Ethics, Politics and Protests: Using Contentious Issues in Reproductive Sciences as Educational Opportunities


Author’s address (for correspondence): James W. Knight, Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA. E-mail:


Contentious issues and polarized viewpoints can be utilized in the classroom and beyond to create a reflective dialogue among students and citizens. This dialogue leads to both a greater understanding, as well as an enhanced appreciation of alternative viewpoints. Exploring and discussing the scientific, ethical, moral, political, legal and societal aspects of contentious issues of human reproduction provides ideal subject matter for developing critical thinking skills in the field of reproductive science.

The Problem: Poor Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

Perhaps the most provocative book on higher education published in recent years is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia (2011). Arum and Roska (2011) tracked the academic gains (or lack thereof) of 2300 students enrolled in a broad range of 29 four-year colleges and universities over a 4-year interval. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other ‘higher-order’ thinking skills and writing skills that should accrue from higher education. Key findings included (i) ‘gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills were exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students’, (ii) 45% of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ during their first 2 years of college, (iii) 36% of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over 4 years of college and (iv) students who did show improvements tended to show only very modest improvements (on average, 0.18 standard deviations over the first 2 years and 0.47 over 4 years). Arum and Roska (2011) cite empirical data that point to lack of academic rigour as a major culprit in the failure of students to develop the higher-order thinking skills that should be central to the learning objectives of all university curricula. Furthermore, Arum and Roska (2011) reported that students in their survey demonstrated poor civic awareness skills with only 36% of students reporting reading print or online news daily, 34% weekly, and 30% reporting that they read news reports only monthly or never. Of students in their survey, only 15% indicated that they discussed politics/public affairs daily, 46% weekly and 49% monthly or never. One could conclude that colleges and universities are failing society when our graduates are not returning to society with the skills and civic interests that are needed to positively impact society.

A Possible Solution: Teaching Using Contentious Issues summarized research regarding the benefits of teaching contentious (controversial) issues (, last updated 7/18/2011, accessed 1/3/2012). They reported that 93% of faculty in higher education believes that critical thinking is an essential learning outcome (Quitadamo and Kurts 2007). A survey of over 11 000 college graduates conducted by Cooperative Institutional Research (1995) ranked ‘the ability to think critically’ as the second most important life skill (interpersonal skills ranked first). Discussing controversial issues in school helps students become more informed and active citizens who are more likely to vote, support democratic values, take part in political discussions, follow politics in the news, be interested in the political process and have confidence in their ability to influence public policy, demonstrate better overall involvement as citizens, do charitable work and directly participate in community activities (Andolina et al. 2003; Barton and McCully 2007).

With the application of research-spawned technology (such as assisted reproductive technologies, cryopreservation of sperm, ova, and embryos, gender selection of spermatozoa, controversial forms of contraception, genetic testing of embryos, etc.), reproductive science has become more and more politically charged and many reproductive technologies receive near daily attention by the media. Bringing these issues into the classroom and discussing the juxtaposition of the scientific, ethical, political and various societal aspects of these contentious issues in the reproductive sciences provides ideal subject matter for developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Defining Critical Thinking

Within the context of this discussion, the term ‘critical thinking’ adheres to the definition and objectives of critical thinking as defined and described by Dr. Richard Paul and colleagues of The Foundation for Critical Thinking (Santa Rosa, CA, USA) in numerous publications including Paul (1993), Paul and Willsen (1993) and Paul and Elder (2009).

In simple terms, critical thinking is self-reflective thinking in which the thinker takes charge of his or her thinking and applies intellectual standards (the elements of reasoning) to the thought process with the objectives of assessing the quality of the thinking and then improving it. ‘Self’ is the key element of critical thinking because it must be self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective as well as being self-reflective (Paul and Willsen 1993). In brief, critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you are thinking for the purpose of assessing and improving your thinking.

As contentious issues are discussed, it is essential that students move from their more typical expectation of being told what to know to a model that requires each student to cultivate his or her own higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills to develop and communicate well-reasoned positions on the issues. Effective teachers can assist students in their intellectual development by explicitly centring classroom discussions on the logic of reasoning and by assisting students in understanding the logic of content and in the development of their ability to reflect on their own thinking. One specific element of reasoning that is continuously emphasized is viewpoint. Students are forced to look for any defects in their point of view that may be based upon biases, prejudices, inconsistencies, misinformation, faulty assumptions, etc. and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of alternative viewpoints.

