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Michigan medical students walk out on an anti-abortion keynote speaker

After receiving their white doctor's coats, dozens of incoming medical students at the University of Michigan walked out in protest of a keynote speaker with anti-abortion beliefs.
Screenshot by NPR; Video: Brendan Scorpio
After receiving their white doctor's coats, dozens of incoming medical students at the University of Michigan walked out in protest of a keynote speaker with anti-abortion beliefs.

Updated July 26, 2022 at 2:00 AM ET

On Sunday night at the University of Michigan Medical School's annual white coat ceremony, incoming medical students recited oaths, received their white coats – then dozens of them walked out.

At issue was the keynote speaker: Dr. Kristin Collier, a Michigan faculty member and primary care physician who has spoken publicly about her Christian beliefs and anti-abortion views.

In a video posted online, dozens of students can be seen walking out of the auditorium as Collier began her address. The video, recorded and posted by Detroit resident Brendan Scorpio, has been viewed more than 11 million times.

In an interview with NPR, Scorpio, who attended the ceremony to support a friend in the incoming medical student class, estimated that roughly 70 of the 170 incoming students walked out, followed by some friends and family "in solidarity."

In total, he guessed, 35 to 40% of the audience took part in the walkout.

"The overall message that the students wanted to push was that reproductive rights, abortion, is health care," Scorpio said. "Reproductive rights for anyone who is able to give birth are incredibly important and should be something that's allowed to everyone in the country."

In an emailed statement, the University of Michigan said that Collier was chosen for the keynote address through a system of nominations and voting by a medical school honor society.

"The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues," the school's statement said. "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."

The university remains "committed to providing high quality, safe reproductive care for patients, across all their reproductive health needs," including abortion care, the statement said.

Collier has served on Michigan's faculty for 17 years, according to her introduction by a dean, who described her as an "enormously popular" teacher and physician. She serves as director of the medical school's Health, Spirituality and Religion program.

Collier is a frequent speaker and panelist on issues of bioethics and the role of spirituality in healthcare. On her Twitter, she has written about racism, ageism and ableism in medicine and advocated for better healthcare access for incarcerated people and residents of rural America.

But it was her anti-abortion comments that came under scrutiny by Michigan medical students.

In an interview with a Catholic newsletter published last month, Collier said that she had been raised in a non-religious household and had come to Christianity – and her current anti-abortion views – as an adult, after finishing medical school and becoming a physician.

"[H]olding 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 the days after the publication of a draft of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"Liberation that costs innocent lives is just oppression that is redistributed," she concluded.

After medical school officials invited her to speak at the ceremony, students circulated a petition calling for a change of speaker, citing anti-abortion comments in her tweets and public appearances. More than 400 students, alumni and faculty have reportedly signed it.

"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," the petition's authors wrote.

On Sunday, the students issued a statement explaining their walkout, writing that they "saw an opportunity to utilize our position as future physicians to advocate for and stand in solidarity with individuals whose rights to bodily autonomy and medical care are endangered."

Abortion is legal in Michigan, though the procedure is subject to a number of restrictions, including a post-viability ban except when the mother's life is endangered. Women seeking an abortion in Michigan are subject to an "informed consent" law and must wait 24 hours before undergoing the procedure.

In her remarks on Sunday, Collier did not expressly mention abortion. Instead, she urged incoming students to retain their humanity as they move through their medical education and career.

"You can easily end up seeing your patients as a bag of blood and bones, or viewing life as molecules in motion," she said. "Get to know your patients as human beings, not just as their scans, labs, chemistry and data."

Before the ceremony, apparently in response to news of the petition calling for her removal as keynote speaker, Collier wrote on Twitter that she felt "truly grateful for the support, emails, texts, prayers and letters I've received from all over the world."

"[I] feel so bolstered by it. and for my team that have carried me daily thru this —I love you," she wrote.

Collier did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.