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Spotlight on Kathryn Pogin

Modified: October 23, 2015
Kathryn Pogin Spotlight

Kathryn Pogin, a second-year PhD student in the Philosophy department, made quite a splash in the field before arriving on Northwestern’s campus. In July of 2014, she published a piece about the Supreme Court case Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. on the New York Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone: “Discrimination is Un-Christian, Too.”

The fact that Kathryn’s op-ed focused on a Supreme Court decision aligns with her original career goal: law. “When I was an undergraduate [at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota], I was originally planning on majoring in economics and going to law school,” she said, adding that she fell in love with her current discipline after taking a required philosophy class. “Eventually, I just decided to change my major; I was taking more philosophy classes than econ classes.”

Kathryn ended up starting a PhD in philosophy at Notre Dame after one of her professors “was really insistently trying to talk me into going to graduate school,” she said. Kathryn thought she couldn’t afford a graduate degree, “but then he explained to me how a stipend works, and I thought, why not get paid to go to school and study things I love?”

Kathryn began applying her philosophical knowledge to issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act while at Notre Dame. “When I was finishing up my first year there, the university president [Rev. John I. Jenkins] sent out an email letting us know that the University was suing the federal government over the requirement to provide no-cost contraception,” she said. Challenging the contraceptive mandate was the issue that would ultimately bring the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court.

Kathryn had been studying epistemology – specifically, how social and political circumstances can influence the way we conceptualize the world – and her philosophical research contributed to her objections to the lawsuit. Specifically, she disagreed with the notion that the mandate was contrary to Catholic teaching.

“The principle of double effect is a longstanding principle in Catholic philosophy that provides guidelines for engaging in actions that you believe have morally egregious consequences,” she explained. “I thought [the contraceptive mandate] fit the standards of that principle.” Kathryn also felt strongly about the importance of the Affordable Care Act in general, and the contraceptive mandate in particular, especially after an acquaintance of hers was unable to get a prescription for contraceptives through the University to treat her adenomyosis, even as the University provided erectile dysfunction medication to men without question.

“I felt like there was a real double standard in how the University was providing healthcare to people,” she said, “and I also think the Affordable Care Act is incredibly important. I didn’t think [the objection to the contraceptive mandate] was worth risking the importance of the good work the ACA could do, even if you grant [Notre Dame’s] perspective that contraceptives are morally illicit when used for contraceptive purposes. Which I don’t.”

Kathryn’s frustration with Notre Dame’s lawsuit led her to draft a letter to Father Jenkins, which eventually turned into a petition asking the University to reconsider the lawsuit. When the petition didn’t get a result, Kathryn wrote an op-ed, “Notre Dame Healthcare and Sincere Religious Belief,” that was published by the Huffington Post, and which won an award from the American Philosophical Association.

“It’s one of the requirements under RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) law that your belief has to be sincere,” said Kathryn, “so I wrote an op-ed arguing that Notre Dame wasn’t sincere.” She followed the first op-ed with a second, “Who is Notre Dame?” written with Bridget Dunlap, that “[raised] the question of whether or not Notre Dame, or corporations, should be considered people [for the purpose of the statute].”

By the time Kathryn was approached to write about the Hobby Lobby case for The Stone, she had transferred to Northwestern and was preparing to move to Evanston in the fall. “Research-wise, this really is a great place for me. We have an incredibly strong department in epistemology,” she said, a department that includes her advisor, Jennifer Lackey. Kathryn was also attracted to Northwestern for the strength of the student community: “I love how everyone is really engaged, interested and trying to make the University a better place; the culture of a community can make a huge difference to your ability to be productive.”

“Discrimination is Un-Christian, Too” was published several months before Kathryn arrived on campus. She had already been frustrated with lawsuits that fought the Affordable Care Act when she was contacted by The Stone to write a piece on the case. In the piece, she argued that Hobby Lobby was not only discriminatory toward women, but hypocritical.

“The products [Hobby Lobby] sells are mostly produced in China under horrific labor conditions,” said Kathryn. “If you think you’re really sincerely committed to Christian doctrine – what did Jesus say more than anything?  That we need to take care of the poor and the hungry, and Hobby Lobby is profiting off these people. They also changed their healthcare policies immediately after they got a phone call asking if they would be interested in suing, which clearly demonstrated that this was strategic on their part, rather than sincere.”

Kathryn’s research in epistemology is closely related to the issues addressed in these pieces. “I’m really interested in how social circumstances that are marred by inequality can end up affecting the way that we fail to recognize that our concepts are applied in a way that is unequal,” she said. “For example, when religion gets brought into politics, how do we recognize that abortion is an issue of being pro-life, but, say, affordable healthcare isn’t? […] It’s about the way in which we appeal to certain ideals in some contexts but not in others, when they might be the kinds of ideals that apply more broadly.”

At Northwestern, Kathryn has been applying her research interests in other ways. She is active in Title IX at Northwestern, and this fall she is the TA for Ethical Problems and Public Issues with Mark Sheldon, a course that allows her to explore the types of issues about which she is passionate.

“We’re going to talk about abortion, same-sex marriage, really anything that is controversial both ethically and politically,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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