Value of Teaching by Utilizing Contentious Issues

Contentious (controversial) issues in the reproductive sciences are perfect teaching material because they include complex, physiologic mechanisms. The content presents multi-faceted blends of science, ethics, politics, religion and personal beliefs and opinions. If a key learning objective is enhancing the critical thinking skills of students, contentious issues for which there are multiple viewpoints and no easy answers are the perfect fodder for encouraging students to engage in higher-order thinking. Even before the issues are discussed, most students already hold opinions about topics such as the use of various birth control products, abortion, sex education, assisted reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, stem cell research, basis of sexual orientation, etc. Hence, their opinions (although often biased, prejudicial, inaccurate, naïve and simplistic) on these topics are the perfect starting point for teaching students the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion based upon the elements of reasoning.

Through in-depth discussions, students learn the difference between opinions based solely on their preference or based on second-hand information received from other people and informed opinions that are supported by controlled research data and derived through reasoned judgment. Through the discussion of contentious issues, students also learn to be constrained by the logic of the type of question posed. They learn to be precise in their language and their phrasing of questions. They learn that most contentious issues have multiple logics that must be explored (e.g. scientific, medical, moral, ethical, political, legal and religious) and that their responses should be constrained by the logic of the question. For example, if the question posed is biological, the reasoning and the response must be based on biology. If the question is a question of ethics, then reasoning based upon moral principles and systems should be applied. Students also learn to distinguish between personal positions (e.g. ‘would you choose to have an abortion or want your partner to have an abortion?’) and societal ones (e.g. ‘should women have the choice of having an abortion?’).

I utilize contemporary contentious issues in all courses that I teach. The course in which I most extensively utilize contentious issues as educational opportunities is an Honors Colloquium (UH 3004, Controversial Issues in Science and Society) which I developed and first taught in 1981. The following sections provide details of my pedagogical approach in this colloquium.

Honors Colloquium: Controversial Issues in Science and Society

Honors colloquia represent the purest, most intense and most enjoyable teaching and learning experience imaginable. The listed student enrolment capacity is 15. I typically ‘force-add’ up to three additional students. Honors colloquia are the perfect blend of student heterogeneity and homogeneity.

Student heterogeneity

My colloquium typically includes students from 10 to 12 different majors. Because the contentious issues that we cover are multi-dimensional, this diversity of student backgrounds and interests allows me to blend the expertise of, for example, students majoring in biology, biochemistry, animal science, political science, philosophy, history, women’s studies, religion, business, psychology, chemical engineering and journalism. Because the students are from diverse majors, they rarely know very many if any of their classmates at the beginning of the class. This allows new relationships and unique class dynamics to develop over the duration of the semester. In addition to the diversity relative to major, academic background and career goals, invariably, there is also diversity based upon gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

Student homogeneity

Relative to homogeneity, there are, of course, the homogenous traits that are inherent in the fact that these are Honors students. To be eligible to enrol in an Honors Colloquium, a student must have maintained a cumulative grade point average of 3.6/4.0 or higher. With extremely few exceptions over the 30 years that I have taught an Honors Colloquium, all students are highly intelligent, highly motivated, desirous of learning, appreciative of being intellectually challenged and relish the opportunity to discuss contentious issues with intellectual peers.

The two sections that follow are excerpted from my course syllabus. They are presented verbatim from my syllabus to convey to the reader the key concept and pedagogical approach to teaching the course based upon questioning and Socratic discussion utilizing contentious issues.

Key Concept of the Course

This colloquium is designed to help you think critically about various controversial issues in science and society. Everything that we will do both in and out of class will in some way relate to improving your understanding of the scientific basis of the issues and will assist you in formulating reasoned judgments and positions on these topics. The colloquium will attempt to draw upon the diverse academic background of the students in the class to examine issues from various points of view.

All issues covered in this colloquium will be familiar to you. If you pay attention to daily newspapers (print and online) and broadcast news, you will find that one or more of the topics discussed will be ‘in the news’ virtually every day. However, most of you will probably discover two things 1) that your knowledge of many of these issues was (prior to coverage of the issue) relatively superficial and 2) that your position on the ethical, moral and legal implications of some issues may not be a well-reasoned position supported by evidence.

The General Plan

Colloquium is a Latin word meaning conversation. Obviously, a didactic lecture would be counter to the very concept of a colloquium. Indeed, most of our time in class will be devoted to conversation: conversation between instructor (learning facilitator, ringmaster) and students and among students. However, by ‘conversation’, we do not mean ‘mindless chatter’. Rather, this conversation at all times and at all levels will be structured around the elements and standards of critical thinking. This colloquium will emphasize your ‘figuring things out’ using your own mind, not rote memorization of unassociated facts. While you will indeed learn many ‘facts’ relevant to the various topics, the emphasis will be on applying these facts (information) in the process of reasoning; not on memorizing them for a test. You will be challenged to develop and practice disciplined thinking at all times. Because our in-class time is very limited, we will also utilize an electronic discussion forum to augment our discussion and interaction on the issues.

