On Wednesday evening, a visiting fellow in the Wilson School and founder of the nonprofit organization “Women on Waves” Rebecca Gomperts gave a talk entitled “All You Need to Know about Abortion.” This event, sponsored by Wilson College, emphasized advocacy over ethics when detailing her attempts to decrease the danger of a do-it-yourself approach to abortion in countries where it is illegal. In these areas, many women resort to drastic measures, including ingesting bleach and inserting knitting needles into their uteri to terminate pregnancies they feel they cannot carry to term. A large portion of these women die. We agree that this is a grievous situation that no woman should ever face. So what should be done about it?
Gomperts’ solution: a ship outfitted with a mobile abortion clinic. Her vessel “sails through loopholes in international law,” to countries with anti-abortion laws to aid women in procuring abortions by bringing them under the protection of international waters. Even though “Women on Waves” urges women to circumvent the law if necessary, Gomperts claims that she does not wish to become “mired in the ethical debate over abortion.” Her aim is to enact change and to do so quickly, and she believes the moral debates surrounding her actions to be inconsequential.
But actions cannot be divorced from the ethics that underlie them, whether or not Gomperts chooses to recognize this. To create an illusion of this false separation is intellectually dishonest and, furthermore, demonstrates irresponsibility in her approach to public policy.
Her circumvention of the laws does not mean that she may also circumvent ethics. In rebelling against what she sees as an unjust law, Gomperts implicitly claims the moral high ground, despite her claim that her actions remain divorced from the moral questions surrounding the issue. This position demonstrates a lack of honesty about the moral stance and implications of her own actions. She views herself as a defender of justice but still claims that the situation is amoral.
This scenario demonstrates Gomperts’ belief that it is better to have “short, clear answers than the whole story”: to have “yes” or “no” in place of full explanations. However, in focusing on only one part of the whole issue, she makes it nearly impossible to form a real answer to the social problems at hand: one cannot diagnose a disease without making a full examination of the patient.
An approach such as hers does not frame the issue in terms of the reasons and principles that underlie the disagreement but rather in terms of the sentiments and experiences that surround it. Any dialogue like this cannot sustain rigorous academic inquiry. Without resolving the ethical tension that clouds the issue, no stable solution to social injustices can be found — and those in difficult situations will continue to suffer, despite actions such as those of Gomperts.
Furthermore, in refusing to engage in civil discourse on the ethical component, Gomperts undermines the rules of civil society. A method that ignores the moral element essential to this controversial subject compromises intellectual integrity in its refusal to address seriously the concerns and objections of those who seek a permanent solution to these ethical questions.
This attitude is contrary to the aims of a liberal arts institution such as Princeton University. If the University promotes such presentations, it should ensure that there is the opportunity for open and honest discussion. Issues such as these should not hide behind a facade of false civility. Rather, they should open forums for reasoned exchange and thoughtful dissent. Willful ignorance of the underlying conflict does not bring lasting resolution; Gomperts’ academic complacency is a Band-Aid solution to the deep wounds of social injustice she claims to heal.
In light of her flippant disregard for morality and the laws of sovereign states, we think Gomperts provides an irresponsible representation of “All You Need to Know about Abortion.”
Addie Darling is a comparative literature major from Virginia Beach, Va. and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Natalie Scholl is a classics major from Plymouth, Minn. and can be reached at email@example.com.