Kerry Ashkenaze always tacitly supported the pro-life movement. However, it was not until this school year that the junior at Georgetown University became actively involved. And she’s done it in a big way.
Shortly after becoming a volunteer for Georgetown’s Right to Life club, where the JSerra alum helped organize “diaper drives,” she was invited to be a part of the Catholic-focused Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, the largest student pro-life conference in the country.
The Laguna Niguel native, an undergraduate in the School of Foreign Service and member of Catholic Ministry at the university, said she decided she could no longer just sit on the sidelines.
“I wanted to actualize my beliefs and make it more about action than just advocacy,” she said.
In short fashion, Ashkenaze became the sponsorship chair of the conference, in its 21st year at Georgetown. It is up to her to help figure out how to pay for the daylong event Saturday, January 25.
Ashkenaze, age 20, said the event, which draws about 700 students, plus faculty, clergy and anyone interested, sold out last year and is on pace to be packed again. Tickets are about $25 – $30, which only covers part of the more than $40,000 budget. Ashkenaze reaches out to scores of on and off-campus organizations, donors and sponsors to cover the remaining costs.
This year, the conference will be held one day after the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. The March for Life is the largest pro-life event in the world, with estimates ranging anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 attendees. The conference traditionally is scheduled within a day of the march. In turn, the march is held near the anniversary of the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, allowing women the right to choose whether to have abortions.
Rooted in the Catholic tradition, the conference is named in honor of John Cardinal O’Connor, late Archbishop of New York and a Georgetown alumnus. The conference was founded by university undergraduates in 2000 and is an entirely student-run event. The day includes keynote speeches, concurrent sessions, lunch, networking, a panel discussion and a Mass for Life.
This year’s keynote speakers are Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of Justice Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life, where she is the vocation director.
In November the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to be part of a 2020 voting guide, wrote the “threat of abortion” is the “preeminent priority” for U.S. bishops.
Although public support for abortions in most or all cases stands at 62 percent, according to the Pew Research group, the topic has been a hot-button issue at the state level. More than 30 states are either working on or have passed legislation ranging from Idaho’s effort to apply murder statutes to abortion, to New York and Vermont enshrining abortion as a “fundamental right.”
This year, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a Louisiana law that restricts access to abortions. In 2016, the High Court struck down a similar law in Texas, 5-3. However, since then Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the majority, and Neil Gorsuch has joined the court, replacing the late Antonin Scalia, whose seat was vacant at the time of the Texas ruling.
Given that backdrop, Ashkenaze says the legislative theme of this year’s conference, “The Consistent Life Ethic and the Law: the Ethical Argument for Life,” is particularly timely and relevant.
As a high school student at JSerra, Ashkenaze said pro-life policies weren’t discussed in depth. However, in college, she ran into a different world and divergent beliefs.
“I found in high school it was implied that we were pro-life,” she said. “In college, I realized how many people are pro-choice.”
She also discovered what she believed were misconceptions and stigma about what pro-life advocates believe. She wanted others to know it was about more than just being anti-abortion. According to Ashkenazi, pro-life branches into anti-death penalty advocacy, health care, poverty, migrants and the elderly.
“I want to be part of the movement that seeks to provide these and other equally important groups with nonviolent resources and assistance that honor and celebrate the inherent dignity of every individual life,” she said.
As with so many issues in modern society, Ashkenaze said abortion and pro-life issues are deeply divisive and often political.
“Each side wants to demonize the other,” she said. “I want to dispel misconceptions.”
After the conference, Ashkenaze says she will continue to concentrate on her role as service chair for the Right to Life student group, while reaching out to talk about her beliefs.
“It’s about human dignity at the end of the day,” Ashkenaze said. “Human dignity is such a huge issue, and it’s not solely religious or solely political.”
Information, including registration, about the conference can be found at www.oconnorconference.com.