Logistics, readings, electronic discussion

The colloquium meets once a week for 2 h. At times, with unanimous consent of the students, we have scheduled additional evening meetings. In earlier years, a large packet of reading material (typically approximately 150 pages) was distributed each week on the topic that was to be covered the following week. With the advent of course management systems, in the past few years I have moved to posting reading packets and/or links to online articles (currently using Scholar, previously used Blackboard). Because we deal with issues that are constantly evolving and to deal with ‘cutting edge’ material, I generate a ‘current information’ PDF file on relevant issues based upon materials that I collect from a variety of sources that have been published within the previous calendar year. A second posted PDF file is material published within the 2 years previous to the current year. A third posted PDF file covers key historical articles and information. For some topics, I will also post a book chapter or ‘white paper’ that deals specifically with ethical issues attendant to the topic. Instructions to the students regarding the reading material (as stated in the syllabus) include the following: ‘It will also be your choice regarding how ‘deeply’ you wish to read the articles. You are also encouraged to seek out additional information on the subject beyond that which you are given. The articles provided will merely ‘skim the surface’ in regard to the information available on each topic. Each of you enters this colloquium with different academic backgrounds. Therefore, it may sometimes be helpful to ‘Google’ or consult library sources for additional information beyond that provided to you. You are also encouraged to apply your critical thinking skills in evaluating the validity of internet resources. Some of you may find some of the material elementary if you have extensive experience in the topic area. This too is an aspect of taking charge of your own learning. Read for the purpose of understanding the issue, not for the purpose of mastering all minor details of the issue’.

In addition to the readings, I compose and post an original essay (typically 5–8 pages) on the Scholar site that summarizes key points of the issue, highlights some aspects of how the issue has changed and evolved over time, focuses attention on some of the key aspects of alternative viewpoints, perhaps points out a few key articles to read and think about and then poses numerous questions and specific aspects of the issues for students to think about and respond to in the online forum. I try to scrupulously avoid directly presenting my personal opinions and views on the controversial issues at question. Over the next week, I then read and monitor the discussion but generally do not directly respond to the electronic discussion unless a student specifically requests clarification on a factual point or if the discussion gets too one-sided or if some key questions that I raised in my essay are being totally ignored in the online discussion. As the discussion progresses, many students will post links to additional articles and resources to support their arguments and positions. Then, almost without fail, thanks to the electronic discussion, students come to class ‘bursting at the seams’ with points of rebuttal that they wish to raise in response to discussion points of classmates, questions that they want to ask and specific viewpoints that they are eager to add to the discussion. My experience has been that many students who tend to be reticent to verbally discuss issues face-to-face in the classroom are often the most active participants in the online discussions.

Classroom discussion

Classroom discussion works best when students are talking to other students. I see my role as being akin to that of an orchestra conductor, with the students being the instruments in this orchestra of the mind. Simply calling the name of a student who has her/his hand up and allowing students to debate one another in a disciplined, intellectually responsible manner for an extended period of time makes the most satisfying classroom experience. My goals as a Socratic questioner are to (i) ask questions that keep the discussion focused on relevant points, (ii) move the discussion forward with new probing questions when the discussion begins to lag or becomes too one-sided, (iii) challenge those students who are presenting biased or unsubstantiated opinions and hence keep the discussion intellectually responsible, (iv) assure that all of the elements of reasoning have been considered in the formulation of one’s position, (v) assure that all students have their voices heard and no student dominates the discussion and (vi) draw all students into the conversation by specifically directing questions to any students who have not been voluntarily participating in the discussion.

For those students who are familiar with seeing partisan politicians on television and internet videos shouting vitriolic tirades at one another and passing that off as civic and public discourse, it is also a pleasant surprise to realize that intelligent individuals with alternative viewpoints can actually engage in a civil and mutually respectful intellectual exchange of ideas. Modelling valuable intellectual traits of a critical thinker such as intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual empathy, faith in reasoning and fair-mindedness is an unspoken course objective that is achieved during these classroom discussions.

Expectations, requirements

During the semester, students have to submit three ‘advocacy editorials/essays’ (approximately four pages) on specific topics of their choice based on the subject matter (general topics) discussed in the colloquium. The draft submitted by the students for the first two sets of editorials is evaluated, but no grade is assigned. I make comments on the arguments presented, offer suggestions for improvement, point out flaws in their reasoning if any exist, perhaps suggest sources to consult, make some general representative editorial and grammatical corrections without ‘fixing’ every error, perhaps provide some ‘devil’s advocate’ points of argument to counter their position and return the paper (electronically) with a page or more of comments, analysis and suggestions. Students have the option of revising their paper based on my comments (virtually all do so) and resubmitting these two editorials plus a third one that has not been previously reviewed for grading near the end of the semester.

