University Suspends Philosopher After Lesson On Abortion (updated)
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.”
A few sources cite an earlier statement from the university on the matter. It appears to have since been removed from the university’s website, but here is a screen shot of a cached version of it:
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.
I find the University’s response quite startling. In both statement they seem to say “this is the law, therefore you can’t teach anything against it.” The statement that support for the abortion law is a value of the university is also odd given that the University is a Catholic one.
But leaving aside the Catholic aspect, this seems like a rather great violation of academic freedom. I might have understood it if the university had just said “you did not get our approval to put this in syllabus” but their objection to it (from the statements) seems substantive rather than just proceduralReport
When I saw what university he teaches at, I thought this was going to be a case of the professor being pro-choice and the university suspending him for that. Boy was I surprised. Anyway, this is nuts. How can people be so thick? I’ve never understood why anyone would think that the correct view on abortion is obvious (I think they are kidding themselves if they think this), so obvious that dissenters must be put down. Again, this is nuts.Report
This is scary. Can’t teach both sides of a debate? How long before this occurs in North America?Report
Wait, so I can’t teach Hobbes because some of what he says about the state conflicts with some actual laws?
And since when does a Catholic school think that abortion is so right that anyone saying anything against it must be silenced?
I’m terribly confused by this, and it is really a shame.Report
People should note that on top of comparing abortion to murder, on top of stating that abortion is more evil than rape (seriously?), he is also accused by his students of homophobia. As translated from the article above : he refused to talk about “homosexuals couples” and kept referring to “homosexuals pairings”, compared homosexuality to incest or echangisme… (Readers of Dailynous, I hope you will not dare to say that those are valid philosophical arguments that we need to have in a classroom ! Damn it).
He also quoted in his classes Tony Anatrella, a French catholics priest, accused of rape, who then defended himself saying “you need teach sexual alterity to children.”
To a student, Mercier said : “nazism, marxism and fascism are homosexual ideologies: everything in their discourse, signs and actions prove it, as they always prefer what is similar to themselves.” (not sure about the translation because it makes no sense even in French). Are those really valid philosophical “opinions”???
This is NOT a case about academic freedom of speech. He was fired because his comments were sexist and homophobic. You can have a philosophical debate about abortion without stating that women who abort are EVIL or that abortion is worst than rape.
His position at UCL was only temporary by the way.Report
He might have made homophobic or transphobic comments but that is not why the University said they have suspended him. They explicitly said it was about his comments on abortion. So we are entitled to proceed on that basis.
The text of the lecture is here: http://media.aclj.org/pdf/Mercier,-la-philosophie-pour-la-vie.pdf
I’ve only skimmed but I don’t think he says at any point that women who abort are evil.
The claim that abortion is murder is a standard one in the literature on abortion
P1 Foetus has right to life
P2 Abortion kills the foetus
C Abortion is murder
I’m not quite sure what you envisage a philosophical argument against abortion which does not make that sort of claim to be? And even if there could be one it would be against academic freedom to prevent people from making “abortion is murder” types of arguments.
The context of his comparison to murder and rape is on page 8 of the lecture where he is considering the “personally against abortion but think it should be legal” response:
“Eh bien, si l’avortement est un meurtre, comme on l’a dit, n’est-il pas encore plus grave que le viol ? Le viol est immoral, et heureusement il est aussi illégal. L’avortement, qui est encore plus immoral, ne devrait-il pas, à plus forte raison encore, être illégal lui aussi ?”
(Translation: “If abortion is murder, as we have said/argued [he is referencing the argument he has made above], then it is worse than rape. Rape is immoral and fortunately also illegal. Abortion, which is worse than rape, a fortiori should also be illegal”)Report
“To a student, Mercier said”: to be precise, according to the students, Mercier approvingly quoted Anatrella here. The quote translates as “nazism etc. are homosexual [because] they prefer what is similar”, not “what is similar to them”. The (silly and offensive) idea is that: they like uniformity, they dislike alterity, so they are homosexual ideologies.Report
Are you kidding me? What’s so beyond the pale about saying that abortion is worse than rape? That’s basically what the pro-life position entails. After all, if pro-lifers are right that abortion is murder, then it’s not at all outrageous to say that it’s worse than rape. Because, you know, it would be taking the life of an innocent human being.
