Why Risk Upsetting People You Love on Both Sides of the Debate?

As a Catholic feminist about to return to a college campus this fall, I have felt the Dobbs decision resting heavy on my soul. As I write this essay, I know that I cannot give the topic the weight it deserves—none of us can—and that most of the pieces written about abortion now will be read by those who already agree with what is being stated on either side. The lack of kindness or search for understanding between the two sides rests especially heavily because of my deep love for those who consider themselves to be pro-life as well as for those who consider themselves to be pro-choice.

It is not “those” in general whom I love, though. It is my friends. Indeed, it is because of these friends that I considered never writing this essay or any essay about this topic. Why risk upsetting the people you love, especially if you love people on both sides of this debate? Moreover, why risk writing an essay about abortion when there are already so many voices out there wanting their opinions on this topic to be heard? Yes, why?

The same can be asked of raising the subject in a classroom and on a college campus in general. Why risk broaching this topic when such high stakes like friendships and other relationships are involved, when there is a risk of hurting students on either side? Beyond this, on a grander, institutional level, why risk broaching this topic in an era when institutions of higher learning are worried about student enrollment at increasing magnitudes? Why risk upsetting students, both the ones already on our campuses as well as potential students who could enroll in our colleges and universities in the future?

After all, Nathan D. Grawe’s 2021 book, The Agile College, about demographics and higher education has set off alarm bells for those who are aware of the challenges facing higher education. Grawe tells us that declining birth rates due to the Great Recession will starkly drive down the number of students available to enroll in first-year classes starting in this decade and extending through the 2030s. Now, two years into the decade, we are already experiencing a higher education enrollment crisis. Yet, Grawe’s text contains this central thesis: “Although . . . threats to future enrollment are real, it is possible to imagine thoughtful institutions coming through the trials of the next decade as more vibrant and effective versions of themselves.”[1] In other words, he suggests, risk will be necessary for any institution of higher learning to remain vibrant in the coming years.

The same personal risk that it takes for us to broach the subject of abortion with a friend or a colleague who might disagree with us is the risk that colleges and universities will need to take when facing the challenging social issues that our students confront in their day-to-day lives. This is one way we help our students to grow and our universities to grow more vibrant. It is how we foster better, stronger relationships. In her foundational feminist book All About Love, bell hooks writes, “When we face pain in relationships our first response is often to sever bonds rather than to maintain commitment.”[2] While severing bonds may be immediately less painful, this response is much more damaging in the long run. Instead of avoiding conflict, we need to practice the behaviors that “maintain commitment,” such as love and compassion. Granted, true love and compassion require some risk and may result in some pain. Perhaps, though, if examined in the right light, the pain signals growth, learning, and a respect for life.

I contend that at Catholic institutions of higher learning we have a special calling as we reconvene this fall to address abortion as a topic on our campuses. As one op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently pointed out, “Abortion is a higher ed issue.” The author of this article reports that “according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . . . women aged 20 to 24 accounted for 28 percent of abortions, while those aged 25 to 29 accounted for 29 percent.” These are the young women on our campuses, and, of course, this data does not tell us how many women chose to carry out their pregnancies and how these decisions impacted their lives. Importantly, Catholic colleges and universities tend to serve higher numbers of women than other areas of higher education too. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities data reveals that “overall, 62 percent of students on Catholic campuses identified as female and 38 percent identified as male in 2017–18, as compared to 56 percent of students in all of higher education identifying as female and 44 percent of students identifying as male.”

We must, as educators and caring individuals, ask what the choices made by these young women meant for their college careers and how their universities did or did not support them—emotionally, spiritually, financially, and practically—in whatever choice they made. Attending to the needs of the young women who opt for a Catholic education at higher rates than they do higher education in general, and discussing how the Dobbs decision has affected them, should be at the forefront of every fall 2022 semester calendar.

