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Barry Michaels on Thinking About Abortion with Those Who Won’t
I teach eleventh-grade religion at a respected and flourishing Catholic college-prep high school in the state of New York. My students are bright and talented kids, the children of some of the most successful people in this part of the state. Our discussions on morality are a window into the culture that nurtures them at least as much as most of their families do. We recently tackled abortion.
A few students tried to make abortion a feminist issue, but interestingly, only a very few. Most, including the young women, react to the idea of feminism with disdain and jokes, and some girls asserted that women would be expected to be more pro-life than men because they’re the ones with the maternal instincts. Note to NOW: Your message has missed the youth, at least the ones living in the area that gave birth to the American feminist movement.
A few others defended abortion as a necessary means of birth control or even population control. But the most prominent line of thinking by far was, well, not thinking. When presented with the facts of fetal development or abortion methods or ethical reasoning, student after student preferred either comfortable unawareness or bold-faced denial of plain fact.
That’s a strong assertion to make. Examples are in order.
The first sign of what was to come appeared on the first day of class discussion, as one student (I’ve changed all names below) tried to dismiss moral objections to abortion.
Steve: It’s not like we’re talking about a living person here.
Me: What do you mean?
Steve: Well, the heart doesn’t even start beating until it’s like five months along.
Me: Five months?
Me: Actually, it’s more like three weeks.
Steve: No way. That’s not true.
Now, every one of these college-bound juniors covered fetal development in ninth-grade biology. Consider another student’s assertion.
Craig: Until it [the unborn baby] comes out, it’s not alive. It’s dead.
Me: And what do you base that statement on?
If charity suggested I chalk all this up to (profound) ignorance and misinformation, Samantha left no doubt about what lay beneath them. In the midst of yet another discussion of basic fetology, this honor student spoke up.
Samantha: Yes, but what science says doesn’t matter.
Me: (silent, unsure of an appropriate response to such an assertion)
Samantha: Just because something is true doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
Me: Okay. (I write her last sentence on the board so it’s plain as day.) Are you sure that’s the argument you want to make to defend a right to abortion?
Samantha: Sure. I can go through my life denying what science says is true. I have that right.
Me: Yes, I guess you can. I can refuse to believe, for example, that the world is round. I can insist it’s flat.
Me: But can that kind of thinking ever become the foundation of our laws, even if some unreasonable folks want to base their personal decisions on it? If we do, laws just become a matter of who has the power, not what’s right and true. Laws would simply be what the lawmaker wants them to be, for his own convenience. If the ones making the law want to say wife-beating is okay, then that’s the law; it doesn’t matter if it’s “true” that women are people and have rights. Or Hitler can have his concentration camps. Or America can have black slaves. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because (the lawmaker says) just because something is true doesn’t mean I have to believe it.
These are not the only instances of my students’ rejection of rational thought or willful denial of plain reality. When I responded to one girl’s objection that we can’t make laws based on morality by pointing out that we criminalize rape and murder and stealing for moral reasons, she told me, “Yes, but those are different. In those cases, you’re hurting someone else.”
At another point, I was briefly describing the methods of abortion. One girl raised her hand and asked, “Is this just a scare tactic for us?” I asked her what she meant, and she responded, “Well, why are you only telling us about the bad ways that it’s done?” The denial of reality extends even to the belief that there could actually be a pleasant procedure that might result in a dead baby.
In the end, this explanation of abortion procedures was the one topic we covered during our chapter that actually seemed to cause my students to stop and think. Even though I did my research using both purely medical and explicitly “pro-choice” materials, in order to avoid the criticism of intentionally presenting the information in a way that makes abortion sound terrible, I watched students grimace and frown as I explained the methods used at various stages of pregnancy.
When I completed the lesson and asked for questions, one hand went up.
“Why would anyone want to be a doctor who gives abortions?” the young man asked. “Who would do that?”
Before I could say anything, the student sitting next to the questioner beat me to an answer. “Someone without a soul,” he said. To my amazement, I suddenly saw half of the group, these kids who had been arguing with me for two weeks that nothing should stand in the way of unlimited access to abortion, nod their heads.
My intention is not to pick on a few teens unwilling to engage in a thoughtful discussion. Their comments are a window into middle- and upper-class American life. They reflect the way the abortion issue is thought about and discussed by their parents, their peers, their legislators, and the media, which is for them and many of the rest of us the very cultural air we breathe.
The utter denial of scientific realities (I lost count of how many times I heard the phrase “clump of cells” during our discussions) and the rejection of rational thought—these things are there because they’re the only way to justify the approach to abortion currently taken in American law. Neither biological insights nor logical consistency is important. Convenience is. Taking science or reason into account would necessarily mean changing the laws.
Or maybe not. After all, just because something is true doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
Barry Michaels teaches religion in a Catholic school in New York and is the author of Eucharist: The Church?s Treasure and At the School of Mary (Pauline Books).