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New Rutgers Course on Abortion Rights Explores the Complex History Behind a Contentious Issue

Two accomplished scholars shine light on legal, moral, and medical angles

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Two Rutgers University professors have teamed up to teach a course on abortion that aims to help students understand the complex legal, medical, and moral dimensions of the battle over reproductive rights in the United States.

The course, which was first offered in the spring 2023 semester, is called “Abortion and History” and will be taught by Tia Kolbaba, a professor of religion, and Johanna Schoen, a professor of history.

Tia KolbabaThe two School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) professors say that the undergraduate course is the first in recent memory—and possibly the first altogether—at Rutgers–New Brunswick to explore reproductive rights across the broad sweep of history, from the perspectives of early church theologians to the experiences of mid-20th century women living under abortion criminalization to the stories of clinic operators working in an environment of harassment and violence.

The impetus for the course was the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case that overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years. Since that decision, 13 states have banned most abortions, and court battles over abortion access loom in many other states, The New York Times has reported.

“The change for this generation of students is significant,” says Schoen, who studies the history of reproductive rights and is the author of Abortion After Roe.

Kolbaba, a scholar of early Christianity who also studies the evangelical Christian movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, agreed it is a critical time to teach the issue.

“The more people there are who are well-informed, able to see the complexity of the issue, and can talk beyond the polemics, the better,” says Kolbaba.

The more people there are who are well-informed, able to see the complexity of the issue, and can talk beyond the polemics, the better.

Students taking the course will analyze major court decisions, study the theological perspectives, watch films, including the HBO documentary The Janes, and read contemporary works like The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion.

The topic of abortion emerges in other courses at Rutgers, with both Schoen and Kolbaba covering aspects of the issue in their own classes. Other offerings in SAS include “Religion and Reproduction: Jewish and Christian Experiences,” by Jewish studies professor Michal Raucher.

Kolbaba and Schoen acknowledge that devoting an entire course to a subject as contentious as abortion presents challenges, including handling delicate issues around religion, race, and inequality that arise in class discussions, readings, and homework. All students are welcome, regardless of their views on abortion.

“In this class, our emphasis will be on engaging as scholars in the mutual exploration of issues as presented in the course readings and films rather than in defending points of view we have formed outside the classroom,” the professors say in the syllabus.

Kolbaba, who will focus on the pre-and early-modern periods, says students may be surprised at what they learn. She noted for example that Christian opposition to abortion had traditionally focused on the period after quickening, when a pregnant person starts to feel the baby's movement, typically 16 to 20 weeks.

“Somehow in the 20th century we got to this debate about whether life begins at conception,” Kolbaba says. “And that was never the debate before.”

Schoen will show how abortion was stigmatized, then criminalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and explore the impact criminalization had on women of that era. She will also examine the rise of the antiabortion movement and how it changed after Roe. The emergence of underground abortion providers, including the Janes and the Clergy Consultation Service will also be discussed.

Schoen, who has given public lectures on the issue since the Dobbs ruling, says audiences are hungry for in-depth knowledge that they cannot get through daily media reports.

“Students come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know this was so important for my life,”’ Schoen says. “It’s clear how little people know about abortion and why it is important, and what happened between Roe and Dobbs.

“There is such a need for better information, and that is our job as professors, to provide people with better information.”


Students can sign up for the cross-listed course here.




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