Secondary school can be one of the few places young people will be encouraged to consider the discourse around oppositional and controversial human rights issues. This seems fairly obvious to a Religion, Ethics and Philosophy teacher, or even a history or English teacher, but science perhaps more than these other subjects provides a version of discourse that speaks a different kind of language. An opportunity then to speak to a type of person less interested in the opinions of debaters and more interested, perhaps, in the statistics and objectivity of an issue.
Christopher Day, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, described three types of teacher whilst describing ‘action research‘ (an approach which encourages teachers to become educational researchers, in order to grow their understanding of learning and therefore become better at teaching):
- those interested in the statistics and peer-assessed research surrounding an issue
- those interested in the voice or opinion of the most well-experienced or knowledgeable person on an issue
- those interested in the opinion(s) of the affected
I think this description is useful in understanding how all people approach controversial issues and that in communicating effectively with the greatest number of people requires appealing to all three domains, the statistical evidence, the opinions of experts, and the perspectives of the affected.
Those in camp number 1 may be of the opinion that abortion does not seem particularly controversial today. After all, fewer than 3% of Britons would agree with the statement ‘abortion should be illegal under any circumstance’, compared to 17% in US (source). Others, plugged into the news cycle and in camp number 3, may think we are on the brink of a resurgence in all things regressive – such as a rise in the observance of anti-abortion groups congregating near clinics to ‘provide information’ intended to dissuade those wishing to seek abortion.
In the UK it is legal for a women to have an abortion up to 28 weeks gestation (~6 months). This has been the case since 1967. Many other nations permit abortion up to only 14 weeks. Controversial aspects lie within the details of abortion, the question, ‘should abortion be legal?’ is to oversimplify the concept. Indeed ‘it is legal for a women to have an abortion up to 24 weeks, provided certain conditions are met – as decided by medical professionals’, might be a more accurate statement than the one I opened with. Those in camp number 2 might be pleased with the addition of a responsible professional into the decision. Others may be concerned for what this means for the rights of the individual women and what this does for their individual agency.
Science teachers have a statutory requirement to facilitate discussion around controversial scientific issues, with it they have the opportunity to provide a more empirical perspective, a perspective which some students will pay special attention to. Abortion is one such controversial issue which goes deep into philosophy and religion, there is a huge amount of historical content. What can science do for such a debate? When does life begin and when does it end? – a fairly simple question. But what about consciousness? When does that begin? Are the questions the same? Their are limitations to a purely empirical approach, and that’s useful to know too.
Unfortunately there’s no agreement in medicine, philosophy or theology as to what stage of foetal development should be associated with the right to life. That isn’t surprising, because the idea that there is a precise moment when a foetus gets the right to live, which it didn’t have a few moments earlier, feels very strange. And when you look closely at each of the suggested dates, they do seem either arbitrary or not precise enough to decide whether the unborn should have the right to live. Nonetheless, as a matter of practicality many abortion laws lay down a stage of pregnancy after which abortion is unlawful (because the foetus has a right to life), and the dates chosen are usually based on viability.