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Hot Seat Discusses Abortion, Childbirth

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Paola Tineo '11 speaks at the Hot Seat panel addressing fertility, abortion, adn childbirth.

Discussions of reproduction and women's rights tend to get quite lively on the campus of any women's college, and perhaps especially at Smith. A recent Hot Seat focusing on these issues was no exception, with students, faculty, alums and community members joining together to confront some difficult questions.

Hot Seat is a chapel-sponsored ethics panel that seeks to engage the Smith community in consideration of real-life ethical problems. Questions are taken from the audience, with a few prepared in advance to get the ball rolling. This panel's moderators, Dean Jennifer Walters and Patrick Connelly from the Office of Student Engagement, began the discussion by putting forth a scenario: Erica and Megan are in their mid-twenties, married, and cannot decide whether to have children now or wait until Megan finishes graduate school. In addition, they are torn as to whether they should seek a sperm donor or adopt. Professor Alice Hearst, of the Government department, offered the first response, saying, "it is important to talk to your partner and decide what you both want. Openness is paramount in this situation."

The next proposed scenario involved similar issues of responsibility and potential conflict between partners, this time between a man and a woman considering termination. Lily Samuels '11 contributed by saying that "even though there are no recognized paternal prenatal rights, I think that in a loving relationship you would take both partners needs and desires into account."

The panel continued apace, with the prepared scenarios gradually giving way to audience questions and comments. The other panelists were Paola Tineo '11, Riché Barnes, Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies, and Sarah Nichols, an alumna who has worked at Planned Parenthood and at a post-abortion clinic in Uganda. One student asked Nichols to discuss her experiences in Africa, and she launched into a wrenching narrative that highlighted some of the tension between religion and reproductive rights. In Uganda, a predominantly Catholic country, performing an abortion is illegal unless the woman has started it herself, in which case it can be completed. Because of this, many women injure themselves inducing miscarriages by unsafe means. "These women are really at risk of dying," said Nichols, "and you see a lot of them in that state wondering if God will ever be able to forgive them."

Although religion still plays a role, the concerns women express about reproductive issues in the United States are slightly different. Professor Hearst commented, "it's so important we discuss this because of our technology, whose possibilities have really outstripped the conversation." But no amount of discussion will make these easy questions to answer. Hearst summed it up by saying, "in the end, on my tombstone, I want written: 'It's Complicated'."