We’ve recently had a couple of teachers asking us to provide the ‘other’ side to a debate with a ‘pro-life’ (anti-abortion) speaker in their school. We tend to try and dissuade schools from taking this approach and here’s why...
It’s completely understandable that when tackling a subject like abortion teachers want to stimulate engaging debate and provide balance and interest by inviting in outside speakers. After all, the media habitually presents abortion as a ‘controversial’ topic, with ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ activists being pitted as opposing teams. Although here at EFC we agree that abortion can be an engaging topic through which to think about moral and religious beliefs, choice and rights we don’t think that pitching the issue in a debate format is necessarily the right way to go about this:
Pro-choice isn’t the ‘opposite’ of anti-abortion: Anti-abortion organisations think that abortion is unacceptable in any situation and would like to see the practice outlawed. The opposing view to this would be a pro-abortion stance – the view that abortion is always the right solution to unwanted pregnancy, which of course no organisation would advocate. The pro-choice viewpoint is inherently balanced as it respects each individual’s right to decide what’s best for them. EFC’s work is about equipping young people with the facts and encouraging them to make their own informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health.
A debate can be polarising: Unplanned pregnancy is a real life issue for many women (and their partners, friends and family) so it’s important that the topic is covered in a sensitive and informative manner. An abstract moral debate can simplify the issues and doesn’t necessarily help young people to acquire the attitudes, skills and knowledge they need to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Good abortion education can help young people think about the importance of safer sex and provide motivation for using contraception properly and consistently.
Where possible EFC will suggest teachers deliver a lesson on abortion themselves rather than invite in anti-abortion groups to speak to students (see resources below). In our years of experience in abortion education we have found that these groups can offer material which is:
Stigmatising: A third of women in the UK will have an abortion in their lifetime. This means that every student in that audience will know someone who has gone through or will go through this experience, and may go on to have an abortion themselves. Presenting an anti-abortion agenda, and in some cases, showing graphic images of aborted fetuses can lead to students being upset or distressed, and, crucially to the option of abortion being highly stigmatized by the speaker.
Factually incorrect: The presentations we've seen by anti-abortion groups in schools have all included at least one piece of misinformation (such as enforcing the myth that abortion leads to infertility or breast cancer). Some anti-abortion groups also oppose homosexuality, sex outside of marriage and certain forms of contraception – something which would surely be at odds with any kind of inclusive SRE policy and again, which can be disempowering and confusing for students. Abortion is a topic already cloaked by stigma and myths – school can be the one place children receive evidence-based reliable information - it’s vital that their right to good quality information is not dismissed in the interests of ‘holding a good debate’.
Persuasion not education: Anti-abortion speakers often come with a particular agenda – to convince young people that abortion is wrong. This can mean that open discussion of the facts and space to allow pupils to consider their own views and values is lost. RE teachers often want to invite a speaker to present a particular religious point of view on abortion, which can provide a valuable learning experience – unfortunately the main UK anti-abortion organisations claim to be non-religious and speak very little about religious views at all, meaning that again this educational aspect is lost.
Advice for teachers:
• If you’re planning to invite an external speaker in to talk to young people about pregnancy and abortion do a bit of research. Check out their website and ask to see the materials they plan to use. Our Abortion Education Toolkit gives a list of things to look out for.
• If in doubt teach the lesson yourself! Use reliable evidence-based sources of information like the RCOG and the Department of Health to ensure you have the facts.
• Contact EFC for advice, information and resources – that’s what we’re here for! If you’re in London we may even be able to come in and deliver a workshop or presentation – just email email@example.com.
‘Shock Tactics’ article on the issue of anti-abortion speakers in schools, The Guardian 2008