Abortion, clearly, for those of us who teach in Catholic institutions is more than a higher ed or a women’s only issue: it is a specifically Catholic issue. In the introduction to their book, The Catholic Church and the Politics of Abortion, Timothy A. Byrnes and Mary C. Segers make at the outset a claim that probably feels quite obvious both to those within as well as those outside Church circles; they write that the Catholic Church “has been and continues to be one of the most active elements in the national pro-life movement.”[3] Institutions of higher learning must recognize that this is the time for leadership on an issue that the Church has been historically an outspoken leader of and thereby maintain a role as an active participant in guiding today’s moral and political conversation. The post-Roe era poses a momentous occasion for Catholic universities to show care for all of our students, to enact truly the charism of cura peronalis—care for the whole person—that mission-driven institutions claim to center.

The post-Roe era, one might argue, is an incarnational moment; it is a moment to model how to talk about life and death, fear and hope, human suffering and joy, in and with the world. John 1:14 famously reads, “And the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.” Jesus, the Word, came to give us words to speak, came to give us words to dialogue when we may not want to speak at all, especially to someone whom we find offensive in their views, in their choices, in their lives. We may already feel as if we know what we believe about the pro-life or pro-choice stance and that no dialogue could change our position. We may also believe that dialogue is worthless when created with those who disagree with us.

However, it ought not be the prospect of changing another's position that brings us to the table to talk to each other. If we do this—if every time the topic of abortion comes up there is the belief that we must alter ourselves or that we must alter another to our side—then we are no longer seeking truth in its fullness. We are, instead, seeking power over each other; we are seeking certitude, not truth. In seeking truth, in finding God in each other, we must recognize that Jesus “dwells” among all of us; he dwells among those with whom we disagree. We must be brave and know that Jesus will dwell with us if we are willing to encounter each other in authentic dialogue. In a Christmas 2021 message, Pope Francis said that “the Word became flesh in order to dialogue with us. God does not desire to carry on a monologue, but a dialogue. For God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is dialogue, an eternal and infinite communion of love and life.”  

If, as Catholics, we do not speak of our love and our desire to discover authentic truth in dialogue, even when parts of it may come from those with whom we disagree, then who will? Where will we show communion “of love and life?” Where will we show love without the expectation that the other person will bend to our selfish wills or the need to be right? Where will we talk about abortion without the secret hope that someone simply will vote for our party in the next election? Abortion, as a complex topic that affects people’s intersectional lives, is not an easy subject to broach, and that is exactly why we ought to broach it, with all its complexities, together. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to remember that:

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.

Catholic institutions of higher learning might be considered the common home that many of us share. In our classrooms and on our campuses we encounter “the whole human family.” Faculty, students, staff, and administrators come together to build a new world each semester. Each generation, whether we realize it or not, sends an outpouring of new intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dialogue into the world—the kind of dialogue attributable to the “Word made Flesh” in our specific calls to greater knowledge. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Things can change.”

Every semester, it is important to note that we all serve students who are ardently pro-life, as well as those who are just as adamantly pro-choice. Like the friends I mentioned at the start of this essay, or those who are reading this essay now, these students come from a variety of backgrounds. Their stories are unique, as are their encounters with abortion personally, politically, and spiritually. We need to serve “the whole human family” and “integral development” of all.

When a young person filled with life stands in front of us and says that she is fearful about the Dobbs decision and how it will impact her future, how do we respond? What if we disagree with what she thinks? When a young person filled with life stands in front of us and says that she now volunteers for a pro-life agency because she is heartened by the Dobbs decision, how do we respond? What if we disagree with what she thinks? What if these students encounter each other in our classes? What if these students encounter each other in this world? What if we do not take the time to teach them to see the life, and the good, in each other?

I pause now and invite you to consider your own personal relationship with abortion. How has it affected your life? The life of a loved one? How did you come to your views? Have they always been the same, or have they evolved over the years in some way based on personal, social, and/or intellectual interchanges?