If you disagree, then give an argument against the pro-life position instead of declaring as “hate speech” (whatever that means…) a position that’s defended by very respected philosophers and embraced by large numbers of the general public. The same goes with homosexuality.
Sorry to burst your american (I’m assuming) bubble) but literally nobody (except for a few religious radicals in Ireland and elsewhere; but why does a university would want to teach about radical religious views?) hold views like that in Europe. There are no pro-lifers that are worth mentionning. Even the far-right advocates will not dare to compare abortion to rape or murder. It’s highly offensive in the European cultural context to do so (and I’m amazed to learn that they are apparentlty valid “arguments” in your own context). Freedom of speech does not justifiy teaching about a serious topic in such an offensive way. Can you imagine: it’s well possible that one of the student was 1/ a victim of rape, 2/ had an abortion; she had to listen to a teacher making her a worst culprit than her rapist. Nice. So much pedagogy. Impressive.
There are many philosophical arguments that would crush those statements about abortion (I find the idea that the death of foetus is “worst” than a rape particularly ridiculous. But then again I’m a partisan of utilitarianism). Funny, that teach didn’t mention those arguments… I wonder why…. In fact I don’t, he was merely trying to push his religious agenda on his students, that’s why.Report
You clearly have little awareness of the philosophical literature on abortion.
As for the religious claim, the arguments made by the Catholic Church do not rely on religious premises. See http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19741118_declaration-abortion_en.html – in particular footnote 19 which says that the question of ensoulment is irrelevant
I agree with you that in terms of pedagogy the lecture was inadequate as it failed to appropriately deal with the counter arguments in their most sophisticated form.
But as for your claim that there are obvious which crush the pro life position: lolReport
Almost every practical/applied ethics anthology of which I’m aware includes Don Marquis’ article in which he argues against abortion on grounds that at least strongly imply that it is (often, typically) worse than rape. It may not be the majority view, but it’s hard to argue that it’s too far from the mainstream to be worth teaching when it’s right there in the damned textbook.Report
Here are a few links:
* a report from Le Soir (newspaper) and RTL (TV channel), both mainstream media : http://www.lesoir.be/1468096/article/actualite/belgique/2017-03-24/polemique-anti-avortement-l-ucl-suspend-cours-stephane-mercier . It only says that the text shocked many people. It doesn’t say what exactly are the grounds of investigation. In the TV report, Tanya van Hemelryck, the gender advisor to the rector, says “the university authorities want to know the status of this text and how it has been used in teaching.”
* An older report from Le Soir: http://www.lesoir.be/1465649/article/selection-abonnes/2017-03-21/un-ultra-embarrasse-l-unif-catholique . Under a pay wall, I can’t read it. According to an opinion piece (in a mainstream weekly Le Vif: http://www.levif.be/actualite/belgique/et-si-on-supprimait-la-liberte-d-expression/article-opinion-634437.html ) this article reports that the teaching vice-rector claims that Mercier’s text “goes against our laws”. This is ambiguous between the text being illegal and the text criticizing the laws. The opinion piece suggests the second reading.
* the catholic authorities (bishop conference) in Belgium declare their confidence in the University’s disciplinary proceedings. http://www.cathobel.be/2017/03/28/declaration-eveques-francophones-suite-a-suspension-cours-de-m-stephane-mercier-charge-de-cours-invite-a-lucl/
A side note. Mercier’s text attacks the idea that there is a right to abortion. The bishop conference release stresses that there is no right to abortion in Belgium, but rather that it is authorized in certain circumstances and otherwise a crime. It’s not clear whether they do that to distance themselves from the text (implying that it attacks a straw man) or to defend it against an accusation of ‘going against the law’. The opinion piece in Le Vif in defence of expression says the same (“abortion is not a right, it is simply non-penalized”), here explicitly to reject the claim that Mercier’s text argues against the Law. On the other hand Tanya van Hemelryck says “in any case the UCL defends the right to abortion and the right of women to choose” – implying that there is such a right in Belgium. She does not say or imply that attacking a law would be a grounds for censure.Report
Your headline is very misleading. Mercier’s ‘lesson’ was a misogynistic essay vilifying women who exercise their right to make informed choices and practice reproductive autonomy. He calls these women murderers and says that abortion is worse than rape. Calling this ‘a lesson on abortion’ is like calling a racist screed ‘a lesson on racism.’
