Teaching Controversial Topics: Abortion

Trysh Travis, May 2010

Unlike the Locofoco Party, say, or the Federal Highway Act, the topic of abortion can start a fight in a classroom. Reasonable people may fundamentally disagree on the moral and ethical issues abortion entails; occasionally impassioned belief even gives way to violence, as demonstrated by the fatal shooting of Doctor George Tiller in May 2009. Far more common than such fanaticism are strong but unexamined beliefs about abortion, many of them internally contradictory. In the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, 51 percent of Americans identified as “pro-life,” although 75 percent believed that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.1 Creating a productive learning experience out of such a vexed and volatile issue is particularly hard when discussants are ill-informed and unaccustomed to sustained critical arguments—a situation not uncommon in the undergraduate classroom.

The average U.S. history survey course can probably safely skirt the issue of abortion, but any course that treats women’s or gender history, the history of sexuality, or “The Sixties” and their aftermath will inevitably touch on the topic. When it comes up, discussion can be tense, and degenerate with surprising speed into a pitched battle in which students—both liberal and conservative—abandon all interest in thinking historically about the issues and instead rehearse the ideological arguments they have developed outside the classroom. This dynamic, combined with heightened scrutiny of liberal professors teaching controversial topics, creates a strong incentive just to avoid the subject. But teaching about women’s attempts to gain control over their reproductive capacity, including securing access to legal abortion, remains central to any class that seeks to historicize the shifting relationships among gender, sexuality, and the liberal ideal of self-determination under the law that is at the center of so much of U.S. history and government.

To encourage a focus on those larger issues, I self-consciously avoid discussions of the morality of abortion—indeed, I am not even interested in knowing whether students identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” nor do I share my views with them. Instead, by providing a long historical context within which to read key Supreme Court decisions about reproductive rights, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which the supposedly neutral “rule of law” is colored by historically contingent ideals of gender and sexuality. This approach also allows a class on U.S. history to discuss the workings of government by showing that while legislatures and the courts can police and help to reinforce existing ideals, they can also be tools for revising them.

I lay the groundwork for talking about reproductive rights during discussion of women’s agitations in the 19th century for increased access to education and the workplace. A document completely unrelated to abortion sets us up to talk meaningfully about it: physician Edward Clarke’s best-selling Sex in Education or, A Fair Chance for Girls (1875), which rails against rigorous education for girls on the grounds that studying “in a boy’s way” draws blood towards the brain and away from the uterus, making girls unfit for their natural roles as wives and mothers. As their reproductive organs wither away under the pressures of Latin declensions, they simultaneously doom themselves to unhappiness and set the conditions for race suicide, forcing American men to seek out fertile foreign brides and to re-enact, “on a magnificent scale, the old story of unwived Rome and the Sabines.”2

Sex in Education is one of a series of documents that shed light on early suffragists’ and abolitionists’ attempts to secure the basic human rights promised by liberal political philosophy and encoded in the Declaration of Independence. This colorful tract allows students to see the ways that women’s attempts to claim those rights have routinely been thwarted by arguments about their reproductive duties. Clarke’s paternalistic overinvestment in the health of women’s wombs fuels our discussion of turn-of-the-century battles for educational and workplace equity, but it also sets the stage for 20th-century questions about who controls women’s sexuality and reproduction.

To transition from Clarke’s desire to regulate women’s reproductive capacity for their own good and for that of the nation to the struggle for access to legal abortion in the late 20th century, I rely on the work of Margaret Sanger, who argued in 1920 that “no woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Recent scholarship on Sanger has focused on the eugenicist dimensions of her birth control advocacy (an interest that, ironically, she shared with Clarke); but more compelling is Sanger’s framing of reproductive freedom as a foundational right for women—a right whose importance surpasses that of equal access to the ballot box, educational system, or workplace, and whose exercise “neither…man nor the state” should be allowed to abridge. Explicitly linking freedom in the public sphere to freedom of the body, Sanger undoes the Victorians’ willful dissociation of those two realms, paving the way for the “personal politics” of the late-20th century.3

