Literally seconds before a University of Michigan keynote speaker began her speech on Sunday, medical students got up and walked out during their white coat ceremony in protest of her anti-abortion views.
The speech by Dr. Kristin Collier, which continued despite a smaller and stunned audience, came just weeks after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
A video of the walkout went viral on Twitter, showing the incoming medical students collectively rising from their seats before Collier could even wish the audience a good afternoon. She goes on to say how honored she is to have been the chosen keynote speaker, as dozens of students turn their backs to the stage.
"We 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," the organizers of the walkout said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "We hope to empower others, especially health professionals, and encourage them to find and use their voices."
Prior to the ceremony, students discovered Collier had shared anti-abortion views on her public Twitter account and in interviews with media. Even before meeting one another, the students put together a petition signed by 420 people including current and incoming students, physicians, alumni, and more, calling on the school to choose someone else to deliver the keynote address.
Collier is a primary care physician at the University of Michigan Canton Health Center, as well as a clinical assistant professor. She’s also the director of the medical school’s Health, Spirituality, and Religion Program, which “seeks to create opportunities for medical trainees and physicians to explore the intersections between health, spirituality and religion through lectures, research opportunities, and interdisciplinary training,” according to its website.
The petition included data from a poll of incoming medical students that found that 91.7% were against having Collier be their white coat ceremony keynote speaker. A group of students also "made a personal request" to Collier, the organizers said in their statement, asking her to step down in light of students' majority preferences, yet she "choose not to reply."
Then when the university told students it wouldn't remove Collier as their keynote speaker, the future doctors decided to "peacefully protest," the statement said. Even the students who choose not to join the walkout supported their peers in other ways, the organizers said, like by wearing pins, working on the petition, or joining in reciting the line students added to their statement of ideals: "I will honor the choices of each patient as they navigate their own experience with healthcare."
The petition itself highlights the hypocrisy of the university’s public support of abortion access while choosing a speaker “who works to dismantle it.”
“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 reads. “This is not simply a disagreement on personal opinion; through our demand we are standing up in solidarity against groups who are trying to take away human rights and restrict medical care.
“In order to ‘do no harm’, we must be unambiguous and consistent in our commitment to all aspects of human rights.”
With national protections of abortion rights now overturned, 26 states are expected to ban abortion early in pregnancy or outright, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute. Seven states, including Texas and Mississippi, have already revoked abortion access. On Monday, Indiana’s state legislature began a two-week-long special session on abortion, with multiple bills expected to limit further access.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Collier for comment but was referred to the university’s public affairs department, which said in an email that Collier was nominated by members of the university, comprising “medical students, house officers and faculty.”
Collier is not speaking to the press, according to the university.
“The White Coat Ceremony is not a platform for discussion of controversial issues. Its focus will always be on welcoming students into the profession of medicine,” the university 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.”
Brendan Scorpio, 25, a professional rock climber, captured the walkout on video, which has been shared over 75,000 times on Twitter. He told BuzzFeed News he was there to support a friend who is an incoming student and started filming after being alerted last minute that an organized walkout would take place.
“I just decided to grab my phone,” he said. “I was worried that nobody else would record it.”
After he stopped filming, Scorpio joined the students.
“The reason I walked out in solidarity with the medical students was I just believe that anyone who has the ability to get pregnant, and give birth should have the autonomy behind what they do with their body,” he said.
He added, “And as somebody who is like a cis male who cannot get pregnant, I understand that it's really not my place to have my own will kind of forced onto somebody else's. And folks should be able to have the choice to do what they want with their body.”
Scorpio said the building was filled with “a very powerful energy” once the students exited the auditorium.
“A lot of people felt as if they just took a powerful stand for what they believed in,” he said, “and people were congratulating one another and they're having discussions about how, as medical professionals, they can fall into the social rights movements and the social justice movements of the world.”
An anonymous student said in the petition that while they respect freedom of speech, they believe giving Collier a platform “in the current environment” was uncalled for.
“I think Dr Collier’s appearance at this time is inappropriate,” the student said. “Her appearance would be better suited for a learning opportunity or debate at a different time, not at a ceremony where families will be in attendance and potential resentment will sour the occasion.”
The university told BuzzFeed News that it remains “committed to providing high quality, safe reproductive care for patients, across all their reproductive health needs,” including abortion care, which remains legal in Michigan despite the demise of Roe v. Wade.