A group of social work graduate students at Catholic University of America plan to challenge their dean’s decision to end relations with the National Association of Social Workers because of the organization’s position that social workers should support access to abortions for clients.
The decision has prompted a group of current social work students calling themselves NCSSS Action to mount a challenge to the policy change.
“The other students and I are still coalescing around strategy and action, but we won’t go quietly into the night here,” said NCSSS Action organizer Andy Bowen, in an e-mail to The Chronicle of Social Change.
Will Rainford, who in April of 2013 was named dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS), informed students in a recent letter that he will “no longer allow NCSSS to officially partner or collaborate with NASW.”
The reason, he said, is “based solely on NASW’s overt public position that social workers should advocate for access to abortions.”
The decision would not preclude Catholic University students from joining NASW, according to Rainford, who wrote that any social work student “can and should decide for herself or himself whether or not to affiliate with an organization.”
Rainford’s decision appears to emanate from statements in the “issue” and “policy” sections of Family Planning and Reproductive Choice, one of 64 official positions that NASW currently endorses in a collection called “Social Work Speaks.”
In its issue statement, NASW states:
…Social workers must realize their professional duty to promote self-determination and assist clients in obtaining whatever help and information they need for effective family planning and for maintaining their reproductive health. Social workers also have a professional obligation to work…to establish, secure funding for, and safeguard family planning and reproductive health programs, including abortion services…
In its policy statement on family planning, NASW describes the following as a bedrock principle:
Every individual, within the context of her or his value system, must have access to family planning, abortion, and other reproductive health services.
The association also states that social workers may choose to restrict the provision of or support for services, but have a responsibility to “disclose the limited scope of their services and to assist clients in obtaining comprehensive services elsewhere.”
Rainford informed students that “such a concrete and public declaration by an institution is completely incongruent with Catholic Tradition and thus renders the organization out of bounds for the school as an institution.”
NASW CEO Angelo McClain, in a statement issued to The Chronicle, said the organization “respects the decision of the dean…to provide guidance to his students about their unique curriculum. We trust that the school’s commitment to advancing social justice in the nation and developing well-trained community advocates will continue.
‘We also welcome the opportunity to work with Catholic University, and its faculty and students, if they choose to do so.”
NCSSS Action is “of the understanding that this marks a fundamental change in the NCSSS’s ideological relation to the wider Catholic University of America,” Bowen said. The social work school’s insulation from the “ideological conservatism of the wider institution” is “part of what made us comfortable going to NCSSS in the first place.”
Bowen said the group plans to ask that the dean submit the decision to students and faculty and allow for a vote on the matter.
A 2008 survey of social work students at the University of Kentucky found that students who reported higher levels of religiosity demonstrated more conservative attitudes toward abortion, and were less likely than other students to say they’d refer a client for an abortion.
NASW was founded in 1955, and represents about 130,000 social work professionals. The standard dues are $190, but undergraduates and Master’s students can join for $48.
Ninety-percent of members pay for their own individual membership, according to spokeswoman Gail Woods-Waller.
The organization is “not aware of any other official ‘no-partnership’ statements,” Woods-Waller, “but I am sure that students in several of the schools of social work based in other faith-based educational institutions may not be encouraged to join NASW.”
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change