Maybe instead of firing Mercier, the department should have given him the option of teaching a second lesson, in which he argues that men who masturbate are evil – in fact, more evil than rapists! – and should be regarded as the murderers they are. That seems fair and rational.Report
Depending on the status of a fetus, “practic[ing] reproductive autonomy” may in this context mean “murdering a person”. I say that not to dismiss pro-choice arguments (many of which I think are quite moving), but to clarify that your language is specifically and even ostentatiously not neutral, no more than the use of the word “murder” is neutral. In philosophical contexts, we ought to try to keep our language neutral, since doing otherwise is a surreptitious form of begging the question.Report
Michelle is one of those people who like to pretend that the moral status of abortion is obvious. She is kidding herself. Moreover, her rhetoric stalls the very serious debate: she merely assumes that abortion is not wrong, for if it were, then – contrary to what she says – women (and anyone who can get pregnant – I assume the future will include men who give birth, but maybe I’m wrong here) do not have the right to have an abortion (or, it is at least morally wrong – perhaps they would have the legal right). It would be best if all sides stopped pretending that there is an easy answer to this issue. (This is coming from someone who is agnostic on this issue; I am not pro-life.) Don’t be like Michelle. (It goes without saying that her masturbation analogy is bad, so I won’t explain that here.)Report
Not only is that text-book question begging (that abortion is not a type of murder is precisely what is at issue), you also seem to be ignoring the fact that while I’m sure the de facto reason he’s being suspended is that he’s advancing socially conservative/ orthodox Roman Catholic views the de jure rational is that he advanced a position in class to students that is opposed to the position of Belgian law and university policy. Is “university professors should not advocate in class for positions contrary to that of nations current laws” really a precedent you do not find troubling for academic freedom? I mean good grief….Report
It is not clear at this stage that the accusation against Mercier (under “investigation”) is that the anti-abortion position is contrary to the laws. The rector advisor on gender issues merely says that the UCL is investigating “what was the text’s status and how it was used”.Report
For anglophone speakers: Mercier’s text follows closely a lecture by Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft (http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/19_prolife-philosophy/prolife-philosophy_transcription.htm), minus the “logic” part, and adding some rhetorical flourish. There is a significant addition though, the last section that addresses objections voiced by an imaginary woman (“It is my body”; “It is a burden for me”, “I do not desire it”) and the case of rape pregnancy, which is poorly argued and very callous.
I wouldn’t say there’s no philosophical argument. It is extremely one-sided and uncritical though. Instead of laying out an argument and stepping back to discuss whether its premises should be endorsed, it emphatically defends it. Objections are considered but only in straw or weak versions. Citations and further readings are only of anti-abortion literature.
An instance that struck me is, in the part that goes further from Kreeft’s lecture, where Mercier addresses the objection “It is a burden for me, I do not desire it, it is my body”. The reply goes thus:
“First of all, it’s not your body, but somebody in your body, who has a privileged link with your body, but which is distinguished for it. Nuance! When my sister-in-law was pregnant, I did not ask her: “How is your body?” but “How is the child that you bear?”. This little body in your body is not your body; by the way, its genetic capital is not yours: it comes from yours but it has its own and unique identity, which is not yours. It is not your body. It is within it.
Right. Last objection: “But I do not desire it”. …”
I don’t think the “It’s my body” claim is best understood as saying that an embryo is (part of) your body. But be that as it may, that’s all that’s said about the “burden” objection. Not a word about J Jarvis Thomson’s famous violonist thought experiment. I can understand that the university is concerned about how the text was “used”. Without a look at the best arguments on the other side that does little to help students to think critically.
Whether that’s a warrant for “disciplinary” action is another matter. One thing would be to take the text as a basis for discussion in class, taking the appropriate distance and being sensitive. Another would be to defend it and use your authority and argumentative skills to crush students’ objections.Report
There may be grounds to discipline Mercier, I have no way to know that. Based on what Julien is saying above, it certainly seems that he did not teach the question of whether abortion is permissible well, by trying to present the best arguments in favor of the view he opposes. (But note that, even if that were the case, he would hardly be the only one and I doubt that many of his critics would be similarly outraged if he were pro-choice.) Even if he misbehaved, it doesn’t mean that he should be disciplined, which is yet another question. (For instance, one may think that even if Mercier’s lecture was not up to UCL’s standards, disciplining him would undermine the norm of academic freedom.)
