A debate at Catholic University that was to have featured abortion-rights advocate Bill Baird was canceled by the sponsoring student group after a university official warned that Baird's appearance might spark demonstrations, university officials said yesterday.
The Rev. Robert M. Friday, vice president for student affairs, said he told members of the undergraduate student programs board that Baird would be "a red flag" to opponents of abortion and might result in protests that would blur the issues in the debate, which had been planned for Sept. 27.
Friday said he gave that advice after he received about a dozen letters and eight to 10 phone calls, all of them opposed to Baird's participation in the debate. "I passed that information on to the students, and they decided to cancel the debate," Friday said.
Friday said that Catholic University has adopted a presentation policy that allows for balanced programs on most issues.
"When the students said they wanted to bring to campus a debate on pro-choice, pro-life issues," Friday said, "I told them I don't see a problem with the debate." But after the complaints about Baird started, Friday said, he told student leaders that there might be a problem with Baird because of his "longstanding association with the issue and demonstrations against the Catholic Church."
Members of the undergraduate student government could not be reached.
But Baird, a sometimes dramatic advocate often credited with being a founder of the abortion-rights movement, said that his planned debate with Sandra Faucher, director of the National Right to Life political action committee, was canceled because of pressure from four cardinals.
Friday said that the offices of "three or four" cardinals, including Washington's Cardinal James Hickey and New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, telephoned university officials "to be briefed" on the status of the debate. "As far as I know, none of them exerted pressure to cancel the debate," Friday said.
Eileen Marx, a spokeswoman for Hickey, said that Hickey was not involved in the phone calls, which she said were made "to seek general information about the debate."
Baird, who had signed a contract for the debate under which he would have received $3,250, said he suspected that the cardinals were calling for more than just information. "They already know what I am going to say," Baird said. "I've been doing this for years.
"The bottom line is that this is a free speech issue," he said.
"My style is unique, it's very aggressive. I know the court cases better than anyone, and I have more knowledge on the issue than anyone. They are afraid to have me there."
Three weeks ago, Baird picketed a Mass in Philadelphia carrying a 10-foot cross accompanied by a dozen women chained together to protest the church's ban against abortions.
He is a frequent counter-demonstrator at anti-abortion rallies
In the early 1970s, Baird was arrested after giving a package of vaginal foam to a woman after a speech on birth control at Boston University. At the time, it was a felony in Massachusetts to give a contraceptive to anyone who was not married. His conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
Baird said he has spoken at Providence College in Rhode Island, Boston College in Massachusetts and Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. All three are Catholic schools.
This is not the first time that the issues of abortion and free speech have sparked controversy at Catholic University, a century-old institution in Northeast Washington. The administration forbade a group of abortion-rights activists to form a group to meet on campus last fall and has blocked National Organization for Women President Molly Yard from speaking on campus.
Friday said that the university could not sanction an abortion-rights group. And as for Yard, Friday said, she was never officially invited to speak on campus.