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Biology over ideology

Human biology students deserve an impartial lesson on abortion

Old_Geology_Lecture_Theatre,_Sydney_University

Last year, my human biology lecturer told us we would be having a 20-minute, non-assessable discussion on the ethics of abortion to introduce the component of the course on reproduction. I believed then, as I do now, that there is a place for education on how political issues affect doctors’ and scientists’ work, and I did not initially object. However, what followed was an ideology-filled presentation that used emotion and distorted science to discredit a woman’s right to have an abortion.

The first step of the ‘discussion’ was to agree that, as science students, we knew that everything with DNA was alive — so we had to admit that it was life abortions were ending. We were then subject to a number of anecdotes about how, during his PhD, my lecturer walked past the neonatal cribs of children who were born at 22 weeks and went on to live long and happy lives.

Later, it became time for us to examine the ‘reality’ of abortion. Our lecturer said that he’d  thought about it for a long time and had decided that the pictures of vacuum abortions were too horrifying to present to the class; here he paused to contemplate the lecture theatre full of students with internet-connected laptops. Eventually he pointed to the picture of a foetus that had been on the projector screen for minutes, and revealed that it was dead due to the burns of a salt-abortion (a method illegal in Australia, America and the UK).

Whether it was intentional or not, I believe that the construction of this discussion framed the debate emotionally, and thus ideologically. To make matters worse however, when scientific data was presented, it was placed in a context that was, at best incomplete, and at worst incorrect.

First, we were told that in an unspecified year in England and Wales, 177,000 abortions took place. 653 of those were between 23 and 24 weeks and 92 at 25 weeks or more. The last line of the slide read, “A baby can be delivered and survive at 22 weeks.” To our lecturer this indicates that, whatever we believe, we must “seriously consider” that some abortions involve killing a child who could have lived.

The problem is that this statistic was used with no consideration of the reasons for having an abortion. Since 1967, UK law has required pregnancies exceeding 24 weeks to only be terminated where there is a risk of death or grave personal injury to the mother, or the child being “seriously handicapped [sic]”. Abortion statistics also include instances where an abortion is performed for the mother’s safety after the foetus has died in utero. So even if some babies can be delivered successfully at 22 weeks, many of those foetuses counted in the statistics could not have lived, or could not have been delivered without serious risk to their mother’s life. These are not particularly novel observations, especially for someone who walked through a neonatal ward everyday.

Second, our lecturer told us that some research suggests a foetus can feel pain, but that some doctors argue against giving anaesthesia to it since that would endanger the mother. He implies that this concern is silly, especially given “the reality of abortion” he has previously described. It seems, though, that he is in a minority here. Most medical professionals believe a foetus only begins to feel pain in the third trimester. When Utah passed a law to require fetal anesthesia in 2016, it was widely condemned, and Utah remains the only US state with this requirement.

At this point, it is actual science that has been misrepresented to us. This is not only educationally disappointing, but also significantly more manipulative than any use of emotion: we, as first year science students, have no grounds to question a professional.

If we are to be taught to consider controversies, then we should be taught to do so as scientists, and not through rhetoric infused with ideology. What this experience shows is that, if the University wishes to keep their students engaged in the morality of their work, there needs to be a consistent effort from the faculty, lecturers and students to ensure that a platform of influence cannot be used for, or tainted by, ideology.

A University spokesperson said that “There are no specific guidelines [on discussing abortion] beyond the University’s Code of Conduct, which stipulates staff must exercise their best professional and ethical judgement, and treat all students with respect, impartiality, courtesy and sensitivity. On the specific subject matter, staff would be expected to approach the issue in a way that invites sensible and scholarly discussion and is sensitive to a diversity of opinions.”

The course in question is running again this year.