Teaching Abortion

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Rose Holz is associate director of the Women’s & Gender Studies program and director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  She also teaches a course on the history of sexuality.

And if her piece at the website of The American Historian is any indication (and I think it is), she is a great history teacher.

Here is a taste of her “Why the Classroom Is a Sacred Place for Me and Why I’ll Keep Venturing Out into ‘No-Man’s land’…Even during These Abortion Wars”:

Of course, I’ve always prided myself in teaching in a way that allows for diversity of opinion. The classroom, as I see it, is not a place where I impose my views. It is a place for the free exchange of ideas even—no, especially—if they differ from my own. Otherwise, how else are we going to learn? Otherwise, how else are we going to get to know each other—maybe even like each other—even if sometimes we hold radically different views? And of course again, I would be lying if I didn’t mention just how many times I’ve miserably failed in this regard. But I’m also happy to report how over the years I’ve managed to achieve a few moments of success, in particular when facilitating conversations about abortion.

The cornerstone to my approach is Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is, hands down, the best book on the subject, and students are fascinated to discover just how little they know about an issue everybody talks and has a strong opinion about, despite how little most people know about its history. Thus, each semester Reagan’s book is required and each semester students must do a take-home exam. We then spend two days discussing what we’ve learned.

But first I lay down a few ground rules. When writing their exams, I tell the students that they are to keep their politics out of their answers. As I explain, “I don’t care if you’re pro-choice or pro-life. Your job is to stick with learning about what happened in the past.” Easier said than done, however, particularly once the conversation begins. Thus the creation last spring of another helpful ground rule. Sensing how high the students’ emotions were running already, I came to class on our first abortion discussion day armed with a Zip-lock food storage container and little slips of white paper. “Write your position on abortion down here, on this little piece of paper,” I told them. “And if it makes you feel better, feel free to surround your position with exclamation points, as many exclamation points as you feel the need to announce.” But then, as I further instructed them, “you are to put that little piece of paper into this Zip-lock box. And this Zip-lock box is going to sit up front—with me and all my stuff—for the duration of the class.”

It worked like a charm.

This is not to say that When Abortion Was a CrimeWhen Abortion Was a Crime lacks a political message; it is clearly pro-choice, a conclusion I let the students discover on their own. And most do. But this prompts another interesting question for us to debate: how would a solidly researched historical account of the same subject read if the author were pro-life? Very quickly we then find ourselves eyeball deep in my favorite historical themes about subjectivity, objectivity, historiography, and evidence. Yes, these days, especially about evidence.

The subject of abortion rarely comes up in my courses.  But if I had the opportunity to teach it I would definitely follow Holz’s lead.

Read the entire piece here.