Defiant medical students walk out of university’s white coat ceremony over anti-abortion speaker

Students at the University of Michigan walk out of the white coat ceremony

A group of defiant medical students walked out of their university’s white coat ceremony over a keynote speaker’s anti-abortion views.

Several incoming students at the University of Michigan Medical School staged the walkout on Sunday (24 July) to protest the university’s choice of keynote speaker, who has expressed anti-abortion sentiments in the past.

In a clip published on Twitter, assistant professor Dr Kristin Collier is seen beginning a speech, which prompted a mass walkout by a group who had pressured administrative officials to cancel her participation in the ceremony.

“Incoming medical students walk out at University of Michigan’s white coat ceremony as the keynote speaker is openly anti-abortion,” the tweet read. A white coat ceremony is a ritual at some medical schools marking the transition of a stufent from the study of preclinical to clinical health sciences.

During the clip, Collier can be overheard beginning her speech, welcoming everybody to the auditorium. In the rest of her speech – which is not seen during the Twitter clip – she addresses the “deep wounds our community has suffered over the past weeks”, continuing that, during the ceremony, “we can focus on what matters most – coming together to support our newly accepted students and their families.”

Twitter users replying to the clip served as an apt representation of the divide the US is currently feeling on abortion rights. While some commended the act of taking a stand against anti-abortion rhetoric, others lambasted the walkout as a show of “disrespect”.

“As a retired MD, I salute and congratulate every one of you who followed your conscience and stood up and walked out,” one user said. “The white coat ceremony is today a major landmark. To use this platform to express your respect for medical autonomy is a first step to honouring your commitment.”

Another user believed the opposite of the group, saying: “The speaker has my outmost respect. What happened to freedom to expression and tolerance towards one’s opinions and beliefs?” To which another user replied: “What they did is the definition of freedom of expression. Disrespect? Really? This is their moment. Not the speakers. They’re not obstructing her ability to exercise free speech.”

Collier has been criticised for both her anti-abortion rhetoric and attempting to incorporate her religious beliefs in the duty of care, including several tweets in which she claims that she “can’t not lament the violence directed at my prenatal sisters in the act of abortion, done in the name of autonomy”.

She has also given several interviews, including one with The Pillar, where she discusses “conscience protections”, saying: “When we consider diversity in the medical profession, religious diversity is not – should not – be exempt from this goal. Again, many of our trainees have faith commitments that inspired them to go into medicine and are a source of meaning-making and wellness for them.

“It’s concerning though that a study published in 2021 in Linacre Quarterly found that roughly a quarter of residency-program directors expressed strong negative reactions to residency candidates who say that they won’t perform abortions,” she continued. “One would hope that we can have ongoing discussions in the profession and allow for a diversity of opinions on this issue in the spirit of wanting a trueness of diversity within the vocation.”

More than 340 students signed a petition protesting Collier’s inclusion in the ceremony, including 72 community members such as doctors, graduates, alumni and residents from Michigan Medicine.

“While we support the rights of freedom of speech and religion, 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, an essential part of medical care,” the petition read.