Having situated women’s reproductive rights within both the tradition of Anglo-American liberalism and the crumbling Victorian cult of domesticity, we can turn to the key Supreme Court decisions that have shaped contemporary abortion policy. The first, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), overturns that state’s Gilded Age-era ban on the sale of contraceptives on the grounds that the decision to use birth control is a private one, beyond the reach of legal statute. Roe v. Wade (1973) extends Griswold’s holding, finding that a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy within the first trimester falls within a “zone of privacy” protected by the Constitution. Significantly, however, Roe also acknowledges the limits on the exercise of that right and affirms the state’s “important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life,” an interest that becomes more “compelling” as a pregnancy advances. Finally, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) rules on the constitutionality of five limitations imposed by the state on women’s private exercise of their rights. Casey affirms four such limitations, upholding the state’s right to mandate a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent, and extensive data reporting by clinics to federal agencies. It also upholds the state’s authority to require clinics to present information on health risks to women seeking abortion, noting that “measures aimed at ensuring that a woman’s choice contemplates the consequences [of the abortion] for the fetus do not necessarily interfere with” the right to privacy. At the same time, Casey overturns the state’s requirement for spousal notification, arguing that such mandatory deference to their husbands returns women to the days of couverture and hence violates their “constitutionally protected liberty.”4

Together, these decisions show the court’s ongoing attempts to adapt the Enlightenment-era notions of rights and liberty embedded in the Constitution to our own post-modern era, a time characterized not only by evolving gender roles but also by a complex regulatory state and rapidly changing technologies that challenge commonsense notions of when life begins and ends. They complicate the consumerist mindset that fetishizes “choice” as the ultimate freedom, a posture typically assumed by students on the left, as well as the moralizing cant about abortion as “baby-killing” favored by those on the right. In doing so, they force students across the political spectrum out of their comfort zones and into an engagement with the historically mutable liberalism that still occupies much of the center of American life and politics.

This approach to teaching about abortion leaves much to be desired. It does not explore midwifery or folk approaches to reproductive health, nor the rise of male-dominated professional medicine that delegitimized them in the late 19th century. As noted above, it does not address the eugenicist beliefs that have energized some reproductive rights activists from the Gilded Aged to the present, nor does it discuss the ongoing tensions between white “pro-choice” advocates and communities of color, within which birth control, sterilization, and abortion have sometimes been characterized as tools of genocide. In addition, it deliberately avoids taking a position on whether easy access to legal abortion is desirable or not—a stance some instructors may find disingenuous.5

Nevertheless, I have found that the best way to ensure that students obtain information and historical perspectives that complicate those in their peer or family communities is to map out a distinctly heady approach to reproductive rights—more of an intellectual than a cultural or social history of the issue. This dispassionate posture is reinforced by readings whose complex wording and dense allusions require close scrutiny, and by attention in class to the idea of the Supreme Court justices as historians in their own right, constructing the past through their engagements with precedent. This pedagogy—while admittedly somewhat controlling—channels class discussion away from the sloganeering of talk radio and street protests and toward the philosophical, legal, and historical contexts from which those slogans have sprung. Equally, if not more importantly, it respects the right to privacy of both liberal and conservative students when it comes to their opinions on a complex and controversial subject.

Trysh Travis is at the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida at Gainseville.

Notes

1. “Abortion.” www.gallup.com/poll/1576/Abortion.aspx. Accessed July 3, 2009.

2. Clarke, Sex in Education (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875). Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org/etext/18504. Accessed July 3, 2009.

3. Sanger, “Birth Control—A Parents’ Problem, or Woman’s?” In Feminist Theory: A Reader, Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004) 138–139.

4. Griswold is anthologized in Ellen Carol Dubois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005) A29–A30; Roe and Casey appear, with excellent head notes offering historical context and discussion of other key cases adjudicated in the intervening years, in Linda Kerber and Jane Sherron Dehart’s Women’s America: Refocusing the Past (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003) 630–36.

5. For an example of how to teach about abortion from an unapologetically “pro-choice” stance, see Natalia Deeb-Sossa and Heather Kane, “Not Avoiding a ‘Sensitive Topic’: Strategies to Teach About Women’s Reproductive Rights,” NWSA Journal 21:1 (Spring 2009): 151–177.