My views have altered, become more nuanced, and deepened as I have listened and dialogued with others. I recall holding hands with young women on my campus who have had abortions. I recall holding hands with young women on my campus who have felt isolated because of their pro-life stance. I recall holding hands with friends who later regretted their decisions to have abortions. I recall holding hands with friends who have never expressed regrets about their decision to have an abortion—or to carry out an unexpected pregnancy.

Likewise, I recall classroom discussions that have included young women and men who have had intense relationships with this issue—knowing they were in the same classroom—while we engaged intellectually with Judith Butler and Abigail Favale, among others. I recall final projects on both sides of this issue (and often somewhere in between) that dealt with the ideas and emotions involved. I recall caring about every student in my classes where this subject has been broached, worried, inevitably, that the mere discussion of a subject could be hurtful.

Thus, I ask students in classes, in roundtables, and in group discussions to approach each other, and hopefully me, with grace. Because the intellectual spaces we foster on Catholic campuses ought to be models for how dialogue happens in the world, for how the Word works in the world. We ought to strive to create spaces where love for each other is cultivated, for just as God loves us and gives us grace in our fallenness so too ought we to give grace to each other. Giving and receiving grace in spaces of intellectual dialogue means we risk inelegance, we risk hurting ourselves and others: we risk exposing our humanness.

More to the point, though, we risk not loving each other, not understanding each other fully, if we do not take risks. Michael Himes writes of grace: “If everything is loved by God, or to put it another way, if everything is engraced, then somewhere, sometime, that grace must be expressed.”[4] We can express God’s grace to each other on college campuses when we intellectually and emotionally engage with this topic. We can choose to give grace and love to each other and we can choose to seek truth and love through dialogue. We can create spaces of grace. Our classrooms. Our offices. Our facilitated talks. All of these can “express” grace.

To clarify, this is not to say that every stance is right when we engage thoughtfully with each other about abortion. This essay is not trying to seep into relativism. Giving grace in dialogue, engaging with ideas and persons with whom we disagree, does not mean that we assent to opinions we do not hold, just as it does not mean we talk to each other with the intent always to change each other’s positions. Rather, I suggest that the Dobbs decision has neither settled the abortion debate nor our nation’s feelings about it. Article after article will remind you that the “fight” on either side remains. What I suggest is that we ought to respond to this moment by cultivating spaces where emotions and stories of integral human lives can be shared and listened to while we engage simultaneously and intellectually with the changes that have happened in the United States over this past year.

Indeed, the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance is clear. The Catechism states unequivocally: “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.” We ought to let our students know not in catechetical, scripted language but in our own disciplinary lenses and in a loving, listening environment focused on fostering a “common home” for all those who choose to attend and work at Catholic educational institutions why this doctrine is. Ideally, students should leave a Catholic school knowing what the Church teaches. Certainly, they need not agree with it, but they ought to know it and to know why the Church teaches this.

Arguably, they even ought to feel cheated if they leave a Catholic school never engaging deeply, or even confronting honestly, the Church’s teaching at all. Not knowing, especially if they are interested in the subject, suggests that an institution is simply unwilling to take risks. Students are beginning to recognize when universities are honest, or dishonest, in upholding their missions. For those who are interested in maintaining vibrant academic communities, or simply in having students to engage with, shying away from authenticity should not be the posture they take. A recent survey about higher education institutions in general suggests,

About 35 percent of adult members of Generation Z surveyed said they tended not to trust higher education while 41 percent said they tended to trust colleges and universities. Among the four generation groups surveyed by Morning Consult, a research technology company, those ages 18–25 who are among the Generation Z cohort were the least likely to trust higher education.

