Stéphane Mercier, a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, was suspended from his position, and had his classes cancelled, following a lesson he gave on the topic of abortion. [Update: according to one source, it would be more accurate to say that Mercier’s classes have been suspended, not Mercier himself. See full update below the post.]
The disciplinary action, reported at Church Militant, was taken following the complaint of a student regarding an essay written and distributed by Mercier, “Against an Alleged ‘Right to Choose’ Abortion,” which he says is a version of the lecture he gave on the topic in class, and which he distributed to his students for ease of discussion. Mercier, a devout Catholic, in correspondence tells me that in his view abortion is “intrinsically evil,” and that is the position he develops in the essay. In that essay, he writes:
I will propose here an argument to defend the right of any person innocent to life from the moment of its conception . This implies an absolute rejection of any alleged “right” to abortion… The idea that I will defend is that all abortion is evil, and that no circumstance ever justifies it, contrary to what we hear everywhere today, to an extent that tends to anesthetize the debate.
(That quote and others from the essay are a slightly edited version of what was spit out by Google Translate, as the original essay is in French, and I am not competent to translate it myself.)
The essay’s argument regarding abortion is prefaced by a lengthy call for debate on the topic. Mercier says:
To refuse the discussion, even under a pretext (“We must not allow such things!“) Is dangerous: forbidding debate is a typically totalitarian process; and it’s a sign that one is afraid and therefore wishes to prohibit discussion. Rationally, one should not be afraid to discover that some of his opinions are not well-founded. If I seek what is true, or what is likely to be true, I must be able to listen to the arguments that are proposed to me, accept them if they are good, reject them if they are wrong or false. To refuse this state of mind is to adopt a posture of fanaticism, which does not concern itself with the truth, but with the mere victory of his opinion, whatever the price.
The university offered the following statement about its actions:
At the beginning of the week, UCL was questioned about a note used during a course and written by one of its invited lecturers, Stéphane Mercier, on the subject of abortion. After hearing Stéphane Mercier, the UCL authorities decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him. The [proceedings are] still in progress.
UCL has also decided to suspend the two courses for which Stéphane Mercier is responsible until further notice.
Curious to learn more about the case, earlier this week I asked Professor Mercier a few questions. Here is some further information obtained from our correspondence:
- The essay was distributed to students in his 1st year undergraduate course in “economics and applied sciences,” which, he says, “revolves around different questions that have to do with the human being, either from the viewpoint of the history of ideas or from the viewpoint of current issues calling for a philosophical contribution.” He adds: “The course revolves about basic philosophical questions or the question of man. I’m rather free to choose the topics that are to be dealt with. So I chose various things: the Ancient Greeks’ vision of man; the question of fate and evil in the Ancient Near East; the human dignity endangered by abortion; etc.”
This was the first time Mercier covered abortion in this course. He says that his students “are very interested in critical thinking, and they understand pretty well that I’m asking them to think for themselves… I thought that they were definitely able to understand that we could raise a very fundamental question of philosophical anthropology about the dignity of every human being. Most of them understood perfectly that there was a need for critical thinking about that issue in particular, and that it is good to bring their attention to things that really do matter, so that they can measure the issue by themselves without being simply brainwashed by the mainstream slogans.”
Mercier’s essay was the only reading on abortion distributed to the students, though Mercier says he “provided a short bibliography if they wanted to investigate further arguments on the issue.” He adds, “I require them to think, and not necessarily to agree with me.”
Run through Google Translate, this says:
The authorities of UCL have just taken note of a writing by M. Mercier, lecturer invited to the Institute of Philosophy, about abortion. They immediately summoned the person concerned to hear him and to investigate the case. The person will be heard to clarify the status of this writing and the possible use that is made of it in the course of its teaching.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the right to abortion is inscribed in Belgian law and the note of which the UCL is aware is in contradiction with the values carried by the university. Conveying positions contrary to these values in the context of teaching is unacceptable.
Is it true that a policy of the university is that “conveying positions contrary to [the values carried by the university] in the context of teaching is unacceptable”?
If you know, please comment.
Apart from the brief university statements, my sources for this post have been Professor Mercier and websites that are quite vocally anti-abortion. It would be helpful to hear other informed perspectives on the situation.
UPDATE (March 31, 2017):
An informed party who prefers to remain nameless provides some context and details:
- Université Catholique de Louvain is a free, state-funded, non-sectarian university. It is not “Catholic” in the way that many Catholic universities and colleges are in, say, the United States or France. There has even been serious discussion of removing “Catholic” from the name of the university. More generally, the university appears to resist being associated with “conservative” positions.
- Mercier’s view about abortion is the minority view.
- The central issue is not whether an instructor should be allowed to teach specific views about abortion. Rather, it is about whether Mercier did so in an appropriate manner. For example: were opposing views presented with a modicum of charity, was the instructor trying to indoctrinate rather than educate, and did the content fit with the course description?
- Mercier himself has not been suspended; rather his classes have been. His classes were suspended, says my source, because there were concerns that they would be too rowdy for effective learning to take place, as well as concerns about journalists attending the class.
- As of now, the university has not reached a decision about what, if anything, to do to Mercier. There is currently a disciplinary committee charged with investigating whether the student complaints have any merit.