Abuse of Academic Authority Regularly Inhibits Pro-Life Speech

Sometimes it is tough to be a pro-life college student. Most challenges students face are found on campus during a tabling event or with the administration, but sometimes they are inside the classroom. Far too often when pro-life students dare to speak up in defense of the unborn, professors attempt to humiliate and silence them. [Tweet that!]

I experienced this first hand in a biology class during my freshman year. The class focused on technological advances in the field of biology and the ethical concerns which accompanied the advancements.

My professor, “Dr. Nation,” covered each topic with a series of lectures, and then allowed a discussion day with groups of students representing the pro and con side of the issue for the class, followed by a Q&A portion. After the presentation on embryonic stem cell research, I excitedly got in line to ask my question for the pro-embryonic stem cell research team. They had made a case for the research on the basis that we should take advantage of the embryos instead of just letting them go to waste. This was one of the first times I had the opportunity in college to speak up for the pro-life perspective. I had just returned from my first March for Life and was nervous to challenge the students in front of the class.

Each student in front of me stepped up to ask a clarification question about something from either presentation, and a few challenged the con side. I was the first person to make any sort of case for the pro-life side in the entire semester. My turn came, and I began to ask the students if they would use the same argument to advocate for the intentional destruction of human life in other cases if it would mean biological research could progress. I was about to give a thought experiment example when Dr. Nation cut me off. He had not done this a single time with any of the students that day or in any other discussion days in the entire semester.

He said, “That question is invalid because this is not a case of human life. The embryo is not human.”

I’d like to say that I wasn’t intimidated, but that would be a lie. My stomach dropped and my mouth went dry. There is a clear power imbalance in a situation like this between a student and her professor. No way was this a fair fight.

I replied, “What do you mean by that, Professor? This is a biology class and we are discussing human embryos. If you are going to say I can’t ask that question then you are probably challenging my philosophy. Why do you think the embryos aren’t human?”

He dodged my question by saying, “You need to direct your questions at the other students, not at me.”

His response shocked me and I felt like it was really unfair. I just wanted to go back to my seat and hide. I asked the original question I had written down to the the team of students, got an answer I was unsatisfied with, and went back to my seat.

In retrospect, I am blown away by the injustice of this story. Dr. Nation interrupted my question to argue with me because I was implying a pro-life argument with my question. As a biology professor, he knew that the embryo is biologically human. Even if he was right, that wouldn’t make my question invalid at all! At worst, it would mean I made an argument with an incorrect premise, and those can be quite useful for identifying the important areas of disagreement. Then, worst of all, he abused his position of power as a professor by using it to avoid defending his indefensible statements and unconscionable behavior. He even used his authority to scold me for daring to respond to his challenge. This disrespect was public and damaging to the academic environment I tried to benefit with my question.

I am not the only pro-life college student to get challenged by a professor. I was reminded of this story because, recently, we had a student thank ERI on Twitter. Ellen was able to use the Equal Rights Argument in class. Here is her story:

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This spring, I signed up for an honors philosophy course in ethics. I don’t consider myself much of a philosophy nerd. I’m an art major, but I needed the general education and honors credits, and as a pro-life apologetics dork I figured parts of it would be relevant to my interests.

There were a few things that happened as we progressed through the course that made me realize that this would be more difficult to sit through than I’d anticipated. First, our textbook and the majority of our other readings were written by Peter Singer, who is pretty open about some opinions that are at best rather concerning. Second, our professor was pretty happy to hold up the stereotypical crazy “lifer” to make fun of, make some flip comments about how you’d have to be crazy to believe that a non-thinking collection of cells deserves moral consideration, and even told a story about how he was a huge jerk in college to a pro-life girl on campus. (To be fair, he admitted to being a jerk and the girl wasn’t defending her position very well, but he still had some fun poking at the worst pro-life arguments instead of addressing some of the more well-thought-out points.)

I had initially been looking forward to trying out some of the dialogue tips talking points I learned from Equal Rights Institute, but after a couple of weeks in class I was seriously considering just keeping my head down.

We waited until the next to last class before finals week to discuss the issue. The first thing my professor did was throw out a joke about how silly “abortion stops a beating heart” bumper stickers are and gave some other examples of faulty pro-life arguments. I think this put me in a really great position to respond, because I could first establish some credibility by critiquing a couple of pro-life arguments before going on to propose an alternative argument and critique the pro-choice view.

I started by asking if he knew about ERI, and he responded “somewhat,” which I took to mean he had heard of you guys but maybe wasn’t super familiar with the organization. I explained that ERI’s goal was to basically help pro-life people, such as myself, make better philosophical arguments and be more consistent in their position so that we can have better discussions. I don’t usually bring you guys up by name in regular dialogues, but it felt appropriate considering the setting and audience, and I wanted to show that as a movement we’re actively working to get better in this area.

I wasn’t planning to go step by step through the Equal Rights Argument like I normally do, because I wasn’t sure I was going to get the opportunity to present it properly.

I started by moving the focus away from the unborn, which seems to be one of the major strengths of the Equal Rights Argument. I said something to the effect of “It seems like the first question to ask is whether people, like human adults, are intrinsically valuable or instrumentally valuable.” We spent a few minutes discussing what those terms mean. Before we could really come to a conclusion on that issue, class ended, but I felt better about how the dialogue would go during the following class meeting because I could tell I had gotten him interested in the idea.

Today, which was the last day of class, he opened the floor for discussion on the issue again. I reminded him of where we had left off and tried to narrate the debate to begin with because I was concerned that another student would get us off track when we had started so well.

