Pedagogical Strategies and Tips on How to Talk about Abortion in the Classroom
This project was made possible through funding by the Wabash Center
I. Use sensitivity and understanding; recognize that the student's approach is more personal than academic; student responses will be as complex as the topic. Likewise, the instructor approaches the topic with preconceived notions, often emotionally complex as well. While this cannot be completely avoided, one should be aware of one's own biases and make every effort to be neutral and fair.
II. "Virtue Language" is most effective - avoid "right, wrong" or "good, bad;" instead ask, "Was she courageous (strong) in making her choice?" This creates potential for agreement rather than divisiveness.
Virtue Theory in a Nutshell (by Dr. Chris Panza)
Most ethical theories are concerned with the right/wrong of actions. So they ask questions like "what should I do, in this situation?" Such theories focus on ways of figuring out the answer by constructing decision-procedures that yield the right answer. So you get things like (A) "it is the right act if it follows rule X, Y or Z", where the "right rules" are something like the ten-commandments, the rules of reason, the agreed upon laws of the community, or whatever. (B) "it is the right act if it is the act that (in that situation) results in maximization of X" where X is some state of affairs like pleasure, or happiness, or something. So stepping on a person's foot for no reason, say, would be wrong because you could have chosen not to, which would have led to greater pleasure overall in the world (the person who owns the foot, in this case). (A) approaches are called "deontological" and (B) approaches are called "consequentialist." In both, it is action that turns out to be right or wrong, you just look at rules or states of affairs to figure out which actions are right/wrong. So you look at the action and check to see if it matches something (a rule, or a state of affairs). Questions like abortion typically get "stuck" in these approaches. So "fetus has a right to life" (pro-life) people and "I have a right to my body" (pro-choice) people are really just, say, "deontologists" disagreeing over the rules (who has a right to what). Outside of this disagreement, there's nothing to talk about. Sometimes the debate turns on (B) types. The pro-choice person says that sometimes abortions lead to less suffering overall (for the mother, who is poor, has five other kids, etc). The pro-life person says that it inflicts pain on the fetus, and so it doesn't maximize pleasure/happiness/whatever.
The virtue approach changes the dynamics of the "conversation". Virtue ethics focuses on character, not actions. So it is more important whether a person is "courageous" or "wise" or "thoughtful" as opposed to "cowardly" or "stupid" or "insensitive" (virtues vs. vices). Since virtue theory tends to think that the same action could be arrived at in some cases through virtue and in others through vice, the rightness/wrongness of actions is not the focus. In this case, a person could, say, have an abortion as a result of vice (insensitivity, cowardice, etc.). Just as well, a person could decide not to have an abortion as a result of those same vices (it would depend on the particulars of the situation). Similarly, in different situations virtue could lead to an abortion choice, or a non-abortion choice. Virtue people, then, think it is very important to make sure that people are, in a way, "armed" with the right resources when they enter moral situations. Those "arms" are virtues. So it is more important to make sure that people develop virtuous natures, because those natures lead to good actions, whereas vicious natures lead to bad ones. Most people tend to see virtue language (the use of virtue-vice vocabulary to describe situations, where the focus is on people and not actions) as more "neutral" than deontological/consequentialist language. Even people who think abortion is always wrong can see where the person in the situation did something that they at least saw as courageous, or thoughtful, or whatever. Similarly, pro-choice folks can surely recognize a kind of courage in the refusal to have an abortion in certain difficult circumstances. This ability to "agree" on a kind of moral language that does not immediately depend on the outcome of the action is important to get people to talk about abortion in a way that deontological or consequentialist language just does not seem to allow, or at least does not make easy.
For more on “Virtue Language,” see these resources:
A partial list of virtues can be found at:
III. For credibility, use stories of actual (not hypothetical) situations.
Resources in Print:
Behind Every Choice is a Story, Gloria Feldt
Real Abortion Stories: The Hurting and the Healing, Barbara Horak, ed.
IV. Students are more comfortable talking about abortion when it concerns ‘others,' e.g., women in non-industrialized countries or historical women. Start there and bring the conversation closer to their own demographic in increments.
Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell Paperbacks) by Janet Farrell Brodie ( Paperback - May 1997)
The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception 1800-1975 by Hera Cook ( Kindle Edition - Mar 11, 2004) - Kindle Book
Margaret Sanger: ( VHS Tape - 1998)
"Reproductive Rights", a chapter in Women Across Culture s: A Global? Perspective , Shawn Meghan Burn, 2nd edition. McGraw Hill.
V. Bring in guest speakers at the onset who will represent and articulate the various views of the students. If not, students fear that they will have to do it themselves and they do not feel confident in their own ability to articulate their positions effectively. They become defensive.
Resources for finding speakers in your area:
I would like to thank the Wabash Center for funding this research and making this work possible.
I would also like to thank my colleagues at Drury University for participating in these conversations throughout the year. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Lisa Esposito.