Abortion:  a no-go area in teaching medical ethics?  

By Helen Watt

The shockwaves emitting from the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs/Roe v. Wade, and the leaked draft opinion before that, have travelled far beyond the US. Those interested in a diverse academy will be intrigued to learn of the recent experience of Ezio Di Nucci, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Copenhagen, described in a JME blogpost titled Are We Still Allowed to Teach Abortion?  

In the wake of the Supreme Court leak, the author proposed to his colleagues to insert an abortion case study into the medical ethics curriculum. To his surprise, there was what Di Nucci describes as “something of a consensus that abortion better be left alone, today.” Discussing abortion might harm female medical students, and women’s bodily autonomy in in this area was “indisputable”, “non-negotiable.”

Di Nucci, strongly pro-choice, had himself omitted to include a chapter on abortion in his recently-completed handbook on bioethics. However, he argues that, for the very reason that the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade has decided not to leave abortion alone,“we need to teach and write about abortion.” After all, he asks, “how can we teach our students women[s] rights if we don’t teach them the abortion debate?” Appealing to the German concept of Bildung, which encompasses a model of education of the whole person, Di Nucci sees the task as educating students vis a vis a reality which includes both the philosophy and the politics of abortion. Education is not just about providing technical skills but “inevitably but mostly intentionally, bilding citizens”.

Di Nucci has a point, though care must be taken that “citizen-building” leave room for the citizen to grow. As he says, not talking about abortion in the lecture-hall does not make the issue any less pressing.  All the more reason, then, that educators make space for diverse views to be heard and discussed – whether views in academe, among students or in wider society. Fraught issues like abortion (and we can all think of others) should be discussed in a way that contributes to mental growth, allowing students to be exposed, without nervous coddling, to more than just one side of the debate. They should be introduced to the topic in its various dimensions and given the tools to form their own judgements. Academics can agree on this approach, including those – pro-choice and pro-life – who have been using it for years.

It is disconcerting to see Di Nucci’s assumption that pro-lifers will not want abortion taught  because, he thinks, they see it as too bad to talk about. The claim is a bizarre one:  pro-life academics exist and talk about abortion sometimes, just like pro-choice academics.  Diverse views on abortion permeate the academy as they do other parts of life:  such diversity can be expected, under the terms of many secular institutions, among faculty as well as students. When disagreement surfaces, respectful – if spirited – discussion should be the order of the day.

Many of us, whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, have experience of such discussions with friends, family and those whom we have more tenuous connections. Such conversations can change forever, if not our own views, then our understanding of those who do not share them. We may also have undergone more fraught exchanges on these topics – again, whether with friends or family or with acquaintances or strangers. We may have experienced, or met in our interlocutor, bewilderment at the dissenting view being expressed by any educated person. I remember one pro-choice friend who was shocked that anyone at a university – rather than, she said, a trailer park – might have objections to abortion.

While it would be nice to think that a university environment is one where ideas are respectfully engaged with, this is very often not the case, as many students can testify.  Fraught issues, if raised at all, may be raised in such a way that students who disagree with the lecturer and vocal peers may stop contributing together. This is deplorable as all of us benefit from an environment where we can explain our position frankly and politely while hearing what real-life opponents – ideally, skilled opponents – have to say in return.

Already social media shields us from challenges, keeping us in a bubble largely sealed off from those not of like mind. Young people, but also older people, may then be shocked by any breach in these defences, even if the views expressed are not unusual in wider society, and are expressed entirely without acrimony. Acclimatisation to dissent is especially a need of those whose views are firmly in accord with those of their circle, and who rarely hear them challenged. Universities should ’build’ students for life outside cyberspace, and extend, not curtail, their exposure to other views.

Author: Helen Watt

Affiliations: Bios Centre, London, and Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.

Competing interests: None declared.





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