Embracing the Discomfort of "Roe" in the Classroom

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A leaked draft opinion that appears to set the stage for the reversal of Roe v. Wade has all eyes focused this week on the Supreme Court. In the coming months, no doubt, there will be an increased effort by both sides of the abortion debate to build a narrative that favors their viewpoint, especially as discussion mounts about creating a federal law.


Abortion is a difficult topic for class discussion in the friendliest of times. Now with the debate about individual rights and women’s health front and center, we as historians need to help students identify sources that separate fact from rhetoric. This task is easier said than done. As anyone who has ever sought information about the history of abortion online knows, a web search on the topic opens up a minefield of misinformation and partisan viewpoints. 


Nonetheless, we should not ignore the uncomfortable topic out of fear that our students will disagree with each other. Rather than focusing on current events and talking-heads on 24-hour news stations, suggest that your students go back to the era in which the Roe decision was made. In other words, help them to seek out the historical context for the decision rather than debating the case with today’s political divisions. 


Most history teachers already embrace this approach when we cover Brown v. Board of Education as part of the post-World War II civil rights movement. We recognize that the case’s history sheds light on the blatant inequalities in American education in the 1950s and its argument in front of the Court invited a discussion of what “the founders” had intended when they wrote the Constitution. At a racially diverse community college like the one where I teach, the Brown decision often strikes a nerve with students who cannot imagine a time when they would not have been allowed to share space in a classroom. We don’t ask the students to draw battlelines between the two sides but to look at the facts (unequal buildings, teaching credentials, classroom supplies) and then to study the ruling itself.


Roe v. Wade can be discussed without the vitriol if we help our students focus on the factual components available to us. Studying the Comstock Laws and Margaret Sanger’s campaign to open birth control clinics is a great place to start. Help students to locate statistical data on the number of maternal deaths by illegal abortion in the era before Roe. Help them to identify problems with the available information and why cases would have been unreported/undocumented. Ask them to evaluate who controlled that narrative and why. Finally, consider with your students the ways in which media outlets covered discussion of the case before the decision as well as reactions to the decision through newspaper and journal articles from the time period. 


Allowing our students to investigate the context of Roe v. Wade will help further their understanding of why the case remains important to our modern-day society and how it continues to shape public discussion about women’s health and history. My hope is that their knowledge of history will guide them in their future decision-making. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.