Abortion: How and what we teach (Roe, McCullen v. Coakley & Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby)

by Cara Gallagher & Joe Taraborrelli

When teachers plan to teach the topic of abortion in a history or social studies class, what we teach is as important and, in some cases, critical to our livelihoods, as how we teach it.  I knew a teacher who totally avoided the subject in their AP government class.  Despite the fact that Roe v. Wade could pop up on the AP exam, this teacher said that while he was personally interested in the topic, it was the proverbial “third-rail” at his school.  You didn’t touch it for fear of blowback (parental, administrative, and/or interdepartmental).  I asked this teacher what he did when the students brought it up?  This teacher said the topic rarely came up.  I followed up with a question of whether or not that was by design on his part.  He chuckled and ducked out of the conversation.  I still couldn’t help but wonder if he and other teachers engineered their syllabi so that topics on abortion wouldn’t come up?  Or was he right and it just wasn’t a topic of interest to students?  Whatever the answers are, the primary issue is whether the topic of abortion is one that can be ignored in a civic education classroom?

Topics involving young people at the center of policy matters and court cases tend to generate a natural buy-in from students.  Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe from Roe v. Wade, wasn’t much older (21) than many of our students when she became pregnant and sought an abortion in Texas.  Last summer, a Texas state senator made national news for an eleven hour filibuster to block passage of a bill that limited access to abortion.  Youth involvement in supporting Senator Wendy Davis was eclipsed when young people regularly posted “Stand With Wendy” on social networks.  Every January 22nd hundreds of thousands of young people swarm Washington, D.C. to attend the March for Life rally.  There’s no denying that this is a time when avoiding coverage of abortion in a classroom because it’s neither comfortable nor topical would seem disingenuous to students and, frankly, an erroneous assumption.

This spring, the SCOTUS is going to hear oral arguments in two 1st Amendment cases in which abortion will undoubtedly come up.  The first one is a speech case (McCullen v. Coakley) involving proximity lines drawn to prevent protesters from getting close to patients entering or exiting abortion clinics.  The petitioners are a group of pro-Life protestors from Massachusetts who believe the boundary lines infringe upon their 1st Amendment right to speak with and counsel any women going to the clinics.  Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby is a case in which the matter isn’t explicitly questioning the legality of or access to abortion.  Rather,  it’s about access to contraception that will be referred to as “abortifacients.”  Abortifacients are drugs that could prevent or terminate a pregnancy, such as the over-the-counter Plan B drug and IUD’s (intrauterine devices).  Under the HHS mandate, all women are allowed to have access to such contraceptives.  The question in this case is whether a corporation (Hobby Lobby) must comply with the HHS (Sebelius) mandate despite having religious objections to such abortifacient drugs, invoking a 1st Amendment claim.  Both cases are sure to attract a fire-and-brimstone narrative on both sides of the abortion debate that will echo throughout all access points in mainstream media.  While neither case is going to show up on the AP exam, when coverage of Roe does come up in class, it will very likely evoke questions from students about McCullen v. Coakley and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby.

Discomfort educators have in teaching abortion likely derives from the fact that it is a topic many people struggle to discuss dispassionately. When teachers express reservations about discussing abortion in the classroom, I suspect it is because they imagine a heated debate that devolves quickly into finger-pointing and accusations of immorality. If approached in the wrong way, this could happen. To avoid this potentially nightmare scenario, planning and timing are essential.  More importantly, as teachers of government, we ought to model and cultivate in our students the knowledge and skills necessary to discuss controversial topics without having the exchange erupt in a free-for-all, or worse, quash the speech of our inquiring students because we’re afraid of where the conversation might go.  Civic inquiry, especially when it flows from the students to the classroom, is the very skill we’re trying to foster and, more importantly, the lifeblood of the Republic.

To productively incorporate this topic into your lessons, timing is key. A solid foundation needs to be established. The topic of abortion should be introduced at a point in the course when students have some background knowledge about the Constitution. Once they do, this topic is an excellent one to use as a case study, giving teachers the opportunity to highlight many of the core themes of an American Government course, such as federalism, judicial interpretation, implied powers, a right to privacy, the supremacy clause, and checks and balances.  For this reason, it’s been ideal to cover Roe half or ¾ of the way into the semester or year, after the aforementioned topics have been thoroughly covered.

From day one, I begin to create an interest in current events, the Constitution, and the federal courts by probing students’ current knowledge and curiosity. I talk to students about words that are mentioned and words that are not mentioned in the US Constitution. Students are not surprised to learn that the term “abortion” is  nowhere in the document. I also ask students if they think the word ‘privacy’ is mentioned in the Constitution. Students are surprised to learn that it is not. They are puzzled by the fact that there is an important court case on two terms not appearing in the document (abortion and privacy), if, in fact, the job of the Supreme Court is to “interpret the Constitution.” The initial question is usually: “how can the Supreme Court rule on topics that are not even mentioned in the Constitution?” From this point forward, I make sure that my students have ready access to pocket Constitutions or the free Constitution app on a smart device, and they enjoy checking to see which words are included and excluded from the text. As the course progresses, students begin to approach the Constitution with more sophistication, moving beyond just checking to see if words are mentioned or not.

When you teach the federal courts, Roe v. Wade is an opinion that students can read. The opinion illustrates many of the nuances associated with judicial interpretation. It also shows how judges place a case into a broader historical context as they craft legal arguments.  Explicitly creating a historical context for Roe (see the list of contextual pre and post-Roe cases below) will lay the necessary foundation and make for a more informed and robust classroom discussion or debate.

Planning should go faster and be easier if you have a wide arsenal of curricular options to choose from.  I have used Edmodo, an excellent online discussion platform, to provide students with a place to ask questions to me or their classmates about the parts of the text with which they are struggling. I typically assign much of the majority opinion as well as the dissent. By reading these texts, students begin to appreciate how an opinion is crafted and how justices rely on previous cases to buttress their arguments.

Once students have explored this topic in more depth, they will have a context for understanding the dynamic nature of checks and balances and federalism. Undoubtedly, as the semester progresses, you and your students will find current events illustrating how states have pushed back against Roe v. Wade.


It’s worth mentioning that some teachers do their own due diligence before wading into the controversial waters of Roe.  Some methods include running it up the flagpole with department chairs and/or admins.  Others announce to their students ahead of time what day(s) the topic will be covered to allow those whose parents might firmly disagree with coverage of the topic, or students who have their own deeply personal objections to being captive to such a discussion, to be out of class that day or class period.  As with anything in education, preparation is your best defense to mitigate most problems and empower your students with the tools they’ll need to be critical thinkers open to hearing all sides of the issue.

Pre and Post-Roe v. Wade cases to help provide a context to the decision:

  • Meyer v. NB (1923)

  • Pearce v. Society of Sisters (1925)

  • Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

  • Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)

  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)

Roe v. Wade Key Terms https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5yA9OoW_XgJdHpBYkg4TnVjWWc/edit?usp=sharing

We also enjoyed Lyle Denniston’s piece on the subject for The Constitution Center here.

Got any great resources you use to teach topics in abortion?  Please, send them to us so we can share out.

Cara has been teaching topics in government and civic education for nine years outside of Chicago, Illinois.  She is the Senior Education Fellow for C-SPAN Classrooms and covers SCOTUS cases on her website www.SupremeBystandr.com.  Joe has been teaching for thirteen years. Most semesters he teaches sections of Western Civilization, Economics and AP Government. He lives and works in the Philadelphia suburbs.  Follow Cara on Twitter @SupremeBystandr and Joe @joetabhistory.