Supporters of a Catholic high-school teacher who has been lambasted for a controversial anti-abortion handout he distributed in class are speaking out in his defense and have started a petition to counter one calling for him to be removed from the classroom.
Since New Times first wrote about a petition that demands the ouster of Xavier College Preparatory theology teacher Gavin Ahern, most local news outlets, as well as a handful of national blogs on the left and the right, have covered the controversy. So far, the anti-Ahern petition, started by a Xavier alumna, has garnered more than 12,000 supporters, more than 1,300 of them from Arizona.
Now a pro-Ahern petition, begun by two current Xavier students, asserts that Ahern has been unfairly treated by the first petition and the media. The students claim that the racially tinged anti-abortion screed Ahern handed out was meant as "an exercise ... to expose the students to unpopular and unacceptable views from the past." The pro-Ahern petition is closing in on 2,000 signatures, of which more than 1,500 are from Arizonans.
Students at Xavier whom New Times interviewed by phone for this article echo the concerns of the petition supportive of Ahern. They claim Ahern, who has taught at the venerable all-girls school since 2002, is not a racist or a sexist, and that the handout, which cites statistics regarding the prevalence of abortion in the African American community, has been taken out of context.
Taylor Lawritson, a 17-year-old Xavier junior, says she takes Ahern's theology course and that the instructor encourages "productive debate" in class.
"This entire year I've spent arguing with Mr. Ahern, because I don't believe in the things that he teaches," Lawritson tells New Times. "He's teaching the [theology] of the Catholic Church, and he's very open if you don't agree with what he's teaching."
She says she wasn't in class on the day Ahern distributed the flier in question, but that it was part of a packet of information and was intended to facilitate a discussion about "the way that abortion has affected the black community so strongly."
The flier features a skull and crossbones, the words "Black Genocide," and an anti-abortion propaganda screed that begins, "Maybe the Klan didn't invent abortion...but you have to believe they are pretty happy with the results."
The pro-life news outlet LifeSiteNews.com identifies the flier as the work of the site BlackGenocide.org, which according to the LifeSite article, "works to expose the disproportionate number of black children lost to abortion, and educates on the parallels between genocide, eugenics, and abortion today."
Pastor Clenard Howard Childress Jr., a New Jersey pastor and the director of BlackGenocide.org, is quoted in the LifeSite piece as stating that the statistics in the flier are "provable data."
Though there's obvious slant in the way it's written, the flier plays off what The Atlantic, in a 2014 article, calls "abortion's racial gap." The Atlantic article reports that according to the Centers for Disease Control, African American women are "almost five times likelier to have an abortion" than white women, with Latina women twice as likely.
The initial petition, posted more than a week ago, demands Ahern's removal from the classroom "for racist and sexist hate speech."
Lawritson insists that her theology teacher does not use hate speech.
"That's 100 percent not true," she says. "I have a ton of friends in his classes who are minority students, and they say that's completely wrong. In his classes, he doesn't say that kind of thing."
Alex, who identifies herself as an African American sophomore at Xavier, isn't one of Ahern's students. She says she has seen the flier, which she characterizes as "not necessarily appropriate." But she wasn't personally offended by it, she explains, because the literature cites statistics. "It was definitely racially biased, but I don't think it had racist intent," says Alex, 15, adding that she didn't believe any Xavier staff she knew of would be "racially insensitive on purpose" or would promote the idea of black genocide as a good thing.
"[The media are] saying our school is backing a teacher who gave out a pamphlet about black genocide," she says. "People are only getting part of the story."
Though Ahern has declined to comment to New Times or other outlets, Xavier issued a statement last week, standing behind the teacher, and asserting that the school "will not allow the threat of controversy to intimidate our teachers, counselors, and administrators from discussing these important controversial issues, nor silence us in our duty to impart the values of our faith to the young women entrusted to our care."
The statement made no bones about Xavier's being a Catholic and pro-life institution that teaches its students, "to speak out about the sanctity of every human life wherever it is threatened, from the first moment of conception until natural death."
On that score, Ahern is the faculty moderator for the school's Right to Life Club, and is himself a passionate anti-abortion crusader, as evidenced by his activity on the "XTC Right to Life Club" Facebook page, where he posts links to pro-life stories and exhorts student members to participate in anti-abortion demonstrations, attend pro-life leadership forums, and volunteer at the Phoenix-based Catholic charity Maggie's Place, which provides shelter and other assistance to pregnant moms in need.
Peg Perl, the Xavier alumna from the class of 1993 who started the initial petition demanding Ahern's removal, says Xavier is trying to make abortion the issue. She believes Ahern has demonstrated a pattern of untoward behavior, based on the information she's gotten from fellow alumnae whose children attend Xavier and from the testimonies of those who've signed the petition.
"As you can see from the comments, this is not about pro-life or not pro-life," Perl says. "It's really about students in a classroom feeling that it is a hostile school environment, and that racist and sexist propaganda is being used in the classroom in multiple ways. It's not just this one flier, this one thing."
New Times corresponded with one signer of the anti-Ahern petition, a former Ahern student who asked not to be named because she feared being ostracized by Phoenix's Catholic community. Now a lawyer in another state, the woman writes via e-mail that she had Ahern as an instructor many years ago and recalls that he treated her and her fellow students "as though we were wasting our time even being in school because we should focusing on getting married and having children."
She also claims Ahern would teach that "equality between men and women" was a "modern concept" and that men and women are not equal, nor should they be. "I'm an attorney today, but I would never have been if I'd listened to men like Mr. Ahern," the woman says.
Similarly, Fox 10 interviewed a senior at Xavier,who asked not to be identified. The student described Ahern teaching things that were "kinda sexist," and said he would make comments about how "women should stay home with their kids" and if "you didn't grow up in the traditional family, you weren't going to turn out as well as everyone else in your class."
Lawritson counters that Ahern is not sexist, and is in fact a strong proponent of "new feminism," which she defines as "feminism but without the reproductive rights." She also observes that as a Catholic institution, Xavier places a big emphasis on family life. She argues that Ahern "would not have gotten this far if he was an offensive teacher," because "we would not have allowed him to. We have a lot of very strong young women here."
Another young woman at Xavier, who spoke to New Times on condition that her name not be published, said the flier Ahern handed out was factually correct and asserted that Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood, was a "racist." That view is seconded by Alex, who says it's common at Xavier for Sanger to be portrayed in class as a racist toward African-Americans.
(Granted, that's hardly a balanced view of Sanger's life and legacy. But then, Xavier is a Catholic institution, and for the pro-life crowd, Sanger might as well have had horns.)
The student who declined to have her name published passionately defended Ahern, concluding, "This is a teacher's life we are talking about. It is his job. He has four children and we're just trying to take [his livelihood] away from him? That's just not OK."
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