ND Vita Institute Prepares Pro-Life Leaders for Worldwide Mission

Author: Kenneth Hallenius

Vita2017 Group Pic 800x

Current and future pro-life advocates and leaders from around the world gathered on the campus of the University of Notre Dame for a week-long "pro-life boot camp" at the Center for Ethics and Culture's annual Notre Dame Vita Institute, June 9-17, 2017. Participants studied the fundamentals of life issues with leading scholars across a wide range of disciplines including social science, biology, philosophy, theology, law, neonatology, and reproductive health.

The 46 participants in the 2017 cohort of the Vita Institute included crisis pregnancy center directors, international NGO directors, diocesan pro-life directors, medical students, family planning counselors, pro-life grassroots organizers, journalists, healthcare system directors; advocates for people with disabilities, economics research professors, counselors who work with former abortion clinic staffers, and law students. 65% of the cohort were women in leadership and direct service roles, and participants represented ten countries: the United States, Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Ireland, Poland, Kenya, the Philippines, and New Zealand. They were active on social media throughout the week, using the hashtag #NDVita2017 on both Facebook and Twitter.

"Since its foundation in 2010, the Vita Institute has been the cornerstone of our public policy initiative, and more than 250 of our Vita alumni are actively building a culture of life worldwide," said Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture and Notre Dame Law School professor. "This year we were blessed to have participants from six continents join us, a sign that we are reaching all corners of the pro-life movement. The brilliant participants were instructed by world-class faculty and mentors from, among other leading institutions, Duke University, Northwestern University, Oregon Health Sciences University, the Radiance Foundation, the University of Florence, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and of course, the University of Notre Dame."

Mary Vigil and Mary Forr at Vita Institute 2017

The Notre Dame Vita Institute presents comprehensive interdisciplinary training aimed at making the world’s pro-life leaders more effective in their work as advocates, litigators, health care providers, community organizers, and counselors. In addition to the educational and spiritual components, participants gain access to fruitful collaboration and networking opportunities with other pro-life movements and ministries worldwide. Now in its eighth year, Vita Institute alumni include the senior leaders of the most high profile and important pro-life organizations, grassroots activists, and concerned citizens from across the full spectrum of pro-life vocations. The Vita Institute gives current and emerging pro-life leaders opportunities to deepen their intellectual and spiritual lives and to foster lasting relationships with others who share their commitment to the cause for life.

The faculty at this year's Institute represented a diverse range of fields and institutions. Ryan Madison, associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, led off with a discussion of the philosophical dimensions of the pro-life debate, followed by Rev. Kevin Grove, C.S.C. of the Notre Dame theology department, who discussed the challenges of sharing the truth about human dignity as created in the image and likeness of God within a pluralistic society.  Dr. Markus Grompe, M.D. of the Oregon Health Sciences University, discussed embryology, controversial new forms of genetic modification, and stem cell research. Director Carter Snead covered the legal dimensions, with lectures on abortion jurisprudence; the law, ethics, and public policy of embryo research; and the law and policy of assisted suicide, euthanasia, and end-of-life decisionmaking. Daniel Philpott, professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame, presented a session on the spread of abortion rights internationally, and Gilbert Meilaender, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Valparaiso University and the Paul Ramsey Fellow of the CEC, spoke on adoption and families.

Ryan Bomberger at Vita Institute 2017

Ryan Bomberger (photo, right), co-founder of the Radiance Foundation, spoke on abortion, poverty, and racial discrimination, and wowed the participants with a presentation from his own experience as an adopted son and an adoptive parent. Political scientist Michael J. New guided participants in a detailed exploration of the social science and public opinion data on life issues. Mary O'Callaghan, a Public Policy Fellow of the CEC and disability advocate, discussed prenatal diagnosis of disability, its challenges to parents, and its threat to unborn children with disabilities. Participants were treated to a joyful testimony from Katie Shaw, a 32 year-old woman with Down Syndrome, who offered a moving account of how much she loves her full and busy life. Dr. Monique Chireau, M.D. of Duke University Medical School addressed the epidemiological evidence comparing the safety of abortion and childbirth, followed by Suzy Younger of St. Joseph FertilityCare, who discussed life affirming forms of reproductive health care. Dr. Colleen Malloy, M.D. of the Northwestern University Medical School, presented on fetal health and therapeutic intervention in utero. Rev. Michael Sherwin, O.P. of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland shared the theological foundations of the culture of life. Law Professor and former spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Helen Alvaré presented a set of principles of communication and persuasion (rooted in civility and respect) that has made her one of the world's most eloquent and powerful advocates for life and human dignity.  Richard Doerflinger, retired associate director of pro-life efforts for the USCCB, drew upon his vast experience to offer advice on pursuing pro-life public policies at the state and federal levels, and the concluding capstone lecture from director Carter Snead ended the week on a note of hope and gratitude for the witness that each of the participants represents in their pro-life work.

Participants at the 2017 Notre Dame Vita Institute represented the following organizations: African Organization for Families; And Then There Were None; Archdiocese of Los Angeles Office of Life, Justice, and Peace; Archdiocese of New York Family Life/Respect Life Office; Archdiocese of Washington Department of Life Issues; Archdiocese of Zagreb Office for Pastoral Care of the Family; Avail NYC; Be Not Afraid; Casa Sacra Cuori; Charlotte Lozier Institute; Climb Organization; CMF CURO; Diocese of Arlington Catholic Charities; EWTN Global Catholic Network; Franciscan Alliance; LifeWorks Ohio; Maryland Catholic Conference; National Gianna Center for Women's Health & Fertility; North Main Street Church of God; One of Us Foundation; Pontifical Javierian University; Pro-Life Campaign Ireland; Students for Life of America; Susan B. Anthony List; UNESCO Chair in Bioethics & Human Rights; The Vida Initiative; and Vigilare.

During the week, participants had time to pray together at daily Mass, to build community over meals in the campus dining hall, and to see pro-life work in action as they learned best practices and networked during site visits to the award-winning Women’s Care Center of South Bend and the maternal group home Hannah’s House.

In 2018, the Center for Ethics and Culture will travel (at the invitation of Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Daniel DiNardo) to conduct mini-Vita Institutes for pro-life leaders and educators in the Archdioceses of New York and Galveston-Houston. Next year's full Vita Institute will take place on the campus of Notre Dame in June 2018. More information about the Vita Institute program is available here.