What we have found out from conversations relating to abortion:

It should not surprise us that our campus conversations about abortion are not quite comparable to conversations about sexual orientation. If American attitudes about sexual orientation have changed dramatically during our students’ lifetimes, attitudes about abortion have scarcely changed at all. The American electorate is, if anything, more polarized on this issue today than at the time of Roe vs. Wade. Our students, like American Catholics generally, are also polarized, though most find themselves on the pro-life side of the polarization. Indeed, many grew up in parishes that placed significantly more emphasis on the pro-life cause than any other social issue. 74% of students in our campus laboratories said that they are well-informed about issues related to abortion—a higher level than most of the other topics we asked about (see Table 49, What Students Say They Know About). Our campus newspaper regularly features opinion columns espousing strong pro-life views, most of them chock-ful of data about the numbers of abortions performed each year and scientific facts about fetal development. Moreover, these columns typically develop an argument for the “rights of the unborn” that is closely parallel to the rights argument used to support gay and lesbian liberation.

In this context, the culture of “politeness” surrounding abortion is quite different from that surrounding sexual orientation. For most people on our campuses, this is a more difficult issue than sexual orientation. In our first survey, after asking respondents to identify controversial issues, we asked them to distinguish issues about which people typically have good conversations, those about which they have contentious conversations, and those which they avoid altogether. Although sexual orientation, abortion, and religion topped all three lists, abortion fell into third place on the “good conversations” list, and almost reached the top spot in the “contentious conversations” list (see Table 50, Students Are Less Likely to Have Good Conversations About Abortion). These differences were even starker among the small group of faculty who completed our survey: no faculty members said that our community has good conversations about abortion, while more than a third identified it as contentious or avoided (see Table 51, Faculty Are Wary of Abortion Conversations). Though this was hardly a statistically valid sample, we have been told repeatedly by faculty both at CSB/SJU and elsewhere that this is the one topic that they are unwilling to discuss in the classroom because students are unable to engage it in a civil manner. Not surprisingly, in our initial round of campus laboratories we were not able to persuade any faculty members to include this topic in their syllabi. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that dorm-room conversations about abortion can be especially heated. For example, two male students who identified themselves as pro-life Democrats said that whenever they return from a meeting of the Campus Democrats, their Republican floormates ask them, “How many babies did you kill today?”

This situation is unfortunate, perhaps unnecessarily so. Though our campus conversations mirror the polarization of the national debate, the fact that both pro-lifers and pro-choicers typically employ rights language suggests that there is room for common ground. A consideration of the rights of the fetus alongside the rights of the pregnant woman might be a starting point for a fruitful classroom conversation. Since it is easier to enforce habits of civility in the classroom, moreover, having more classroom conversations about abortion might also lead to better dorm room conversations. It should also be noted that not everyone on campus finds abortion especially difficult to discuss. Later in this paper we will discuss the particular experiences of “traditionalists”—students who hold more conservative views on Church authority and on sexual issues than the campus majority. Unlike faculty members and their more liberal peers, these students were equally likely to name abortion as a positive topic of conversation and as a negative topic. This is not surprising, since it is one of the few topics on which they find themselves in the majority of students. By holding more public conversations on abortion, we might gradually empower these students to participate more in other controversial conversations (see Table 52, Traditionalist Students Are Less Wary of Abortion Conversations).

At least one of our campus laboratories, finally, was able to have an almost flawlessly civil conversation about abortion in which a wide range of viewpoints were expressed. In “Theologies of Violence and Nonviolence,” one student group organized a class discussion on abortion by setting up the classroom as a worship space, with a large bowl of water in the center and a box of floating candles. Students who wished to speak on the topic were asked to light a candle and place it in the bowl as the spoke. The effect of this ritual was to encourage an attitude of reverence, both for the women who choose abortion and for the aborted fetuses. Nearly every student chose to share his or her opinion or an experience related to the topic. Both pro-life and pro-choice positions were well represented, and perhaps an equal number of speakers expressed ambivalence or shared stories that highlighted the complexity of the issue. Although there was not sufficient time for students to engage arguments for or against abortion rights, most felt that the exercise was successful—and a sign that fruitful discussions of this polarizing topic may in fact be possible at CSB/SJU.