As of Sept. 1, Texas has a new law that effectively overturns Roe v. Wade. This law bans abortion after six weeks and empowers private citizens as enforcers. While this law has received much warranted attention, including numerous legal challenges, what is missing is how it threatens educators with potential lawsuits.
To provide some background: abortion is an appropriate, relevant topic in a variety of college classes, including biology, history, political science, sociology and women’s studies. Lessons might address how abortion has always been around and will always exist. Coverage might further include that when legal, abortion is a safe, legitimate procedure; mandating that abortions go underground only causes harm to pregnant individuals, and that harm spreads. Lessons might also acknowledge that about 30 percent of pregnancies end in natural miscarriages (also called spontaneous abortions) -- a pregnant body does not automatically mean a future human.
I see abortion in the same way that I see equal marriage, child labor laws or women’s suffrage: rights that can’t be debated in 2021. Where debates do occur, I agree with sociologist Sara L. Crawley and others that those debates should focus on core questions: How can we increase the health and well-being of pregnant individuals, how can we reduce unwanted pregnancies, and how can we make parenting more manageable?
Educators in Texas are presumably facing new risks with little precedent and little guidance.
In Texas, a person who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion … regardless of whether that person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed” can now be sued by any private citizen.
The law is vague enough and the sociopolitical atmosphere is anti-intellectual and antiwoman enough that private citizens looking to further attack education could well exploit this new law. They might point to a college student who has an abortion and argue that they were “encouraged” during a routine lecture. There’s even the possibility that during a discussion, another student might share personal experience that “encourages” another student to have an abortion. Would both that student and the professor be liable? Would the university in question be liable, too?
Professors are thus left with impossible questions about how to deliver course curriculum without potentially confronting legal roadblocks and while also protecting their students.
An Introduction to Women’s Studies class, for example, can’t just omit any discussions about abortion. Usually, my gender studies classes discuss current events, especially ones of such magnitude like this Texas abortion ban, but I quickly realized the law’s implications. I explained to my students that the new law might introduce challenges that impact what conversations we can have about abortion and that I needed to place a moratorium on all topics related to abortion while I tried to find answers.
Of course, this all involves a cornerstone of higher education that has been under attack for decades: academic freedom. Professors, as the content experts, need the freedom to determine how best to manage their curriculum. Education suffers when we must censor or second-guess ourselves when facilitating discussions about important, course-relevant topics due to draconian laws.
There are even free speech questions to consider when students and instructors can’t speak without fearing retribution from unknown third parties. And for some people, these free speech issues morph into how Texas’s new law also violates their right to have sincerely held religious beliefs honored by courts of law. Specifically, members of the Satanic Temple hold that denying access to abortion and punishing people who assist in any way with an abortion violates their religious freedoms. Despite its too shocking and provoking name for my taste, I have been a member of this organization since 2020 because of its reputation and record of supporting free speech and making government entities uphold separations of church and state. In terms of abortion, members cite the seven tenets, including “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone” and “Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.”
If professors are obliged to modify curricula -- in direct response to the law or indirectly through being intimidated or for fear of it as a harbinger of things to come -- we should acknowledge that students’ rights are also being violated. Even when they may not immediately recognize it and even when they are against it, they have a right to accurate, clear knowledge about abortion, because like cancer or COVID-19, it impacts everyone.
And it’s not just educators who might talk about abortion who face new government-sponsored constraints when going about their duties. Another law took effect in Texas on Sept. 1, one that bans the teaching of racism (otherwise known as critical race theory) in K-12 schools, and other states have passed or are considering passing similar measures.
As a means of protection, the most immediate option available is probably the acquisition of liability insurance for educators. Otherwise, I’m not certain. Faculty are increasingly afforded less power and less support. And individual petitions to elected officials matter little in an era of minority rule and aggressive disenfranchisement.
Curriculum should always take priority, not partisan distractions and crackdowns on the vulnerable that have been happening in Texas and in other states controlled by Republicans. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are bedrock principles of our democracy and must be respected and valued as such.