Following the May 3 leak of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, which once again permitted states to protect fetal life before viability, tensions bubbled among University of Chicago students. Social media became visibly nasty and students bedecked our campus with vulgar slogans.
On-campus animosity prefaced an Illinois-wide political battle, aptly characterized by Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker’s declaration that “the right wing may have taken away abortion rights from half of all Americans, but they’ve unleashed a tsunami of determined women voters and their allies who will lift up pro-choice candidates and take down the ultraconservative fundamentalists this November.”
UChicago discontent was also prologue for national trends, judging by a September 3 Wall Street Journal report: “[W]hen offered a choice of five issues and asked which made them most likely to vote, [voters] put the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade ahead of inflation.”
The Parameters for the Campus Abortion Debate
Many partisans in the UChicago abortion “debate” merely regurgitate the opinions of their respective echo chambers. With 82% of students identifying as liberal or very liberal and another 12% as moderate, pro-choice opinions naturally overpower those of the other side. Unfortunately, many pro-choice proclamations are poorly thought out, reactionary statements that are not conducive to respectful dialogue. An example is this chalk display on the Main Quad:
There are many more examples of reactionary outrage toward the Alito leak on Sidechat, an online platform where UChicago students can anonymously post their innermost thoughts and upvote commentary with which they agree.
Most, if not all, of the pro-choice statements on Sidechat demonstrate the ad hominem talent of UChicago students. Instead of providing substantive arguments for the pro-choice position, they choose to attack, in personal terms, the individuals defending the pro-life side. Those pro-choicers’ rants are generally rudimentary and irrelevant to the conversation.
One post, upvoted by 40 students, observes that males at the Thinker are “only happy about [Roe being overturned] because they can’t get pregnant and have never had the opportunity to get someone pregnant.” Another post, which 151 people endorsed, notes that “my usual debate point that ‘if you got a girl pregnant are you telling me you wouldn’t want her to get an abortion’ doesn’t work against [Thinker] men because [I] know they’re not having sex.”
On aggregate, pro-choice viewpoints enjoy student approbation, whereas posts opposing abortion receive reprobation in the form of downvotes. In one case, someone backing abortion rights received 63 votes of approval; a dissenting reply got 12 downvotes:
Arrogance is also common among pro-choice students on a campus that almost unquestioningly accepts the pro-choice doctrine as gospel: Rabid pro-choicers immediately disregard everyone who lacks faith in unregulated abortion—including a majority of the Supreme Court.
Past is Prologue
The question of abortion rights is one of many pressure points at UChicago and across the country. Unfortunately, our campus has never allowed a fair, respectful, bipartisan discussion of the issue. The last attempt was in 2019, when College Council Representative Brett Barbin resolved that mandatory Student Life fees should not be used to fund abortions.
The UChicago Democrats released a statement on May 21, 2019, that incited an emotionally charged condemnation of Barbin’s initiative.
The UChicago Democrats’ use of the words “cruel,” “cynical,” “anti-choice,” and “extremists” was strategic: They wanted to make it socially unacceptable for students contemplating Barbin’s resolution to join his effort. Unsurprisingly, Barbin was greeted not by a group of critical thinkers open to debate but rather by a mob of intolerant students.
Regarding the day of the vote on Barbin’s resolution, which failed, The Chicago Maroon reports that “[o]ne unidentified protester of the bill threw an egg at a group of counterprotesters on the stairs inside the northern entrance to Reynolds Club.” Meanwhile, opponents of Barbin’s effort “broke out in chants such as ‘My body, my choice.’ The chants became so loud that it became difficult to hear speakers inside the College Council meeting.”
When the campus Democrats had the opportunity to encourage open discourse, they instead stirred up emotions to stop their opponent’s voice from being heard. The “debate” was an embarrassment to the environment of open discourse that UChicago, which the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression recently proclaimed the number-one school in the country for free speech, supposedly cultivates.
