If there were any doubts about the size of the megaphone University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh wields in his highly visible, $7-million-dollars-per-year position, coverage of his recent appearance at a local pro-life event should put them to rest. His comments were picked up by a number of national news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Inside Higher Ed and Sports Illustrated. And, in the process, they made their way to me, a U-M alum living 800 miles away in Rhode Island.
In case you missed it: On July 17, Harbaugh was a keynote speaker, alongside an ordained priest, at a Plymouth Right to Life event about 20 miles outside of Ann Arbor. As reported in Detroit Catholic, the sold-out event was a fundraiser for “pro-life initiatives in the area.” Items for auction included U-M football memorabilia and the chance to catch a football tossed across the event space by Harbaugh himself, a privilege that apparently sold for $2,300.
During his remarks, Harbaugh, a Catholic, said that though he generally believes that one person’s moral stance shouldn’t dictate society’s laws, abortion falls in a different category. “I believe in having the courage to let the unborn be born,” he said. “I love life. I believe in having a loving care and respect for life and death. My faith and my science are what drive these beliefs in me.”
At one point in his remarks, he quoted from the Book of Jeremiah. At another, he said, “In God’s plan, each unborn human truly has a future filled with potential, talent, dreams and love … I have living proof in my family, my children and the many thousands that I’ve coached that the unborn are amazing gifts from God to make this world a better place.”
There are a number of reasons why these comments were so disturbing. Foremost was the timing of Harbaugh’s appearance. The coach’s keynote took place about a month after the Supreme Court issued its unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which, in an instant, meant that abortion access in numerous states was either severely restricted or altogether banned and criminalized. As opposed to 2020, when Harbaugh “stunningly” shoe-horned pro-life commentary into a podcast interview, we no longer have to imagine what a post-Roe world looks like. We are living in it, and it is horrifying.
As summarized by Jezebel, in the weeks since the Supreme Court’s decision, “a 10-year-old rape survivor had to travel to another state to get safe abortion care, and politicians immediately went after the doctor who helped her; a Texas hospital let a woman with an ectopic pregnancy bleed until she almost died to avoid getting sued; (and) Idaho Republicans overwhelmingly voted to let women die before giving them health care.”
Meanwhile, Ms. magazine reports that in states with the most severe abortion restrictions, citizens have “less reproductive autonomy than women in countries that the United States has repeatedly criticized for egregious human rights abuses.” One Washington Post column was more succinct, calling life under abortion bans “hell on Earth.” It is not a stretch to view Harbaugh’s comments as an endorsement of this new reality. He said as much by arguing in Plymouth that even in the face of “incredible hardship for the mother, family and society,” we must prioritize the lives of the unborn. That is chilling.
And there were other frightening aspects of Harbaugh’s comments, like how glaringly out of sync they were with health and policy experts who actually study these subjects. You don’t need to go far to find those insights: On the day of the Supreme Court decision, the University released an array of reactions from faculty and affiliated scholars, all of which opposed the ruling.
There you could find Siobán Harlow, a professor emerita of global public health obstetrics and gynecology, saying that abortion-restricting laws will endanger the lives of women who miscarry and lead to an increase in maternal mortality. You could see Paul Fleming, a professor of health education, say the decision will “cause harms that are entirely preventable and increase inequities we see in health and other outcomes,” and hear from Paula Lantz, a professor of public policy, who cited research that women who are denied an abortion, when compared to those who are not, are more likely to be evicted, face long-term household poverty and bankruptcy, and fail to finish educational plans. You could also find a dire warning of Anna Kirkland, the director of the University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, who said that in the wake of this decision, “some will take desperate actions and some will die from pregnancy complications.” If Harbaugh was informed of these perspectives, it didn’t show.
This brings me to another factor that made his comments hard to stomach: the staggering audacity involved in delivering them. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with the mechanics of power and privilege, there were achingly obvious reasons why Harbaugh should have tempered his remarks or kept them to himself. He is a cisgender man commenting on a policy that will most acutely affect women and other people who can get pregnant. He is white, when so many of the folks most acutely affected will be women of Color. He is a football coach with no direct expertise on this issue. He is unimaginably wealthy, and thus heavily insulated from policies that will disproportionately affect the poor. He is an employee of a public institution in a nation that (supposedly) values the separation of church and state. But, according to reports of the event, he made no effort to qualify his remarks. In fact, he has subsequently doubled down by telling a reporter that if one of his football players had an unplanned child, Harbaugh and his wife would be willing to step in to “raise that baby.”
Indeed, it’s hard to envision someone less equipped to speak about our country’s increasingly widespread forced-birth policies. But that didn’t stop Harbaugh. He framed his stance in Plymouth — which is now codified in the criminal laws of many states, with prosecutions for pregnancy loss expected to increase — as a matter of “courage.”
There is perhaps an alternate reality where Harbaugh’s comments on abortion go relatively unnoticed, and where the words of U-M professors and presidents get more publicity. But we do not live in that world.
Harbaugh is the subject of books and television shows. He has visited the Vatican and given a pair of U-M-themed Air Jordans to the pope. He has 1.9 million Twitter followers, compared to the 11,000 of the University’s newly-named president. Whether we like it or not, Harbaugh is an — if not the — unofficial spokesperson for the University. So when he speaks, it can seem like he’s speaking for the school, its employees, its current students and its vast alumni network, which includes me.
That is, unless we say otherwise.
So here I am, stating it for the record: When it comes to the reproductive healthcare rights of tens of millions of people in this country which have been so alarmingly snatched away by the nation’s highest court, Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t speak for me.
Phil Eil is a freelance journalist and University of Michigan alum.