Thirty years ago, my students did a lot of formal debates in class. After brainstorming current events topics, they usually chose abortion. First, we defined terms. I asked each class if someone could define abortion. Fourteen-year-olds have fully developed brains, but lack nuance. I’d call on a student whose hand was up and he/she would say something like: “Abortion is when a woman is pregnant and she kills the baby inside her.”
That plainly worded definition is typical of 14-year-olds. They’re refreshingly direct. Every year, in every class, the first student I called on would define abortion in almost exactly the same way.
“Does everyone agree with that definition?” I’d ask.
There would be nods all around, and I’d write it on the blackboard. Then I’d explain that people who supported abortion called themselves “Pro-choice” and people who were against it called themselves “Pro-life.” Pointing to the definition, I’d circle the words “kill” and “baby,” then tell them that a seasoned “pro-choice” person would never utter those words in a debate. A pro-life person, however, would nearly always use them. “A definition like that,” I’d say, pointing the board again, “indicates a pro-life bias. I can tell what somebody thinks about abortion by the words they use to define it.” At this point I’d look toward the student who gave it. “Is that your opinion? Are you pro-life?” Usually he or she was, but not always.
Then I’d ask how a pro-choice person would define abortion. Students would ponder what I said and offer suggestions like: “It’s when a woman finds out she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be, so she goes to a doctor and he takes it out.”
“Not bad,” I’d say. “A pro-choice person would never say ‘baby’ or ‘kill.’ Instead, he or she would use words like ‘fetus’ for ‘baby,’ and ‘remove,’ or ‘terminate’ for ‘kill.’” Then I’d ask if anyone else could craft a pro-choice definition. Eventually I’d get one that sounded just like something out of NARAL literature, such as: “When a woman terminates her pregnancy,” which I’d also write on the board.
Often a student would ask my opinion on abortion at this point, and I’d say, “I’ll tell you after the debate is over.”
Then students chose which side they wanted to argue. If there were too many on one side or the other, I’d try to even them up by challenging some to argue the opposite of what they believed. Some of the sharpest students would usually offer to do so.
After that, I let them sit in their groups to prepare. My instructions were that they start recording their side’s strongest arguments on one list, then record their opponents’ strongest arguments on another.
“Why do you want us to list our opponents’ arguments?” they’d ask.
“So you can prepare counter-arguments to use during the debate when they bring up those points,” I’d answer. “It’s what opposing lawyers would do in a courtroom. You need to research all sides of any issue. As someone said once: ‘You don’t fully understand your own side unless you understand your opponent’s.’”
Then I’d write the names of organizations championing one side and the other, and instruct students to write to them, telling them they’re debating abortion in class, and could they please send materials. For the pro-choice side, I’d give contact information for Planned Parenthood, NARAL America - then called The National Abortion Rights Action League, and NOW - National Organization for Women, etc. For the pro-life side I’d give contacts for the National Right to Life Association and a local, Maine group called the PLEA - Pro-Life Education Association
, which always responded right away.
Of course this was during years before students could download information from the internet. They’d have to write away for it and I’d allow time for that, usually a couple of weeks. The PLEA information always came first, maybe because they were in Maine - and they’d always send pictures of just what resulted from abortions at various stages. When those pictures arrived, they’d be shown around before my classes began. Students would come up to me in the hallway with solemn looks and ask me if I’d ever seen pictures of aborted babies.
“Yes,” I’d say. “Shocking, aren’t they?”
“Can we use these in the debate?”
“I’ll have to think about that,” I’d respond.
The pictures would be seen by some staff as well. Women, usually teacher aides (now called “ed techs”) who worked in my classroom, would approach me with serious looks just as my students had. “Have you seen the abortion pictures floating around?”
“Are you going to allow them in the debate?”
“I’m not sure. What do you think?”
“Well, it’s hard to argue in favor of abortion after seeing them, and that’s not fair to the pro-choice side.”
Now, thirty years later, that is still the crux of the matter. Who can argue the pro-choice side after looking at exactly what the choice is?