But in any case, I find the claim I just quoted totally unconvincing, because it’s usually what people say when they want to silence unpopular opinions. It’s not what he said, of course, it’s how he said it. Whenever I read that kind of protest, I’m always reminded of this passage of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill:
I can’t say that the university’s initial statement, which it later removed from its website, does much to assuage my doubts.
Whatever may be the case about the motivations of UCL, those of Michelle C and Angry French Philosopher could hardly be clearer and, if you ask me, they are nothing to be proud of. I’m also a French philosopher, and this also makes me angry, but not for the same reasons as Angry French Philosopher. (Mine, for one thing, are good reasons.)Report
Wow, J.S. Mill’s writing never ceases to impress. Nice quote! (Not to detract from serious discussion.)Report
If failing to teach both sides of an argument charitably calls for suspension of a professor or their classes, then there are lots and lots of professors at every school that are long overdue for a suspension.Report
lol. As always, the cool kids of philosophy will champion on the grounds of openness and critical thinking the teaching of JJT’s “A Defense of Abortion” (actually a defense of infanticide, as I’m sure you all know), but balk at assigning students any anti-abortion texts. Again, DN puts the lie to its earlier post about its opposition to free speech being “devil’s advocacy”.Report
Judging by various philosophy anthologies, anti-abortion stances aren’t that taboo. Both the Feinberg/Shafer-Landau and Pojman/Vaugh intro anthologies contain an anti-abortion article by Don Marquis, and Blackwell’s “Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics” contains an anti-abortion piece (paired with it’s opposite, as is the series format). Maybe these aren’t ever assigned in class, but it doesn’t seem like holding the view itself is that taboo. I was lukewarm on the issue in grad school and was not ostracized by any stretch, nor were other students with more staunch anti-abortion views. Maybe things have changed in the last 10 years, though.Report
How is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” really a defense of infanticide? Thomson is explicit that her view does not justify ensuring the death of one’s child, once that child is no longer using one’s body (p. 66). (Also, I assign my students both Thomson’s article and an anti-abortion text, for what it’s worth.)Report
I know of a few philosophers who assign the Thomson reading, but refuse to assign the Marquis reading (or anything else opposed to abortion) because they “don’t want their students exposed to that crap.”Report
I find this very strange.
In university we’re taught all sorts of ideas that go against what the status quo, and that’s the point, to instigate questioning and critical thinking.
If you don’t know the arguments against your convictions then they’re dogmas.
I mean they teach Marxism in university without then presenting arguments against it. Why, as soon as it’s a populist issue, is it taboo to criticize the way things are?Report
For those who say that it should have been a charitable defense of pro-choice positions, I wonder if they are willing to hold similar views to those courses who teach pro-choice perspectives without even considering seriously pro-life arguments, and rely on petitiones principii (“obviously a cloth of cells is not a human person with rights”).
This could be extended to many other hot topics in ethics, politics or almost anything: should philosophy professors just neutrally present philosophical debates to the class/audience? Or are they allowed (required?) to take a position and champion it, even though it may conflict the law or university’s views? I humbly believe it is all in the methods: if a solid pro-life position is well argued, discussing counter-arguments and generating, oh paradox, critical thinking, please feel welcome!
In a pragmatical point, I think Mercier’s big mistake was to do that in a totally unrelated class. It is hard to argue that hold a discussion on abortion as justified n a context of economics and applied sciences.Report
“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.”
As far as I know, the degrees issued by the UCL faculties of theology and philosophy are recognized by the Holy See (through the Congregation for the Catholic Education). In this respect, the UCL is “Catholic” in the same way in which, say, the Catholic University of America or the Institut Catholique de Paris are Catholic universities.
I wonder whether Mercier has contacted the Roman Congregation of Catholic Education. They would almost certainly have to strip the “Catholic” from UCL and to stop recognizing their degrees.Report