“A doctor who performs abortions shot in a church. Isn’t that terrible?”
“They got the baby killer. Isn’t that great?”
Sexuality educators may have heard these types of statements from students in their classrooms this past week after the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller, who was one of a handful of doctors who perform late-term abortions in the country, was gunned down in the Reformed Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, and his story has circled the globe.
How to respond to students? I don’t envy you: Abortion is one of the toughest issues to discuss rationally and reasonably. But after what happened on Sunday, it seems to me that it desperately needs to be discussed with young people—right now.
Yet many schools simply forbid its discussion. If a student asks about abortion, many teachers are instructed by the administration to say, “I can’t discuss that. Go home and ask your parents.” My reaction to that dictum is that if kids felt like they could ask their parents about sexual and other controversial issues, they wouldn’t need to ask their teachers.
Many schools shy away from including abortion in their health and sexuality education curriculum, because administrators are afraid of igniting adult controversy. If a student goes home and reports having had a discussion about abortion, administrators—and, to some extent, teachers—shake in their shoes waiting for a parent to pick up the phone and demand to know what was said about abortion, whether the teacher gave his or her personal opinions, and whether he or she favored the pro-life or pro-choice side.
Between the rock of silence and the hard place of controversy, our students’ need for intellectual and emotional catharsis about this issue gets lost. Because of adults’ fears, many young people cannot speak about the topic or work together to find common ground on reducing the need for abortion, which our president has challenged us to do.
We once held a roundtable on abortion with our Sex, Etc. teen editors here at Answer. I was fascinated because the teens—who were pretty evenly divided between the pro-choice and pro-life sides—came up with exactly the same arguments for their respective points of view that I had heard from adults. The discussion confirmed for me that it makes good sense to high school students the opportunity to tackle even the most controversial subjects about sexuality and morality in classrooms. Their wisdom is often equal or superior to the adults around them.
I hope that in the next couple of days and weeks you’ll take one of those questions you’ve heard about Dr. Tiller, suspend the lessons you have planned for the day, and let the discussion rip. (As a way of preparing, you can Google the following topics: late-term abortions, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which are all mentioned in this New York Times story.)
As discussion closers, you might ask your students to take up President Obama’s challenge and brainstorm ideas for increasing common ground to reduce the need for abortions. The United States has the highest rate of abortion in the Western industrialized world. Countries such as Sweden, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands have much lower rates. Students might want to research reasons for the discrepancies between these countries’ rates and ours.
The work you do this week in your classroom might in the future prevent a zealot with a handgun from walking into the sanctuary of a church and murdering a doctor in cold blood.