Civil discussion of abortion? PACE students show it’s possible

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Students filtered back into the auditorium of the IU Education Building after returning from a working lunch. Some looked over their notes and assigned readings while others finished lingering discussions from their last small group session.

Sacrificing a sunny Saturday, over 100 students spent six hours deliberating — but not debating — the legal, political, social and ethical issues surrounding abortion in the U.S.

Dawn Johnsen answers a question while fellow panelists, from left, Judith Allen, Jason Eberl and Judy Klein listen.

Dawn Johnsen answers a question while fellow panelists, from left, Judith Allen, Jason Eberl and Judy Klein listen.

PACE, the Political and Civic Engagement Program, hosts an annual one-credit-hour forum tackling a different divisive issue each year. This year’s topic, abortion and reproductive rights, brought students from all disciplines to engage in productive and respectful conversation on the contentious issue.

A keynote panel discussion followed personal conversations in the morning session and sparked heated discussions in the afternoon small group session. Panelists offered historical, legal, philosophical and medical perspectives, framing the debate from multiple points of view.

Panelists included Judith Allen, professor in the Department of History and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute; Jason Eberl, the Semler Endowed Chair for Medical Ethics in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Marian University; Dawn Johnsen, the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law at the IU Maurer School of Law; and Judy Klein, staff physician at the IU Health Center.

Allen began the panel by offering historical context to the modern debate on abortion.

“The pro-life and pro-choice dualism we see is recent,” Allen said. “Often younger people assume this has always been the debate.”

Allen pointed to the importance of working through the historical precedent of abortion to put the modern legal debate in context. She reminded students of the “non-fixity of abortion’s definition.”

To properly understand the modern context, Allen began in 1803, almost 4,000 miles away, with the British criminalization of abortion that influenced American laws.

Eberl grounded his presentation not in history but in philosophical theory. He walked the students through the two main philosophical approaches to discussing abortion, beginning with the ontological and ending with the moral permissibility of abortion.

Eberl added to Allen’s historical context but used philosophy to show how modern divisions between Democrats and Republicans or the religious and non-religious might be a reality in the political debate over abortion but are not inherent divisions.

Johnsen brought decades of experience working full time as a reproductive rights advocate and lawyer, moving from Eberl’s philosophical questions to legal and political realities.

“When you work on these issues from a law and policy perspective, the question is not what I would do, what you hope I do or even what Indiana legislators want me to do,” Johnsen said. “The policy question should be whether the state of Indiana should make that choice for me with the force of criminal law.”

Klein reminded students that while the historical, philosophical and legal discussions are necessary, the reality of the individual level is never so abstract.

“Abortion is reduced to simplistic terms in public debate,” Klein said. “But personally it can be excruciatingly nuanced.”

After rattling off statistics supporting both the safety and ease of an abortion, Klein expressed concern not only for women worldwide who face criminal charges for having an abortion but also for the future safety of women in the U.S. who might turn to risky black market procedures if state restrictions make a safe procedure impossible.

“Abortion is not going away,” Klein said. “The question is, will it continue to be safe and legal in the U.S.?”

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