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Question: How can I manage to hold a respectful conversation on a topic like abortion, when I know my students have extremely strong feelings about the topic and strenuously disagree with one another?
As a philosophy instructor, particularly a religion and applied ethics instructor, I am pretty used to covering controversial topics in the classroom. And a few times, early in my career, I had my share of scary incidences in response to an issue discussed in class that may have not gone over well with some students. The most frightening one involved a young man who was upset about his grade, and then did not like our discussion concerning abortion ethics. He got up in the middle of the lecture, picked up his desk, and threw it to the ground while he stomped out.
In the past few years, however, such incidences have become exceedingly rare. Even when I teach abortion ethics, I have never had another incident like that one. To explain some of the reasons why I think I have been able to achieve a fairly peaceful teaching environment in the face of such controversy, I will begin by explaining how I handled last time I had a concerning incident, which was about four years ago.
Even when a student says something outrageous, don’t dismiss him/her; instead, challenge them to provide evidence.
One time, in an applied ethics course, I had a male student who had difficulties understanding appropriate language or social cues. During a discussion on abortion ethics, he blurted out: “All women who get abortions are only doing it out of selfishness and convenience. They should learn to keep their legs closed or put on a f$&*ing condom.” The women in the class gasped, and it took everything in my power to not join in in their disgust and anger. Before I was even able to process it, the women had started to jump down his throat, and his responses to them were getting increasingly aggressive. To diffuse the situation, I wrote the student’s comment on the board, and began by asking him to define what he meant by “convenience” and “selfish.” Of course, these terms, once you start trying to define them, are difficult to really pin down. What does it mean when we say a woman has an abortion purely for “convenience”? What exactly is “selfish” about a woman who aborts because she already has too many children for whom to care? Or what is selfish, exactly, about choosing to continue education or career development over motherhood (indeed, weren’t all the students in that class choosing to further their education, rather than doing something else more “productive” in society? Was HE being selfish, I asked)? After devoting some time to parsing out what he meant, we looked up peer-reviewed statistics about the demographics of women who choose abortion – about how half of women who get pregnant are on some sort of birth control, about how many of them are already mothers, about how responsibility to others is often cited as one reason women may choose to abort, about the fetal health problems that are not often detected until later in the pregnancy, about how many women who choose abortion live below the poverty line. I ended with: “you are welcome to present a retort to the class provided you present evidence of your claims.”
Approaching the situation this way has many benefits. First, the student (who was already showing signs of aggression) does not feel personally attacked. We devoted class time to his comments, and welcomed him to develop his points. Then, we appealed to peer reviewed evidence to present an alternative perspective, and invited a retort provided he was able to come up with the same degree of robust evidence. Given what I know about abortion statistics, I knew he would not be able to find this
evidence. The invitation for him to do so, however, put him in a position to have to defend his views, look for evidence of his views, and may cause him to reconsider those (appalling) views once he realizes for himself that this evidence does not exist. In challenging his views this way, however, the student was simultaneously challenged but not dismissed, which properly diffused a situation that could have led to problematic consequences.
Be critical, and gracious, of both sides. Use that graciousness to help the student expand their viewpoint
When teaching about abortion ethics, I spend time highlighting what I think both sides are doing “wrong” and what both sides are doing “right.” I explain to the students that the pro-life side seems to, at times, harbor inconsistent beliefs about the value of fetal life; if personhood really begins at conception, then they should be equally against the destruction of embryos at fertility clinics, it would be difficult to make an exception for the permissibility of abortion in cases of rape, and they should be concerned with the fact that at least half of all fertilized eggs do not successfully implant and leave the woman’s body with her menstrual period. I also criticize the tendency from pro-lifers to downplay the physical, mental, health, and emotional consequences of pregnancy, rendering gestating a fetus akin to renting a room out for 9 months. Yet, I praise them for their commitment to the value that all life, even from its earliest inception, has value. I acknowledge that fetuses are humans, and that they are alive, and that they do indeed become complex, genetically distinct, organisms from early in pregnancy. But truly valuing life in all forms, even the most vulnerable life, entails caring for that life even once they are born. I highlight that their commitment to pro-life values is admirable and beautiful, and this beauty should be extended to life outside the womb as well.
Then I turn to my pro-choice students. I point out that many of them make demarcating lines about when in pregnancy a fetus becomes a being worthy of moral status (most of my pro-choice students do not believe, for example, that a woman should be able to abort a healthy, viable, eight-month old fetus), and that they need to do some philosophical “work” when dealing with issues of personhood and moral status; i.e., when in pregnancy does the fetus transform into a being that may be permissibility aborted to a being with rights that ought not be aborted? I also highlight that some of the common terms used to refer to embryos or fetuses from the pro-choice side (tissue, products of conception, a bunch of cells) are biologically inaccurate and morally callous. Regardless of where we stand concerning a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy, it should be possible to do this without dehumanizing the fetus (and, pro-life students tend to do this in regards to pregnant women, as we saw above). Yet, I praise them for their commitment to women’s rights, welfare, autonomy, and for acknowledging that women choose abortion for legitimate social reasons that we, as a society, would do well to address. I also point out that for most women, abortion is a matter of serious moral concern; that many of them do not conceive of the fetus as a mere mass of cells, and that language that treats the fetus as such may be deemed disrespectful to the very women whose rights we fight so hard to defend.
I find that students on both sides of the aisle appreciate the criticism more once they have also heard the praise. But I don’t do this just to appease them – I genuinely regard abortion rights as a deeply complex moral issue. While I ultimately self-identify as pro-choice, I do so with a deep appreciation of some of the arguments proffered by those on the pro-life side. I think this has made both my research and teaching stronger, and I think, in general, we would all do good to remember that many people, if you really stop to listen to them, have important and good things to say – even when you disagree with them.
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