A visiting lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium has been sacked after he described abortion as ‘the murder of an innocent person’. Stéphane Mercier, who was lecturing to a first-year philosophy class, also argued that abortion could be ‘worse than rape’. Mercier’s comments attracted the outrage of a campus feminist group, which complained that he was presenting his personal views to the class.
The sacking of Mercier reflects the absurd, chilling nature of campus censorship. Mercier was teaching philosophy. Philosophy students are (or should be) taught that the key to understanding philosophical theory is the free exchange, and conflict, of ideas. It is through debating conflicting points of view – including the personal views of academics and students – that you come to learn more about an issue.
Like the feminist group, I think Mercier is wrong about abortion. But censoring him is no way to win a moral debate. In fact, these students have done themselves a disservice: they’ve lost their opportunity to make their arguments and pick apart those of Mercier and other pro-life advocates.
The university suspended all of Mercier’s courses, arguing that the ‘serenity required for teaching was not assured’ in his case. But it’s wrong to argue that people should self-censor in order to maintain tranquility, or avoid hurt feelings. Students should relish the opportunity to hear an academic making a passionate moral argument, regardless of the side they take.
In its statement on Mercier’s case, UCL clarified that abortion had been legal in Belgium since 1990, and that it respected the autonomy of women to make choices about pregnancy. This is all very well and good, but by punishing academics for expressing their pro-life views, UCL is damaging the pro-choice cause. Pro-choice students benefit from reading and listening to pro-life arguments – it allows us to understand and expose the flaws in the opposition’s case.