Note here that younger generations trust higher education the least. Catholic institutions that identify and brand themselves as centered on the discovery of truth should be attentive to this concern by the newest students they are set to serve. Perhaps it is not surprising that this statistic is representative of another similar trend, which sees young people exhibiting distrust of the institutional Church at a higher rate too. In a report on why youth are leaving the Church, we find that “as of 2017, 12.8 percent of US young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are former Catholics, and . . . approximately 6.8 percent of US teens between the ages of 15 and 17 are former Catholics.”[5] Many of those surveyed “expressed deep disillusionment and frustration that their questions were never answered or that they didn’t have the opportunity to voice their questions in the first place.”[6]

Catholic institutions of higher learning ought to make the best case for the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion that it can, bringing in Catholic intellectuals from varying disciplines who engage with Church teaching. Students should be able to read and talk with Catholic intellectuals—scientists, theologians, political scientists, etc.—so they feel as if they are coming to an honest place: a Catholic institution. They should be able to voice their questions and have them answered so that they feel that they are getting a true, authentic, Catholic intellectual experience. One student who attended a Catholic school and disaffiliated from the Church reported, “In social studies at school, I learned Christianity, as like opposed to Judaism, or Islamism. But I wasn’t, like, fully understanding the differences between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, because nobody would fully explain them to me I guess.”[7] To love, to encounter, to speak the Word in dialogue, even and especially when it is difficult, takes courage, the courage to take risks—it takes “expressing” one’s views even when one is aware an idea might be rejected.

With all this said, nuance on a topic like abortion should bring in both dissenting opinions and complex feelings. Academic disciplines, and thereby faculty at Catholic institutions, ought to offer responses to and engage with ideas that differ from Church teachings and doctrine too. In a discussion of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, Gregory Kalscheur puts it this way:

The desire for truth that lies at the heart of the tradition demands that all assertions of truth, meaning, and purpose be the best evidence against them—evidence that may be presented by anyone, of any or no religious tradition, who is engaged in serious inquiry.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition manifests its catholicity—its striving for wholeness—whenever all the participants in the life of the college or university see their research and study and work of student formation in the context of the largest possible questions that can be asked about the world in which we live.[8]  

Students should know what the Church teaches as well as any arguments against it. They should be engaged in seeking truth and discerning what it means for their lives. The Word does not alter based on the evidence presented against it; it is still the Word.

Finally, it is important that as Catholic institutions try to create “engraced” spaces on campus for dialogue about abortion they include the whole campus, all of those with whom students interact and all of those whom this affects. Too often, cura personalis is neglected in university-created silos; staff who affect students and who have a stake in topics like abortion should be as engaged as faculty. Different areas of campus ought to take up the topic—together—in classroom spaces, health centers, the Title IX office, campus ministry, DEI centers, to name a few. Ideally, the university would also invite different campus sectors to come together in order to model “integral development” of the person, and the institution itself, through dialogue. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis argues that,

Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries—even those where Christians are a minority—the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defense of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing.

With our country, our hearts, and even many within the Church confused, leavened, or hurt by the ramifications of the Dobbs decision, Catholic universities can fill the need to show concern for everyone within their midst. They can act as “mediators” as they continue the Church’s “defense of life”—that of the unborn and of those it is currently serving. This includes faculty, staff, and administrators, who likely have complex academic views on Church teaching. “This good thing!”—this acting as “mediator”—is not the easy path. It is a high order, a mission, a purpose-driven love. And love: love is always worth the risk.

[1] Nathan D. Grawe, The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Change (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2021), 2. Grawe’s 2018 book Demographies and the Demand for Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins), first detailed the enrollment crisis. More information about Grawe’s studies into higher education demographies can be found at his website here: https://ngrawe.sites.carleton.edu/

[2] bell hooks. All About Love: New Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 4.

[3] Timothy C. Byrnes and Mary C. Segers, “Introduction,” in The Catholic Church and the Politics of Abortion: A View from the States (New York: Routledge, 2019), 2.

[4][4] Himes, Michael. “Grace,” in The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism, (Cincinnati, OH, Franciscan, 2004), 12.

[5] Robert J. McCarty and John M. Vitek. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 2018), 5.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Gregory Kalscheur, “Engaging the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Across the Disciplines: The Importance of Catholicity in Our Current Moment.” Journal of Catholic Higher Education, 4, no. 1 (2021):18.

Featured Image: by WhyDolls, Argument; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

Read more by LuElla D’Amico