I argued that obvious cases of personhood, like human adults, must be intrinsically valuable, because it seems that murder is wrong because of what it does to the victim. Otherwise, it would be okay to kill someone like a homeless person with no close relationships to others and no instrumental value to society. He responded with some examples of how we don’t seem to view people as intrinsically valuable as a society, but said that this didn’t necessarily make the view incorrect, especially given the desert island/homeless man murder scenario that we would say is wrong.

From there, I explained that because pro-lifers consider human life intrinsically valuable, we want to base rights or moral consideration on the kind of thing you are as opposed to what abilities you have, which would mean even human embryos would get moral consideration.

He argued that the unborn in very early stages of life are not a rational kind of thing. When I made the argument that it is not the immediate ability but rather being a member of a rational kind that gives you a right to moral consideration, he said he didn’t agree with all of the outcomes of that worldview, such as making even very early abortions and euthanasia wrong, but he could see how it could explain things such as giving moral consideration to newborns even though they aren’t necessarily rational yet.

About five minutes before class ended, another student brought up apparent hypocrisy in the pro-life movement, which I was able to address. One thing I wasn’t able to address was bodily rights arguments, which one student brought up at the very, very end of class. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to get into that. I plan to write my final paper on it.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for what you do. I honestly think ERI is one of the best things to happen to the pro-life movement in a long time, and I hope I get the chance to meet you guys in person some day. :)

Thanks,

Ellen Campbell

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Ellen’s professor tried to set up the pro-life position to fail before the abortion discussion could even begin. Using his authority, he explicitly discriminated against the pro-life view in three ways. He openly stated that to hold the pro-life position you must be crazy, and he only focused on outlining bad characterics he has seen in the common stereotypes of pro-life people. Then he proudly bragged about bullying pro-lifers in the past. If I were in the class and my professor told that story about what he did to a peer, then I would assume as an inferior to him I may receive worse. Even if it wasn’t his intention, I would perceive the story as a warning to any pro-lifers thinking of speaking up, as if he was implying, “I am not afraid to bully you or be a jerk to you.”

Another more subtle way he tried to undermine the pro-life stance was by using the term “non-thinking collection of cells.” This really isn’t language that falls into “neutral ground.” It would be fair to use scientific terms like “embryo” or “fetus,” but by describing the unborn in this way, he purposefully set up an argument that favors the pro-choice side. He went on to openly admit to attacking weak arguments in his story from college and then did the same in the classroom. I think that this is more of an intellectual injustice than anything else, but also a sign of a weak character. Being afraid to face the toughest arguments against your worldview is a sign of cowardice.

Ellen told me that he was much more respectful during the discussion with her than he had been throughout the semester. His responses in her story were pretty reasonable, and I’ll give him credit for that, but he didn’t set up the environment for positive dialogue.

One of the comments Ellen made that hit home the most was when she said, “I wasn’t planning to go step by step through the Equal Rights Argument like I normally do, because I wasn’t sure I was going to get the opportunity to present it properly.”

This point of reflection in her story is indicative of the fear I had when speaking up in my biology class. There is a fear that the professor won’t allow you to finish your thought, and so only half of your argument is represented and you look stupid because of power imbalances. My professor cut me off and ridiculed me without allowing me to respond or defend myself. While writing this piece, I asked Ellen if she shared my concern when she spoke up in class or if I had read too much into her statement. She confirmed my suspicion and told me she had been afraid that her professor or another student would talk over her and cut her off in the middle of her argument.

When abortion is a topic of discussion for class, the professor has a responsibility to encourage critical thinking and protect diversity of thought. In these stories, both professors tried to inhibit pro-life ideas because they disagreed with them. If they had a respectful regard for alternative viewpoints, then they would try to protect them, making sure they would be addressed, rather than making it difficult for students to advocate for the position. In the interest of academic progress, we need to protect the exchange of opposing ideas to allow the best argument to win. [Tweet that!]

Ellen and I are not the only students who have stories like this, and we want to hear yours. Please email me your stories to Rachel@EqualRightsInstitute.com and we might share them, too!

Please tweet this article!

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  • Tweet: Far too often when pro-life students dare to defend the unborn, professors attempt to humiliate and silence them.
  • Tweet: In the interest of academic progress, we need to protect the exchange of opposing ideas for the best argument to win.

The post “Abuse of Academic Authority Regularly Inhibits Pro-Life Speech” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Trainer

Rachel graduated from the University of Michigan with a Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience major and Women’s Studies: Gender and Health minor. She was the president of the Students for Life club at the University of Michigan, leading their efforts to educate students on pro-life topics and to advocate for pregnant and parenting students.

Rachel is a former staff member of the pregnancy medical center, ArborWoman. She now serves on their Operations Committee and participates as a volunteer in their ministry.

Rachel wants the pro-life movement to be known for its love. “I want us to be courageous enough to speak with charity about abortion. Having a loving approach when presenting a good argument is a sign of strength, not weakness. We cannot allow our anger towards abortion to be directed at those who support its legality. Pro-life people care not just about the unborn, but about all people, and we need them to know that.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Though your main topic is the power imbalance, this nice post of yours also brings out the thinking-time imbalance: the difference between the outcome of a live debate and what the outcome would have been if one side or the other had had a little more time to think. There must be a long, tragic history of debates that would have shone much more of the light of truth if the participants had been under less pressure or perceived less pressure. But people have the attention span to watch debates, not more attention span than that. In democracies, public policies end up being only as good as attention spans are long.