Duke's statement on North Carolina's new abortion restriction is inappropriate

guest column

Duke’s choice to make a statement against Senate Bill 20 by blasting out an email to all students was incredibly inappropriate and yet another example of how unwelcome anything besides left-leaning groupthink is on Duke’s campus. It serves as a case study on how narrow the University has made the Overton Window on campus. 

The May 17 email to students from Duke Student Affairs stated that Duke was concerned about the law banning elective abortion in North Carolina after 12 weeks. Second-trimester abortion, euphemistically called “reproductive health services” in the email, is said to be “evidence-based, essential healthcare.” The email leaves out that the law allows abortion without any gestational limitation to save the life of the mother. It also leaves out that the 12-week limit does not apply in cases of fetal anomaly or rape. 

Even if the email had not omitted crucial facts, it nevertheless should not have been sent. Abortion is a polarizing issue that deeply divides Americans. Both sides see themselves as fighting for human rights. Pro-choice people believe that they are fighting for women’s bodily autonomy, which is an important human right. Pro-life people believe that they are fighting for the fetus's right to life, which is also an important human right. Because these two human rights are often in conflict, people can, in good faith, come to different conclusions on the issue. There should be room to advocate for and discuss both beliefs at Duke.

North Carolina’s new 12-week abortion restriction, Senate Bill 20, is actually a compromise between the two sides and more closely aligns with public opinion than the previous 20-week standard. Indeed, according to polling, most Americans favor restrictions on abortion after the first trimester. In 2018, Gallup found that only 28% of Americans believed abortion should be legal after the first trimester. Similarly, in May 2022, a CBS News poll found that only 32% of Americans believed abortion should be legal after the first trimester. This makes it even more puzzling that Duke felt the need to send out an email supporting a position most Americans consider extreme.

North Carolina’s bill puts the state more on track with the rest of the world. 12-week gestational limits are standard across much of Europe. Beyond Europe, many other countries have even stricter regulations on abortion. In fact, the U.S. is an outlier in the world by allowing abortion for any reason at more than 15 weeks of pregnancy. It shares this distinction with only a handful of countries — including Canada, North Korea and China. Viewing abortion laws globally, American laws are quite extreme on this issue. As a university that views itself as a global leader, Duke should allow space for people to discuss viewpoints that are held around the world.

It is perfectly fine for members of the Duke community and administration to hold their own views on abortion, including supporting abortion on demand up until birth. However, by sending this email voicing opposition to North Carolina’s new law, Duke signals that many viewpoints are not welcome here. It also signals that the substantial minority (39%) of Americans who identify as pro-life do not have a place on this campus. Universities are supposed to foster communities that share and debate ideas. By taking an extreme position on this issue, Duke shuts down discussion and tells students and faculty who may disagree with the University that they are not welcome and that they must silence themselves if they wish to stay. This does not foster a healthy or safe learning environment.

Behind the scenes, Duke can support students who are upset about this bill or any other issue they may be upset about. However, Duke does not need to issue public statements that alienate other students. Students can turn to faculty members who they are close with to help them cope and identify resources. If you are pro-choice and looking for support at Duke, it is easy to find like-minded faculty members to turn to. But if you are one of the few students at Duke who hold an unpopular opinion on this issue or on many others, there is nowhere for you to turn. You are ostracized by your classmates and your professors. You stand alone on an island. Those of us with unpopular views at Duke already knew this, but this email twists the knife a bit deeper. 

I do not ask that Duke support my viewpoints. I just ask that it not take public positions on polarizing issues that serve to further isolate students with globally common opinions that are unpopular at Duke. As a student trying to call this University my home for a few years, I would appreciate not opening my email just to be reminded how unwelcome I am here.

Paige Brasington is a third-year J.D. candidate at Duke Law.


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