Published on: Monday, April 23, 2012
As the country buzzes with talk of abortion regulations, contraception access, and gay marriage, University of Saint Thomas School of Law Professor Teresa Collett is leading the discussion and making headlines. Nationally known for her work as an appellate lawyer and her pro-life, pro-family advocacy in political circles, Collett’s work as a legal scholar here in the Twin Cities is providing a framework for law students to engage these difficult and controversial topics.
Recently, Collett wascalled to testify on the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA), a bill being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives requiring all states to recognize the parental involvement laws of the pregnant teen’s home state. Opponents of the bill are calling the law “an attack on women’s rights,” “mean spirited,” “callous,” and “constitutionally suspect.” Collett argues that they are wrong and missing the point.
“Opponents’ assumptions that parents will harm their pregnant daughters or that pregnancy assures maturity of a young girl are both wrong. Abortion is a voluntary surgery or use of a medication that was not tested on adolescents. In any other area of law, we would require parental consent,” Collett said. She also pointed out that for the past thirty years, opinion polls have consistently shown that 70% of Americans approve of parental consent laws. The bill seeks to ensure that parents are able to take responsibility for the minors that they are legally accountable for. Collett’s response to criticism of CIANA was published by Public Discourse on March 29, and can be read at www.publicdiscourse.com under the abortion archive.
On April 17, Public Discourse published another article by Collett, in which she advocates passage of another pending piece of legislation, the Pain-Capable Child Protection Act. She outlines the scientific evidence that unborn children feel pain, and defends the constitutionality of protecting them from pain by limiting abortion in the second trimester.
Her pro-life work, though legally focused and driven, is intricately tied to her identity as a person of faith.
“I firmly believe that I am, as every person is, accountable to our Creator, and I also believe that no human life is an accident or mistake,” Collett said. “Society should accommodate pregnancy and childrearing, not support their elimination.”
And it seems that the anti-abortion battle is no longer uphill. Collett referenced a recent episode of The Good Wife, in which a very young, talented lawyer becomes pregnant and chooses to leave the practice, despite the urgings of her associates to keep working. The character stays resolved to put her child above her career. Collett is also encouraged by warm reception of films such as recent release October Baby, which shows how abortion affects children as well as mothers. There has been an observable generational shift, and even opponents to the pro-life movement recognize that it is no longer possible to claim that the unborn are not a part of the human community.
“Our task will continue to be to persuade fellow citizens that abortion is not necessary and does not help the women or men who created the unwanted children,” Collett said.
In Minnesota, opinion is beginning to form on this November ballot’s marriage amendment, and again, Collett is fighting to promote strong communities. In February, Collett was quoted in The Star Tribune’s article on the affects of California’s Proposition 8 appeal on Minnesota’s marriage referendum. Her participation in a discussion panel at the University of Minnesota Duluth on the proposed constitutional amendment was picked up by local ABC affiliate WDIO.
Collett approaches the amendment from the perspective that civil marriage is a child-centered institution. “The public institution of marriage historically has connected children to their biological parents. To redefine it by focusing on adult needs and adult desires instead of children’s needs will damage society,” Collett said. “By redefining marriage, we are saying that children do not need the influence of a particular sex. One of the sexes is dispensable.” Collett went on to say that redefining marriage will do more harm to the well being of families and the community than what has already been done by no-fault divorce.
One of the reasons that Collett enjoys teaching at University of Saint Thomas School of Law is that she is able to integrate her faith into her teaching, and equip her students to engage the larger culture. Collett argues that today’s faith-motivated lawyer must to be bilingual, speaking both the language of faith and the language of the public square. References to God, the Bible, and the created order are often incomprehensible to many people. One might as well be speaking a foreign language.
“In front of the legislature, I speak in secular terms to ensure every one present understands. I communicate in a way that is an invitation to agree,” she said.
Collett sometimes worries that she might be lending credibility to the idea that faith must be separate from public activity, but she thinks it is more important to create understanding. She finds that personal conversations usually offer opportunities to go deeper, but one must first get people of a different viewpoint to at least talk to you.
Collett expects that some students will join public interest law firms, but that won’t be the ordinary life for most UST graduates. Most will get married, start families, and learn how to be good spouses, good parents, and good lawyers. The fight for strong communities will become personal when things that felt like abstract political questions in law school become concrete in their lives, questions about sex education, health care, and business regulations.
“When they encounter those realities, they will be among a small percentage of Americans who have the skills to effectively challenge what they see as injustices. Even those who see their practice as primarily serving private interests have the obligation to engage the public to influence the future,” Collett said.
That engagement might look like serving on a local chamber of commerce, school board, or zoning committee, but unique skills bestow lawyers with unique obligations as citizens. In the current debate on the marriage amendment, lawyers are particularly equipped to be moderators.
“Lawyers are skilled in seeing both sides of the argument and can engage debate without vilifying opponents. They can also help others understand that no one person has all the right answers, but we’re in this together,” Collett said.
Between her work at UST School of Law, her writing, and all her travelling, Collett is incredibly busy. Her motivation is her family -- a husband of 34 years, two daughters, a son, a son-in-law, two grand babies, and, by the end of this year, a new daughter-in-law, two new grandchildren, as well as a new son-in-law..
“My philosophy and motivation are essentially the Boy Scout Oath – leave it better than when you arrived.”