When Teenagers Debate Abortion

“Are you planning to debate abortion in class?” asked our new principal. We were standing in the hallway near my classroom.

“Yes,” I said.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because…” She paused, seeming surprised that I would question her. “Because eighth graders are too young to discuss it.”

“But we’ve debated it several times the past couple of years and they’ve handled it quite well,” I said.

She was new in the job, and the first principal I’d worked with who was a contemporary, both of us in our early thirties. She was a bit overweight with short hair and she wore pant-suits or long dresses, usually with a brightly colored shawl over one shoulder. She declared herself a feminist and her mode of dress I afterward realized was a uniform for feminists of the time. Our building, the Charles A. Snow School, was a junior high with a mostly male staff, and shortly after she took over she invited each of us into her office for a private talk. When my turn came she directed me to sit facing her desk, on which was a framed sign facing out that said: “Science has discovered something to do the work of ten men: One woman.”

I leaned over to read it, then looked up at her and said, “Hmm. You can do the work of ten men?”

“It’s an expression,” she said.

“An expression of what?”

She ignored my question and said, “I’d like to introduce myself and tell you my vision for the school…” I don’t recall much of what was said after, except that our meeting took place shortly before our discussion in the hallway about the abortion debates, which went on about as follows:

“I invite parents to come in to observe the debates each year,” I said, “and many have accepted. Usually there are four or five parents coming to each class.”

“Why did you choose to debate abortion?” she asked.

“Students chose it,” I explained. “I’d announce that we were going to debate a topic from current events. Then we’d brainstorm a list of topics, and students would vote on them. Sometimes they’d vote for a different topic like gun control, but most classes usually chose abortion.”

“Eighth graders aren’t mature enough to debate abortion,” she insisted.

“Hmm,” I said. “But some eighth graders have abortions. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” she said, breaking eye contact and shuffling a bit.

“If they’re old enough to have abortions they’re old enough to discuss them, don’t you think?”

At that point, her secretary walked up, excused herself, and handed the principal one of those pink message slips. She read it and said, “I’ll have to get back to you on this.”

She never did, and I went ahead with the debates.

First, I defined terms. I asked each class if someone could define abortion for me and I had a good reason for doing this. Fourteen-year-olds have fully developed brains, but lack nuance. I’d call on a student whose hand was up and he/she would say something like: “Abortion is when a woman is pregnant and she kills the baby inside her.”

That plainly worded definition is typical of 14-year-olds. They’re refreshingly direct. Every year, in every class, the first student I called on would define abortion in almost exactly the same way.

“Does everyone agree with that definition?” I’d ask.

They’d be nods all around, and I’d write it on the blackboard. Then I’d go on to explain that people who supported abortion called themselves “Pro-choice” and people who were against it called themselves “Pro-life.” Pointing to the definition on the board, I’d circle the words “kill” and “baby,” then tell them that a seasoned “pro-choice” person would never utter those words when debating abortion. A pro-life person, however, would nearly always use them. “A definition like that,” I’d say, pointing to the board again, “indicates a pro-life bias. I can tell what somebody thinks about abortion by the words they use to define it.” At this point I’d look toward the student who gave it. “Is that your opinion? Are you pro-life?” Usually he or she was, but not always.

Then I’d ask how a pro-choice person would define abortion. Students would ponder what I said and offer suggestions like: “It’s when a woman finds out she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be, so she goes to a doctor and he takes it out.”

“Not bad,” I’d say. “A pro-choice person would never say ‘baby’ or ‘kill.’ Instead, he or she would substitute words like ‘fetus’ for ‘baby,’ and ‘remove,’ or ‘terminate’ for ‘kill.’” Then I’d ask if anyone else could craft a pro-choice definition. Eventually I’d get one that sounded just like something out of NARAL literature, such as: “When a woman terminates her pregnancy,” which I’d also write on the board.

Often a student would ask my opinion on abortion at this point, and I’d say, “I’ll tell you after the debate is over.”

Students chose which side they wanted to argue. If there were too many on one side or the other, I’d try to even them up by challenging some to argue the opposite of what they believed. Some of my best students would usually offer to do so.

After that, I let them sit in their groups to prepare. My instructions were that they start recording their side’s strongest arguments on one list, then record their opponents’ strongest arguments on another.

“Why do you want us to list our opponents’ arguments?” they’d ask.

“So you can prepare counter-arguments to use during the debate when they bring up those points,” I’d answer. “It’s what opposing lawyers would do in a courtroom. You need to research all sides of any issue. As someone said once: ‘You don’t fully understand your own side unless you understand your opponent’s.’”

Then I’d write the names of organizations championing one side and the other, and instruct students to write to them, telling them they’re debating abortion in class, and could they please send materials. For the pro-choice side, I’d give contact information for Planned Parenthood, NARAL America—then called The National Abortion Rights Action League, and NOW (National Organization for Women), etc. For the pro-life side I’d give contacts for the National Right to Life Association and a local, Maine group called the PLEA (Pro-Life Education Association), which always responded right away.

Of course this was all before students could download information from the internet. They’d have to write away for information via snail mail and I’d allow time for that, usually a couple of weeks. The PLEA information always came first, maybe because they were in Maine—and they’d always send pictures of just what resulted from abortions at various stages. When those pictures arrived, they’d be shown around long before my classes began. Students would come up to me in the hallways with very serious looks and ask me if I’d ever seen pictures of aborted babies.

“Yes,” I’d say. “Shocking, aren’t they?”

“Can we use these in the debate?”

“Yes.”

The pictures would get shown around not only to other students but to parents and other staff as well. Women, usually teacher aides (now called “ed techs”) who worked in my classroom, and with whom I got along quite well, would approach me with serious looks like the ones my students displayed. “Have you seen the abortion pictures floating around?”

“Some, yes.”

“Are you going to allow them in the debate?”

“Some, yes.”

“Is that a good idea?”

“Yes, I think it is. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, it’s hard to argue in favor of abortion after seeing them, and that’s not fair to the pro-choice side.”

That was a hard one. Part of me figured “So what?” Maybe the pro-choice argument is just unsustainable in the face of hard evidence—pictures of arms, legs, and heads of dismembered babies from D&C-type abortions and red, scalded corpses from saline-injection abortions, which seemed to be the most horrifying for students. Yes, it was hard to argue that abortion was anything but killing babies after everybody in the room had seen the pictures. But wasn’t that the lesson here? If I didn’t allow the pictures, would I be fostering denial of the truth? Would I be depriving students of the opportunity to see concrete evidence of what abortion actually entailed? It’s impossible to look at those pictures and then deny the absolute horror of abortion. Words were insufficient to undo the graphic images burned into the viewer’s mind.

Some of my female colleagues who had objected to allowing the pictures seemed deeply sad. They had difficulty making eye contact as they spoke about it, and I wondered if they’d had abortions themselves. If so, seeing those pictures would be even more painful. It wasn’t my wish to rub their faces in it and cause them pain, but maybe what I sensed in them was just what any human being would feel after seeing brutalized babies. I never knew for sure.

What worried me most, however, was the possibility that some of my students might have had abortions too and didn’t realize what actually occurred during the procedure. How might they react? Might it push them over the edge? That kept me up nights.

Tom McLaughlin

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Tom McLaughlin is a retired middle school social studies and history teacher who, for several years, has written an opinion column that appears in newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire and on several websites. He blogs at: Tom McLaughlin.

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