Elise M. Edwards, Baylor University

I teach undergraduate religion courses in the heart of Texas. Each semester, I have taught courses on Christian Ethics or Bioethics that include controversial topics. In Fall 2016, facilitating conversations in my introductory Christian Ethics course about abortion, immigration, and sexual assault was more difficult than before due to the heated rhetoric of the election year. Public discourse was divisive not only because of opposing policies and positions, but because they were being stated and defended with inflammatory language and insults.

To counter the polemical discourse from debates, speeches, and news programs, I chose course readings for the beginning of the semester to set a tone for course discussions that prioritized open inquiry, theological humility, charitable listening, reading, and moral ambiguity. One of the primary objectives in my class is that students learn to define and articulate their own positions on moral issues, but do so with sensitivity, engagement, and respect for Christians who disagree. After a few weeks of contemplating how we would engage moral issues, we jumped into the issues themselves using Patricia Beattie Jung and Shannon Jung’s textbook Moral Issues & Christian Responses. Chapter 13 addresses abortion.

I was encouraged to see students adopting charity alongside critical reflection in their writings and discussions as the semester progressed. What concerned me, though, was that beyond the walls of my classroom, abortion was being used as the defining issue for many Christians in the presidential election. Some students’ churches were instructing their parishioners to vote for the Republican candidate because of his support for a pro-life agenda. While I was trying to guide students to recognize the complex web of issues concerning abortion (the contested definitions of beginning of life and personhood, the role of law, varied types of crisis pregnancies, etc.), I seemed to be speaking against religious authorities that reduced the debate to being for or against “killing babies.”

Two essays from Chapter 13 were particularly helpful to resist this oversimplification and call attention to misogynist rhetoric: “Theology and Morality of Procreative Choice” by Beverly Wildung Harrison with Shirley Cloyes (excerpted from Making The Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics) and “What Actually Works?: The Right Supports Can Reduce Abortion Rates” by Glen Stassen, excerpted from a 2009 article in Sojourners.

Harrison questions the disproportionate concern over abortion in the church and political activity above other issues of life and death (e.g., war), where decisions are primarily made by men, and she argues that procreative choice affirms life by honoring women’s full humanity. Stassen’s essay provides readers with an example of a program that helped reduce the number of abortions by providing access to childcare and education for pregnant teens. Together, the two essays allowed students to ask questions about why laws (and especially ones that seemed excessively punitive to women seeking abortions) are the primary strategy for reducing the number of abortions sought and performed. Students who remained emphatically against abortion were able to question the rhetoric and tactics of the contemporary debate without seeming “pro-abortion,” and this opened up dialogue in the classroom. The chapter also includes an essay called “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda,” by pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan, which expanded students’ understanding of feminism.

We discussed these essays in the days immediately following the election. While the atmosphere in the class was initially tense, these readings helped students with diverse views articulate their concerns and promote mutual understanding.

Elise Edwards focuses her research on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. She is developing writing projects on pedagogy and a theological, ethical, and feminist approach to architecture.