On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Samford hosted a panel of seven faculty members to discuss a report published by the McGrath Institute titled: “How Americans Understand Abortion: A Comprehensive Interview Study of Abortion Attitudes in the U.S.”
The research was published in 2020, and found that many Americans in the U.S. are confused by the out-of-touch labels surrounding abortion, have little prior knowlege to the science of abortion, and seek to have moral discussions about abortion in a “better way.”
The event was held in Brock Forum, and both students and faculty were encouraged to attend.
Carol Ann Vaughn Cross, associate professor for the Department of Geography and Sociology, introduced the audience to the McGrath study and to the faculty participating in the panel. The faculty each shared their knowledge on the subject based on their area of professional expertise and responded to one another’s remarks. Vaughn Cross encouraged those in the audience to participate in the discussion by writing down questions on the provided notecards that would be taken up halfway through the event.
Chuck Stokes, associate professor of sociology, spent most of his academic career studying how religious belief and behavior affects education and familial relationships. He explained that the McGrath study was based on over 200 interviews with a sample of people designed to imitate the diversity of the U.S. Stokes identified and discussed two key findings from the study: that Americans have a lot of uncertainty around abortion and view it as a highly complex issue.
He emphasized that Americans seek to have better conversation about abortion, but there are social roadblocks that too often keep this from happening.
“In these findings, there are two social factors that work against the kind of dialogue that we are trying to have here: polarization and euphemism,” Stokes said.
He explained that the American political climate is extremely divisive, and that it is difficult for some people to accept or understand the opinions and beliefs of a party that isn’t their own.
“The rhetoric from among the divided parties and media groups associated with them has created a climate where uncertainty is unwelcome,” he said. “Even Americans that don’t know or care much about a particular issue may feel social pressure to toe the party line… some Americans express an unexamined certainty on abortion.”
He explained the concept of “unexamined certainty,” i.e., strong opinions without much prior knowledge, and howAmerica’s political culture is full of participants who hold onto strong, unexamined certainties that prevent healthy conversations between opposing groups.
Stokes additionally argued that words such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are narrow, oversimplified labels that often confuse people in discussions of abortions. He said abortion needs to be discussed, but it is a complex issue that shouldn’t be discussed using such euphemistic language.
Jennifer Ellis West, associate professor of English and Director of Core Rhetoric and Seminar, then supported Stokes’ remarks, and talked about how to promote better dialogue amongst ourselves when faced with complex issues such as abortion. She shared how a nonprofit organization she works with, Essential Partners, structures these conversations using “reflexive structure dialogue.”
By allowing time for participants to prepare for the conversation and giving them equal time to speak, this method disrupts destructive conversation patterns.
Elizabeth G. Dobbins, professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences, then followed up on Stokes’ and West’s commentary by briefly educating the audience about the precise process of fertilization. She asserted the importance that people understand the beginning and early stages of pregnancy in order to develop educated stances on abortion. Particularly, she noted that it is important to acknowledge the unpredictability of a woman’s rate of ovulation, showing the necessity for people to be educated in methods of protection if they do not want a pregnancy.
Additionally, she described the imperfect science of pregnancy tests, and emphasized the fact that it is not possible to know or understand everything regarding abortion, especially early abortions.
“We cannot successfully determine whether fertilization has taken place,” Dobbins said, “so there is a lot of ambiguity even in the science around this. So when people say that they are very sure about this, I will say as a scientist that I am not sure about a lot of things.”
Dobbins turned the audience’s attention to Megan Mileski, assistant professor of the Moffett & Sanders School of Nursing, and former nurse. She talked about the fact that abortion is not only a complicated issue, but also a deeply intimate one. She shared a few brief perspectives that she gained as a nurse, working with patients of all different backgrounds and motives who went through with an abortion. She also contested the criminalization of women who have undergone abortions.
Mileski described her nursing classes, and how she approached the topic of abortion by recounting her own experiences in the medical field.
“When they hear the stories about what the realities really are surrounding choices regarding the continuation of pregnancy, they often gain a new perspective on the weight of the issue,” Mileski said. “Nursing students need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”
Jonathan Davis, family counselor and professor for the Orlean Beeson School of Education, then praised the levels of expertise displayed within the panel, and briefly shared his own experiences as a family therapist regarding communication surrounding the issue of abortion. He stressed that people need to have genuine curiosity, compassion and courage when approaching these hard conversations.
Lee Ann Reynolds, associate professor of History, who specializes in women’s history, then provided historical context for the issue of abortion, and how many current debates about abortion are still being contested to this day. She described how she found that there was no explicit constitutional right to abortion, hence, it has often been criminalized. Reynolds recounted early reports of abortions in America, how women still sought out abortions regardless of the law, and how Planned Parenthood was originally an institution that aimed to make protection more available to women in order to prevent a rise of abortions.
“Women have always had abortions in this country, whether they were legal or not or whether they were safe or not,” Reynolds said. “It is left to the society to determine the circumstances in which that will take place.”
University Care Team Coordinator Reverend April Robinson shared her methods of conversation regarding these topics from her perspective as an ordained minister. She emphasized that when engaging in these kinds of conversations with her students, she encourages them to first study the ultimate model of relationship and redemption.
“Jesus didn’t shy away from difficult people or difficult conversations, and he was far less concerned about being right in any conversation than he was laying out the path to redemption and reconciliation,” Robinson said. “We would be wise to be experts in how Jesus interacted with people in moments that were difficult around topics that were very divisive.”
In the time that was left, the panel then answered a few questions from the audience. Vaughn Cross encouraged students to continue conversations with the panelists outside of the event and further grow their own perspectives around the topic of abortion in America.