*This article represents the views of the author alone, not the Gold Humanism Honor Society nor the University of Michigan Medical School.
As a fourth-year medical student and member of the University of Michigan Medical School’s Gold Humanism Honor Society, I write today to share that I, a pro-choice future healthcare provider, voted for Dr. Kristin Collier to speak at the incoming first-year students’ White Coat Ceremony.
Collier’s nomination, as readers may recall, was not without controversy, given her pro-life beliefs. While the University stood by Collier as the speaker, many incoming first-year medical students walked out before her remarks began at the White Coat Ceremony on July 24. In the preceding coverage of this event, students have been quoted anonymously voicing their opposition.
I wanted to offer an alternative view: a defense of my vote and a defense of democracy. I am glad that my new classmates had a chance to voice their opposition. I am also grateful that Collier retained her platform to speak.
I initially voted, months ago, for Collier because she upholds the tenets of humanism and compassion that inspire me to be a physician. This is the purpose of the White Coat Ceremony — to welcome new medical students to medicine and remind them of the profundity of their induction and future service as a physician. Collier has been a mentor to me for the past two years; she is encouraging and selfless in her support. She is tremendously supportive of many students in multiple facets of undergraduate and graduate medical education. She runs a spirituality program at the University that regularly encourages open, collaborative dialogue with speakers from numerous, often opposing ideologies and backgrounds.
I have known for some time that Collier and I do not share similar views about abortion. It is not something that we have ever discussed, but I was familiar with her beliefs. Collier’s views on abortion did not factor into our work, and neither did mine. My awareness of her opinion did not make me respect her less nor did it devalue her contributions to my education and growth. Collier, like all of us, is more than the sum of her opinions and far greater than what may be her most controversial stance.
I, like many around the nation, am hurting right now. Since the leak of a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in early May, I anticipated the end of Roe v. Wade, and the past weeks have been painful. I am fearful that my sisters and I may one day be denied life-saving care because of this decision. I wonder if I may one day be in danger of prosecution for providing such care. I am worried for the communities that are most impacted by this decision — most notably women of Color, low-income people and the trans community.
Abortion is healthcare. But I am also scared of what may happen if we eliminate the opportunity for others in our community to have different beliefs.
The Supreme Court’s actions in the last month have focused on curbing rights. Similarly, right now, across the country, legislators are looking to eliminate dissent by curtailing voting rights, preventing discussion of LGBTQ+ families in classrooms and stopping transgender youth from fully participating in our social arena. These actions are about silencing, repressing and demonizing Americans; these decisions attack the very humanity of our neighbors.
Donald Trump has a long history of attacking the personhood and moral character of refugees. Florida’s recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” law levies abuse upon LGBTQ+ families and their children. False, transphobic narratives malign the integrity of trans athletes. Indeed, our own first-year students who exercised their rights to peaceful protest have been subject to sharp rebuke for expressing their beliefs.
Many of us who hold pro-choice views, who believe in the sanctity of abortion as healthcare, believe that we hold the moral authority, that we are fundamentally different from those who seek to eliminate voting, LGBTQ+, transgender and abortion rights. Sometimes I worry we are not so different. In the aftermath of Collier’s speech, and even before in emails circulated among medical students, her person, not simply her beliefs, has been vilified. In the past week, she has been subject to explicit, personal attacks unrelated to the content of her ideas or the merit therein.
While there is an inherent moral imbalance between those who seek to expand rights and those who seek to eliminate them, our community’s attempts to silence Collier and the subsequent discourse following her speech demonstrate a terrifying willingness to demonize those we disagree with. I recall Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s speech protesting the Bush administration’s pro-war resolution in the aftermath of 9/11. She asked Congress to consider the implications of meeting violence with violence as she implored, “let us not become the evil we deplore.”
We can disagree with Collier’s views on abortion and still be able to include her in our community. We should still be able to treat her with basic human decency.
When we choose to reduce an individual to a single belief that they hold and subsequently isolate them from our discourse, we too are seeking to eliminate dissent and curb the rights of our fellow Americans. We too are then responsible for contributing to the dismantling of our democracy by refusing to allow any opinion that may differ from our own. If we cannot see any light coming from a person with whom we do not agree then we are further widening the chasm of polarization in America. I hope we might be able to take the opportunity to respect that, while we do not agree on everything, we can agree on our shared humanity.
I can understand how, not knowing Collier, it may feel easy to judge her solely on her past words. I am not arguing that she should not be held to account for these statements. I am suggesting that we would do well to not reduce her to this single opinion, nor vilify her for a stance that our community, writ large, does not share. We will only find common ground if we engage with one another. Collier’s beliefs are rooted, as are yours, in what she believes is right.
I have deep empathy for the incoming class who enters medicine in a turbulent time. In light of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, I understand how her choice as a speaker may strike many in our community as inappropriate. But Collier was not chosen because of her stance on reproductive rights, nor was she tasked with or planning to deliver a speech on the same. She was chosen for her authenticity, humanism and contributions to our community.
The students who walked out during Collier’s speech were exercising the rights granted to them by the privilege of democracy. They had the right to protest, and I am glad that we welcome passionate activists to the medical profession — we need more of the same. I look forward to protesting alongside my new classmates in support of reproductive rights in the future.
But in this case, I truly wish they had stayed to listen to Collier speak. Her speech did not mention abortion, though she called on our community to move together toward healing. She spoke of the importance of remaining human in the practice of caring for patients, 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.
Molly Fessler is a medical student at the University of Michigan and a member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society. She is the co-founder and editor of Auxocardia, a journal for health professional students.