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Despite Controversy, Top U.S. Health Official Speaks To Georgetown Grads

Despite Controversy, Top U.S. Health Official Speaks To Georgetown Grads
5/18/2012 4:45 PM ET

President Barack Obama's top health official and a key architect of the 2010 health care law, Kathleen Sebelius, gave a memorable commencement speech to Georgetown University's School of Public Policy Friday. A long-time supporter of a woman's right to choose, Sebelius did not directly mention hers or the administration's abortion policies in the speech to the Jesuit university.

"Our system is messier, slower, more frustrating, and far better," Sebelius said in her speech's conclusion. "It requires conversations that can be painful and it almost always ends in compromise. But it's through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a 'more perfect union.'"

The two time Kansas governor and Health and Human Services Secretary never directly mentioned the provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring contraception be supplied by all employers, including religious institutions. But she was heckled during the speech by a member of the crowd, yelling "baby killer" before being escorted out.

The health care law's provision has come under heavy fire form religious leaders across the country, including the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Although the mandate does not apply to churches and other places of worship, it does apply to religiously affiliated universities such as Georgetown, which has been a Jesuit institution since its founding in 1789.

Sebelius was invited to speak at the top-ranked school in the nation's capital because of her expertise in policy and her lifetime of public service. Although Georgetown students at the ceremony cheered when the heckler was removed and listened attentively to her call to not "let your critics or your opponents define who you are or what you do or why you do it," many others were put off by her invitation to speak.

The Archdiocese of Washington, DC called her invitation "unfortunate" and "shocking. Meanwhile, Georgetown University President John DeGioia, the institution's first president without a rank in the Catholic faith, said she would be retained to speak but her presence did not indicate a university endorsement for her policies.

DeGioia added Georgetown was open to free speech from all and an equitable exchange of views, but also highlighted the decision to invite Sebelius came before the contraceptive mandate of the healthcare law was made public.

Although the Catholic News Service reported 35,000 people signed a petition asking for Sebelius' invitation to be rescinded, only around 20 protesters showed up Friday on campus. Sebelius, who has ties to the university through her husband and sons, seemed unperturbed by the small ruckus.

After quoting John F. Kennedy's pre-presidential speech touting the separation of church and state, she said, "More than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation's long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues."

"These debates can also be contentious," she added. "But this is a strength of our country, not a weakness."

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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