Should Colleges and Universities Promote Abortion?

Higher Education Policy after Dobbs

Peter Wood

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue of abortion to the states. Soon after, many American college and university presidents began to express their opposition to the court’s ruling and their determination to find ways to support “abortion rights.” In August 2022, for example, eight college presidents met with Vice President Kamala Harris on the matter. As Inside Higher Ed reported: “The presidents said that the Dobbs ruling has both short- and long-term consequences for higher education, including potential impacts to medical school programs, reproductive care available to students on campus, privacy laws, and student mental health.”

That meeting included the presidents of Oberlin College, Tennessee State University, Reed College, Gallaudet University, Howard University, the University of California, Irvine, Dartmouth College, and the City University of New York, as well as the president of the American Council on Education. Those present represented both public and private institutions, every region of the country, and historically black, Ivy League, elite liberal arts, and comprehensive institutions.

Notably absent were any institutions rooted in Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish faith traditions. In fact, the presidents of many of these spoke out in favor of the Dobbs decision and their determination to engage in pro-life activism. But not all Christian colleges and universities adopted this view. The president of the University of Notre Dame, the Reverend John Jenkins, for example, offered what Inside Higher Ed characterized as “a seemingly neutral statement.” He said, “We acknowledge the divisions among people of good will on the question of abortion, and the controversy that has endured in our nation for the past fifty years,” and looked forward to a period of “sober deliberation and respectful dialogue.”

The president of Emory University, founded by and still affiliated with the United Methodist Church, condemned the Dobbs ruling as “a painful regression.”

A group called College Values Online compiled a list in February 2023 of “30 Colleges That Are Defending Women’s Reproductive Rights.” These include: Florida State University, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Denver, Mount Holyoke College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, New York University, Princeton University, Southern Methodist University, Drexel University, Smith College, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, Yale University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

These steps did not go unnoticed by members of Congress. In January 2023, Congressman Chip Roy (Texas-21) and Senator Steve Daines (Montana) re-introduced the Protecting Life on College Campus Act, which, if passed, would ban federal funding to schools offering abortion pills to students. The bill would be a higher education-focused version of the Hyde Amendment, which since 1976 has blocked Medicaid funding for most abortions. The House version of this new bill attracted 29 cosponsors, and the Senate version 17 co-sponsors. The bill was previously introduced in 2021, before the Dobbs decision, but gained considerable new support in 2023.

At this point, no one seems to have compiled anything close to a comprehensive list of which colleges and universities among the roughly 4,000 in the United States currently offer students drugs to induce abortions (usually the combination of mifepristone and misoprostol) or access to surgical abortions. But, clearly, a great many colleges and universities do provide the drugs, and many also assist in arranging surgical abortions as well.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has never taken a position on abortion, as it has never been an academic issue per se. From time to time, however, we have taken note of the rise of the “right to choose” or “reproductive freedom” movement as part of the ideology of campus feminism. To the extent that this movement has attempted to suppress the expression of opposing views, we have criticized it as an attack on academic freedom.

The current circumstances seem to demand something more. On May 2, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law that, as CNN put it, “seeks to ensure every student enrolled in a State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) college will be able to access medication abortion.”

New York is not the first state to go down this path. In 2019—three years before the Dobbs decision—California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the College Student Right to Access Act, which mandated that the 34 institutions of the University of California, as well as all of California’s public schools, must offer abortion drugs free to students.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Wesleyan University announced that it will cover the costs of abortion after insurance and will pay for students’ travel to and from the clinic.

These are very different expressions of the newly invigorated “reproductive rights” movement. The New York State action is focused on public institutions and burdens all New York state residents with the costs and the moral responsibility of supporting abortion. Likewise, California residents bear the burden of the College Student Right to Access Act. Wesleyan is a private university—though it, too, receives public funds via student loans and federal grants—and its new provision goes far beyond the prescription of abortifacients to assist with clinical abortions. That distinction may not matter to some opponents of abortion, but it matters deeply to others.

NAS is a membership organization, but one that assumes among its members only a broad agreement to our stated principles, most easily summarized in our mission statement: “The National Association of Scholars upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.” That has not prevented NAS from taking stands without polling our members. Our skeptical position on the sustainability movement and some of the promises of climate change orthodoxy, for example, were never “tested” with the general membership, and, indeed, a few members resigned in light of the positions we took. But climate change orthodoxy was, from early on, an issue defined by campus activists and clearly within the remit of an organization devoted to intellectual freedom and the search for the truth.

Abortion raises a more difficult set of issues. It involves not just opinions and advocacy but also actions that many (but not all) of us regard as profoundly wrong. Making colleges and universities into agents of or participants in these actions raises doubts about the legitimacy of these institutions. A university that facilitates abortions has certainly foreclosed serious debate on some of the most serious questions at the heart of the liberal arts. What obligations do we have to have to fellow humans? Where does the exercise of personal autonomy yield to higher duties? Is the secular order the only controlling authority that we need to recognize?

Questions such as these dissolve into mist if they are raised in the context of irreversible decisions made on the basis of views that all important considerations are subsumed under the concept of “reproductive freedom.” Higher education could well sustain its ideals of liberal education as part of a society that, outside the university, permitted abortion. But once the radical version of “reproductive freedom” is brought inside the university and incorporated as both official doctrine and actual practice, the character of higher education itself is fundamentally changed.

In effect, the university redefines itself as an amenity to those who reject any supervening moral order that stands in the way of “reproductive choice.” That order need not be theistic. It need only be an order based on the reality that we exist by virtue of mothers accepting the burden (and sometimes the inconvenience) of giving birth. The rest of what we transmit to students by way of knowledge, wisdom, culture, and character is secondary to that fundamental reality. The cultural reproduction that is among the basic aims of the university is inextricably tied to a society that respects and fosters human reproduction.

NAS is not a pro-life activist organization. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, we would leave this matter to the people of the United States to be considered in the states. And like Notre Dame University, we would hope for “sober deliberation and respectful dialogue” among “people of good will.” In our own terminology, we call for “institutional neutrality” on the part of colleges and universities. But institutional neutrality cannot mean pre-empting public debate in favor of “abortion rights.” The New York State legislation signed by Governor Hochul usurps that principle and should be challenged in court, as well as in future elections. The action by Wesleyan should be challenged by students, faculty, alumni, and members of the Wesleyan board—though it seems unlikely that it will be.

What will NAS do? In conversation with my staff and members of my board, I am inclined to the view that NAS should put a spotlight on higher education’s increasing resolve to serve as a provider of a full spectrum of health care and “wellness.” Abortion services are only the most recent and most provocative extension of that resolve. You will see it visible in many other ways, such as mental health and psychological counseling; the medicalization of diversity, equity, and inclusion; vaccination policy; and more. At one time, the medical services provided by colleges were limited to a campus infirmary that provided little more than aspirin, bandages, and referrals to doctors and hospitals. This has expanded over the decades to a system in which the college has itself become a full-spectrum medical clinic, and students are treated primarily as patients awaiting their diagnoses and treatments.

There is much more to be said about this broader situation, and in due course NAS will say it. But we will start with the straightforward declaration that American colleges and universities that embrace abortion as part of student services have gone seriously astray from their fundamental educational mission.

Photo by Adobe Stock

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