As an English teacher I became so frustrated with students for being unable to offer a rational abortion argument on either side that I ultimately refused to let them deliver an argumentative speech on any aspect of the issue.
Abortion was the only topic, among a host of complicated issues, which I ever banned when I taught public speaking. But I didn’t know what else to do.
I told my students when they were choosing topics that they should either avoid topics they couldn’t do justice to in five minutes, or they should narrow the speech to a single aspect of a topic. Most students followed my advice.
One passionate student, however, decided that her view was worth the risk to her grade and decided to tackle the whole of the abortion issue in spite my cautions. She defied the time limit and argued passionately but irrationally for nearly ten minutes, and at the end of the speech, nearly every student in the class was angry. Those who disagreed with her arguments were furious. Those who agreed wanted a class discussion to continue the debate. And the moderates and rule-followers in class were indignant that I hadn’t stopped the speech at the five-minute mark. Ultimately, that speech convinced no one of anything.
Though I didn’t ban abortion from arguments in writing classes, I did caution my students, as I did about all topics, that when I evaluated arguments, I would read their papers as though I disagreed, whatever their stance, and I promised them I would be as objective as I possibly could in reading their arguments. This wasn’t always easy, and the top students always wondered how I could give two papers on the same topic an A when they had such divergent views. I told them that the A arguments were always the ones that showed some recognition of the nuances of the topic.
This wasn’t always easy for me as a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to encourage students to consider all aspects of a topic, using sound sources, and then to allow them the freedom to draw their own conclusions without forcing my own views on them.
But on the abortion issue, I had no good answers for students then, and I have no good answers now for how we can have a civil, intelligent discussion of the nuances that are crucial to this discussion.
Here are two views that I’ve actually heard former students (and adults) at the two extremes say:
- “Life begins at conception, and all abortion is murder. It should always be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.”
- “As long as a fetus is still attached to a woman’s body, it’s a parasite. And if a woman chooses to abort it, that’s her right and nobody else’s business.”
Most Americans don’t espouse either of these views. In survey after survey, a significant majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, even though most of us couldn’t tell you exactly what the opinion says. The complete transcript of the majority opinion isn’t easily available online, and many don’t realize that the decision in 1973 seemed to be based on the doctor’s right to privacy, without mention of the rights of women. In the decision for the 7-2 majority, Justice Blackmun wrote:
The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.
In the years since, some aspects of the decision have been struck down, including the original guidelines for the trimesters at which abortions can be performed. Yet we continue to discuss this issue in the public arena as if only the two extremes matter. (A guide to the key aspects of decisions related to abortion can be found at the Chicago—Kent College of Law’s Body Politic Project.)
We live in a country where the majority is supposed to rule, even though recent presidential elections where the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for the minority have called that principle into question.
Surveys of citizens’ attitudes about abortion consistently reveal widespread majority support for Roe v. Wade. In January of this year, before the current uproar about the Supreme Court vacancy, Pew Research reported that 57% of Americans support legal access to abortion, including a wide variety of religious groups. Even among some evangelical denominations, over half of members felt that the law should allow access to some abortions, even if they personally opposed it.
This week, after the announcement of another Supreme Court vacancy, a number of polls are showing even more widespread support for Roe v. Wade. A Kaiser Foundation poll showed 67% support for the law, including 43% of Republicans. A Quinnipiac University poll on a variety of issues showed 63% support of the ruling overall, with virtually no gender gap in the results.
So why are we Americans being held hostage to the wishes of a small minority at the extremes of our culture?
In a more perfect union, where the majority does rule, the rights of the minority should be honored. But since we don’t live in a utopian state where consensus is always possible, where does that leave us?
I never felt good about banning abortion from class discussions. But I sometimes want to do the same thing in the discussions that are taking place in the public arena. Even though the people at the extremes are in a small minority, they seem to have the loudest voices, and because they get their information from the most biased media sites, the cacophony they create takes me back to the day a single student with a loud voice held my class hostage for ten minutes.
Right now Roe v. Wade is the best we have. I was a junior in high school when that decision was made. I remember well, in the years before, the stories of girls my age who were mutilated or who died at the hands of abortion providers who took their money and destroyed their bodies.
Here is the single lesson I took away from that time: Wealthy people will take their daughters out of the state or the country to get a safe and legal abortion. Poor women or girls who are too ashamed to seek help will find a way to have an abortion, even if it may maim or kill them.
Many of the people who protest in front of abortion facilities weren’t born yet when the Supreme Court issued that decision on Roe v. Wade. A few of them weren’t even an egg in their mothers’ ovaries or a sperm in their fathers’ testicles yet because even their parents hadn’t been born.
Perhaps only when their sisters and daughters and friends die after an abortion in a dirty and dark room will they realize the folly of not having a sensible abortion law.