After all, the university’s webpage about the College Core—our wide-reaching mandatory curriculum—states, “The founders of the Core believed that it was the obligation of the modern university to educate flexible minds who would welcome intellectual exploration and see through the temptations of the rigid doctrinal systems that characterized the 1930s.” Our hyper-exposure to tempting doctrinal systems (now the leftist, pro-choice agenda) possesses an intensified version of the same doctrinal threats from 90 years ago.
Counterproductive Messaging Is a Non-Starter
UChicago community members and 2022 voters should evaluate the baseline assumptions of each case, pro-life and pro-choice, and aim to articulate messages that will resonate with the “opposition.” Examples of counterproductive communication include the sidewalk message on the quad and certain statements from on-campus organizations.
Project Reproductive Freedom, a UChicago undergraduate organization, was just one of the groups on campus to take to social media in response to the leak:
Project Reproductive Freedom immediately vilifies the pro-life opinion by characterizing its adherents as “hateful.” It also inaccurately describes the state of affairs. The Supreme Court did not criminalize abortion with its decision in Dobbs, instead allowing the states to adjudicate abortion’s legal status. At the end of the decision of the Court, released on June 24, Justice Samuel Alito explicitly states:
Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. The Court overrules those decisions and returns that authority to the people and their elected representatives.
Two other on-campus organizations—Students for Justice in Palestine and Care Not Cops, whose core objectives are far removed from the abortion debate—inappropriately declared their loyalty to the pro-choice side. Those outfits condemned not only abortion restrictions but also “all forms of criminalization,” adding fuel to the fire by submitting unworkable solutions to a debate in which their opinions are irrelevant.
A Way Forward for UChicago and the Nation
To combat the intellectual one-sidedness that has reared its ugly head in the abortion debate, UChicago should encourage students to take classes that introduce views with which they disagree. That will prove challenging because there are few classes that articulate the viewpoints of the conservative minority and many that propagate leftist doctrine, so the school will have to put in the necessary work to accommodate students who want to broaden their intellectual horizons.
More broadly, people at UChicago and across the country should carefully contemplate informed perspectives on issues like masking, vaccine mandates, the Israel-Palestine conflict, transgender individuals in sports, and abortion. Before you rant, repost, or ridicule, read the bills that legislators introduce and the decisions that judges hand down. Engage in thoughtful, non-reactionary discourse. Only that mindset will allow us to progress beyond our grievance-heavy political battles toward solutions.
As we proceed through these tumultuous political times, marred as they are by discontent and hyperbole on campus and across the country, I urge you to be more than just a reactor—be a Thinker.
I agree that the quality of political discourse is bad right now, but this piece is not particularly enlightening or helpful in that regard. First off, it’s not like your “side” has been innocent when it comes to unfairly vilifying the other side. If we’re using Sidechat as evidence (which we shouldn’t, given that it’s explicitly meant for memes and lighthearted jokes), on the day that the decision was handed down, there were several posts calling pro-choice people “baby killers.” This publication hasn’t been particularly civil on the matter either–you yourself referred to people who disagree with you as “rabid pro-choicers” and characterized them as unthinking automata who “unquestioningly accept the pro-choice doctrine as gospel.” I could use your argument the exact same way you use it, with this article as evidence, that it is in fact the pro-life side is to blame for the coarsening of campus discourse, but that would be a surface-level, reductionist view of the issue.
Speaking of surface-level reductionist viewpoints, a few tweets from explicitly leftist campus organizations does not generalize to every single UChicago student. I’m sure you’d find it unfair if someone caricatured your views by comparing them to a certain former colleague’s tweets endorsing white replacement theory and Christian nationalism, right? You’re doing the exact same thing in this article, and frankly I think it comes from an an unwillingness to see your peers as the complex human beings they are, with complex reasons for believing the things they believe, at least when it comes to this issue. The people who made the posts you used in your article are certainly guilty of this too. Still, I find it difficult to take seriously an article that ends with a plea for others to be thoughtful and considerate while failing to do the same.