattle U, and they said this removal is an act of marginalization and exclusion.

“Taking away this resource [Planned Parenthood] that trans students could access and having it be harder to find makes me as a trans student feel like this school doesn’t support me…I feel like the school doesn’t want me to access the care I need to be comfortable with myself, and I’m not the only person.”