Students are also required to make an oral presentation on a pre-approved topic of their choice. Their presentation may be on a topic not previously covered but that fits under the general umbrella of a ‘controversial issue in science and society’ or one that delves more deeply into a related sub-topic of one of the larger topic areas already discussed. In the spirit of encouraging individualism and creativity, I make few rules as to how these presentations must be done and encourage the students to be creative. These presentations have included everything from traditional PowerPoint presentations to Socratic discussions, to improvised skits, to original videos, to conducting and reporting on original research projects and to students debating issues for which they held strong polar viewpoints. One common requirement is that the week preceding the presentation, the students presenting the following week must post a 1–2-page abstract on the topic that (in most cases) will include key references and questions to consider and respond to online.

Students are also required to develop an annotated folder/journal/scrapbook of articles that appear in various media on the topics covered in the class during the duration of the semester. The purpose of this assignment is to emphasize the relevance of the course material to everyday life and to validate the statement made on the first day of class and contained in the syllabus that these topics are ‘in the news’ on an almost daily basis and that their status is constantly evolving. To again quote from the syllabus, a portion of the information presented on this assignment ‘These articles or reports may include any source ranging from “pseudo-news” in popular press magazines to highly reputable scientific journals. The articles should be divided by topic and a summary that may include aspects of how you view the current body of information on the topics, what your views are regarding the overall topic and/or the individual article, how “new” information may relate to “old” information on the topic, how the information is perceived/misperceived by the general public, how your views may be changed now vs before examining the topic in greater detail, etc.…again, no set format…just use your imagination and provide your “take” on the articles and the topics’.

A final requirement is a final reflective self-evaluation. A portion of this assignment includes having the student ‘make a case’ for receiving a particular final letter grade based upon his/her learning. I have found that having students engage in self-assessment at the conclusion of the semester facilitates both a realization on the part of the students as to precisely how much they learned in regard to the subject matter, but also provides evidence to them as to how much their skills in critical thinking, oral and written communication and preparation for life-long learning have developed. At the conclusion of each semester and within the context of each course taught, I make it a habit to also engage in self-reflection. As an aside, as one considers the evaluation system within higher education, I have always considered self-evaluation to be the crucial missing element. We evaluate students (grades), students evaluate us as teachers (course teaching evaluations), but it is rare that we complete that circle with self-evaluations.

Sample topics

While there are recurring themes that underlie the key questions at issue regarding the various contentious issues, each semester there are new issues that are ‘in the news’. I make these very contemporary aspects of the larger contentious issues a major focus of the discussion. The inextricable connection between these contentious issues and politics and the fact that political views and political power in the United States is constantly shifting both keep these issues fresh and afford a wonderful educational opportunity for students to understand the relationship of politics with public policy, laws, restrictions and protests. While there is not a 100% parallel between the positions of the major political parties in the US, and party viewpoints on the contentious issues covered in this colloquium, nor is there a perfect correlation between the positions of those who would identify themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal in their political ideology, the fact that there tends to be a shift in relative political power and influence every election cycle also means that policies, laws and restrictions relative to these contentious issues are constantly changing.

Consider the changes relative to several of these contentious issues that have occurred over the past 3 years with the transition from the George W. Bush administration to the Obama administration. For example, on the topic of birth control, the Bush administration emphasized ‘abstinence only’ sex education in US public schools and also made abstinence only sex education a condition for funding international family planning programs. Late in the Bush administration, there was a push to define birth control pills as being potential agents of ‘contra-abortion’ and restricting insurance coverage of federal workers from covering their cost. In contrast, the Obama administration eliminated the ‘abstinence only’ sex education policy and a component of the Health Care bill passed under the Obama administration requires insurance companies to provide coverage of birth control products free of charge (no co-pay). Similar significant policy reversals from the Bush to the Obama administration have occurred relative to policies, restrictions and rights in regard to abortion, aspects of assisted reproductive technologies and perhaps even more prominently, stem cell research and sexual orientation.

