Are we still allowed to teach abortion?

By Ezio Di Nucci.

Something “funny” happened to me recently (this was soon after the SCOTUS leak): in reviewing possible changes to our medical ethics curriculum with the team, I made what I thought was the innocent suggestion of including an abortion case study (so far, the only abortion we have been teaching has been Philippa Foot on double effect). I expected the team to conclude I was being cheap and newsy – riding the SCOTUS wave – but how could they possibly disagree? What’s left of bioethics without abortion, after all?

The reaction I got was different, and it ranged from the consideration that teaching abortion could be harmful to the young women who make up most of the aspiring doctors at our local med school to the claim that we can only teach abortion if we start from the indisputable assumption of women’s bodily autonomy, which is non-negotiable. There was, in short, something of a consensus that abortion better be left alone, today – which I guess is what we “all” wish SCOTUS would have done.

Wait, though: the right to abortion better be left alone, agreed. But does that apply to the abortion debate in teaching and research as well? I don’t see how that argument is supposed to work. Indeed, the opposite directionality might be more plausible: that we need to teach and write about abortion for the very reason that SCOTUS won’t leave it alone; and that the fact that, in 2022, SCOTUS is going back on abortion might in fact partially depend on us having “moved on” from abortion – the progressive left in both science and politics, I mean. Guilty as charged, by the way – having just completed a large bioethics handbook with a loud absence: the abortion chapter.

The claim being, basically, that it is our fault as much as Trump’s. The pig only delivered what he promised, after all: enough justices (in fact more justices in a single term than any democratic POTUS I can think of). Now, the above claim might be overblown for the simple reason that nobody actually reads philosophy. Still, if we are scared of the abortion debate, Trump wins. And how can we teach our students women rights if we don’t teach them the abortion debate?

It’s tempting to scale up these questions: abortion gets canceled the very same year SCOTUS abolishes it. But it’s not an academic freedom issue: I made a suggestion, which was then criticized by colleagues, in the traditional way of philosophy. And yet I can’t help noticing the way in which there certainly is one group which will celebrate when we stop teaching abortion, pro-lifers.

Is that the surprising way in which polarization works – by closing the loop in the end? Think of it this way: group polarization emboldens the right to go for the big one, Roe v. Wade; they wouldn’t have dared twenty years ago (too busy not finding WMDs). At the same time, group polarization emboldens the left to move on to the next right, abortion’s in the bag.

What both groups have in common, in the midst of these strong polarizing winds: one doesn’t want to teach x because x is bad while the other doesn’t want to teach x because x is boring/done and there are new and bigger problems. So x doesn’t get taught. But make no mistake: this is not a draw, because once it disappears from the classroom, its days are numbered. It’s like when you close a school in a rural community: beginning of the end.

Objection: am I making the beginner’s mistake of confusing the philosophy of abortion with the politics of abortion? After all, it could be argued that the former belongs in the classroom (while the latter doesn’t) and that SCOTUS is all about the latter and doesn’t care for the former (even though that’s not how lawyers actually write).

That’s a misunderstanding of our role as teachers, I would argue – but it’s no surprise in today’s entrepreneurial university. We are not here (only) to provide students with value-free technical skills: we must embrace the simple fact that we are also, inevitably but mostly intentionally, bilding citizens (from the German: Bildung).

Further objection: if you wanted to scale up the question of not teaching abortion while SCOTUS abolishes it, you could also consider the future of liberalism. As in: the left tried Marxism (hasn’t worked, yet) then played along with liberal social democracy but it hasn’t gotten it anywhere (I don’t just mean abortion reversal, just look at inequality), so maybe the problem is liberal democracy after all?

That’s a big question that goes too far beyond philosophy (we are still stuck at interpretieren, after all); but even if there were any merit in it (and indeed the post-war consensus isn’t doing too well in Ukraine just now; and that’s just Russia, which amounts to less than 10% of China), that wouldn’t – or anyway shouldn’t – change our responsibility in the classroom. Teach it.

Author: Ezio Di Nucci

Affiliation: Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies, University of Copenhagen

Competing interests: None declared

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