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Teaching Abortion in the Time of the Abortion War

January 5, 2017

 

 

Last year, I decided I wanted to start teaching abortion again. I don’t remember consciously deciding to omit abortion from the classes I teach, be they health law, medical ethics, public health, or comparative law. Yet I do recall growing weary of our polarized, fractious abortion discourse and hated the way that it infected my classrooms. Whether I assigned the leading Supreme Court cases or a range of articles about the ethics of abortion, I found even the most outspoken students would often sit in silence, waiting to regroup with allies in the hallways after class.

 

What were my students afraid to say? When did talking about abortion become so uncomfortable? For the past five years, I have spent time in El Salvador studying what happens when abortion is banned. It was there that I came to understand the limits of our abortion discourse here in the United States. For all the time we spend fighting over the morality or legality of abortion, it’s amazing to me how seldom we move beyond slogans. All that the abortion war requires of us is that we pick our side on the question of legality. We rarely get to the hard questions of how and why abortion law might matter.

 

And as an educator, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, by failing to raise these questions with my students, I was actually part of the problem. Each time we leave abortion out of the classroom, we abdicate our obligation to educate students to think critically and engage respectfully across our differences.

 

But the question remains: how is one to approach abortion in the classroom?

 

I wanted to find a way to push students past their knee-jerk affiliation as pro-life or pro-choice. I wanted to deepen their understanding of their own beliefs about abortion, and more, to teach them to listen deeply to those who see things differently. I wanted to help awaken these skills — self-awareness and active listening — because they’re essential to being effective lawyers. I also think they’re key to moving beyond the impasse in our country’s abortion war.

 

Feeling ready to truly teach abortion, I went looking for the tools to make it happen. That’s when I found a 2014 collection of essays entitled, Untold Stories: Life, Love and Reproduction.

 

Untold Stories gave my class the tools needed to see abortion with fresh eyes, so that we might understand more fully the complexity of abortion as a moral, social, political, and legal issue. From the front of the classroom, the book gave me a path back into teaching lessons that I believe to be core to my mission. By giving voice to the diversity of decisions surrounding reproduction, Untold Stories gave students permission to let go of what they thought they “knew,” in order to make room for all of us to learn something from one another.

 

Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction is available on Amazon.com and Audible.com

As its title suggests, Untold Stories consists of stories we don’t typically hear. Writing in humble, earnest voices, each author shares their most intimate story — not just about abortion, but also about adoption, miscarriage, infertility, and more. They make themselves so vulnerable that it feels like a kindness on our part, pausing to see the world through their eyes. Their stories are precisely what’s needed to move a class of students beyond the rigid battle lines.

 

For the first day of class, rather than assigning cases or articles, I assigned 3 of the 17 essays — one on abortion, one on adoption, and one on single parenthood. In addition, I invited the students to read at least one other essay of their choosing. In class, I placed them in random groups of three. I used instructions designed to promote active listening, with the following instructions for each of their roles as speaker, listener, and observer.

 

1. The speaker was to choose an essay they found thought provoking and tell the listener why.

2. The listener must not respond verbally until the speaker has finished. Then, rather than responding generally, they were to ask clarifying questions to ensure that they fully understood the speaker’s comments. Only after listening to the answers were they free to share their own thoughts.

3. The observer stays silent, witnessing and ensuring that the focus is on listening. After both the speaker and listener have spoken, the observer may ask clarifying questions, may comment on anything they noticed in their partners’ exchange, and may add their own comments.

 

As each group rotated and students took turns as speakers, I watched as they moved more deeply into conversation. Voices stayed quiet, so I caught only fragments of the stories they began sharing with one another. Heads drew closer and arms uncrossed as students spoke of their beliefs, their hopes for their own future families, and the lessons they’d learned from life so far. They began to reveal parts of themselves typically left outside of the classroom. The classroom hummed with stories of a mother’s miscarriage, of a friend’s high school pregnancy, of a great aunt who died from an illegal abortion.

 

In the weeks that followed, the stories we’d read, and the ones we’d shared, kept vigil in our class. They stood guard against the tendency to pass judgment. As we moved on to study the legal decisions and policies surrounding abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, the differences in opinion no longer felt menacing. We had the hard conversations — about father’s rights, about fetal anomalies, about taxpayer funding — and students understood that there were not simply two positions, but rather, many. We seldom reached consensus, but that was never our goal. Instead, we came to understand and voice our beliefs with care. The stories we shared let us hear one another in good faith, so that we could remain in conversation in spite of our differences.

 

At the end of the semester, each of us wrote a letter to ourselves in which we recorded thoughts about what we’d learned and what we hoped we’d carry forward from the class. I told the class I’d hold the letters for 5 years, and then send them out. 
 
 I have been thinking about my letter, sitting in its envelope, particularly in these days when the prospect of changes in U.S. law looms large. Some days, I give in to the temptation to revert to the clean battle-lines of our abortion war. But most days, I remember sitting and listening to the stories my students shared — stories that live in the shadows beyond and between pro-life and pro-choice. The stories are truer than any slogan. They will be just as true 5 years from now, and maybe even 500. My hope, the one I wrote about in my letter, is that world will be a more compassionate place by then.

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