No other contentious issue in the United States is equal to abortion as a political issue. One could cite literally hundreds of election results that have been influenced by the match between the positions of the candidates and the predominant viewpoint of the electorate on this single issue. Restrictions that have been placed on abortion rights in numerous states of the US are clearly correlated with the political views of the parties in power at the time that the restrictions were instituted. The issue of abortion is perhaps the best issue to use to get students to see the importance of one of the essential elements of reasoning: consequences and implications. Students are asked, for example, if Roe vs Wade was reversed and abortion made illegal, what would be the societal consequences? Would the abortion rate significantly decrease? Would there be a reduction in sexual activity? Would there be a greater use of contraceptives? Would women who have an illegal abortion be prosecuted for murder and put in prison? What would happen to the ‘unwanted babies’ that may have previously been aborted? If ‘society’ says that a woman cannot have an abortion, does ‘society’ then have an obligation to support the individual born? Would reversing Roe vs Wade further exacerbate the economic disparity in the US? Have current state restrictions on abortion services already contributed to this economic disparity?

The proposed ‘personhood’ state constitutional amendment (Proposition 26) on the ballot in Mississippi in November, 2011, is an example of a recent contentious issue that provided an excellent educational opportunity to tie together multiple topics included in this colloquium. Proposition 26 would have defined life as beginning at fertilization and hence would have banned in Mississippi some forms of birth control, as well restricting or banning several aspects of assisted reproductive technologies, would have banned abortion, would have interfered with the rights of pregnant women to exercising health care options that may harm or kill their embryo or foetus and theoretically could have led to the prosecution of women who engaged in actions that may have caused a spontaneous miscarriage. (Proposition 26 was defeated by a 58–42% vote.)

Overarching questions

I also emphasize overriding questions that run through all issues. A central overriding fact is that scientists have developed the technological ability to solve many reproductive problems long before we considered all of the ethical, moral, political and legal ramifications. So, one overriding theme for several discussions is to consider the basic question of ‘how much should we mess with Mother Nature?’ Another overriding question is to what extent do we want legislative action rather than medical science to determine what technologies are legal and available and which technologies should be restricted or illegal? Should there be legislative restrictions on one’s right to choose to utilize any of these technologies? Should sociological concerns (e.g. marriage, sexual orientation, definition of family) influence the availability of techniques and technology? For example, compared to married heterosexual couples, should gay men have an equal opportunity to employ a woman as a surrogate mother? Should a lesbian couple have equal access to artificial insemination?

Providing an Anchor for Students and Courses that are Academically Adrift

Of course, all university courses cannot focus on contentious issues in the various disciplines and cannot be modelled on the same pedagogical approach of critical thinking, questioning, Socratic discussion, intensive writing, student presentations and personal engagement with students as described herein. However, this method of teaching is one that counters all of the negative findings in Academically Adrift. If the goal of academia truly is to produce graduates who are critical thinkers with the intellectual skills required to solve complex problems, who can communicate effectively with others and who have a strong civic interest, then it simply stands to reason that only courses designed to have students develop these skills and traits will be effective in accomplishing this goal. ‘Deep thinking’ does not develop from ‘shallow teaching’.

I further suggest that if university administrators were truly serious about enhancing the intellectual growth of our students, there would be more resources and greater efforts of recognizing and rewarding those individuals and those courses that emphasize higher-order thinking skills rather than rote memorization. Unfortunately, trends (e.g. decreasing teaching budgets, increasing class sizes, higher teaching loads, more contingent faculty, decreased academic rigour, decreased writing and increased emphasis on satisfying students as ‘customers’) do not bode well for a large-scale reversal of the picture painted by Arum and Roska (2011).

Instructors who are comfortable with discussing contentious issues and who have the commitment, passion and energy required for individualized teaching can pattern after this course to help students:

  • 1 develop and hone critical and creative thinking skills
  • 2 develop written and oral communication skills
  • 3 understand key concepts and subject matter content
  • 4 take charge of their own thinking and learning
  • 5 attain a deeper and more reflective understanding and
  • 6 recognize and appreciate the complexity of important societal issues.


Contentious issues at the juxtaposition of science, ethics, politics and societal values provide outstanding educational opportunities to assist students in developing the thinking, analytical and communication skills that are essential for success in today’s world. Recognizing and appreciating the complexity of contentious issues, understanding how various issues are interrelated, developing the capacity for independent thinking, being willing to question classical dogma, demanding proof, not accepting superficial answers and developing a willingness to develop and express an informed opinion are traits and skills that I attempt to stimulate in all of my students. Students who develop these traits will be successful in my classes. Far more importantly, however, they will be successful in life.


The author would like to thank Drs. P.L. Senger and Angela Oki of Current Conceptions, Inc., Redmond, OR, USA for reviewing earlier drafts of this manuscript and providing editorial suggestions.

Conflicts of interest

The author has no conflicts of interest to declare.