Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the publication date of the National Women’s History Museum report.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade has far-reaching implications for constitutional interpretation, individual rights, and health care—issues that are at the core of social studies and sex education classes.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not protect a right to abortion, will change the way that teachers of government and civics discuss legal precedent and the right to privacy, and how U.S. history teachers explain the effects of the women’s rights movement. And it may lead students to raise questions in health or sex education classes that teachers in some states are prohibited from answering.
“[The case] actually has a lot more of a ricochet through the teaching field than I think a lot of teachers might realize before they teach this topic,” said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center, which provides resources and lessons for teachers.
Teachers’ response to the Dobbs decision will play out against the backdrop of increased scrutiny on how schools are teaching about current events and social issues. Since January 2021, 17 states have imposed restrictions on how teachers can discuss race, sex, gender, or other issues deemed controversial.
“History teachers in particular are feeling a lot of pressure, and feel like there’s a magnifying glass on what they’re doing,” said Sheila Edwards, a middle school history teacher in Covina, Calif.
This summer, Edwards facilitated a civil dialogue course for teachers with the National Constitution Center, in which participants talked about how to approach Roe and Dobbs. “There were some teachers who were in tears saying, ‘I know what I should do, but I don’t know if I can do it,’” Edwards said.
Roe specifically, and abortion more generally, are largely absent from teaching standards—the documents that spell out what students should know and be able to do at each grade. Only 15 states mention Roe v. Wade in their social studies standards, according to a 2017 analysis from the National Women’s History Museum. Most states don’t reference abortion in sex education standards, though six states prohibit discussion of the topic.
Still, some teachers feel like they need to give students an opportunity to discuss the current and future implications of the Dobbs decision.
“Students are tired of the current state of political discourse in this country,” said Allison Cohen, an AP government teacher at Langley High School in McLean, Va. “They want this space where they can have these conversations that aren’t just people yelling talking points at each other.”
Read on for suggestions from teachers, teacher educators, and other experts about where Roe and Dobbs shows up in standards and curriculum—and how teachers might approach these conversations.
Government, law, and the Constitution
Roe was a central precedent in constitutional law, so the implications for government and politics teachers are broad, said Sautner.
In the minority of states that mention Roe in their standards, it’s often discussed in relation to the reach of the 14th Amendment and the expansion of civil liberties.
Now that Roe has been overturned, the takeaways for students will be different, Sautner said. And there are open questions of constitutional interpretation: For instance, how does the decision in Dobbs affect other cases that convey a right to privacy?
Teachers can also talk about the importance of state law, she said: “There is a lot of this undecided and gray area that is such a brilliant way to teach federalism. Where are the goal posts set by the decision? How are they a little vague and a little unclear, and how are states working around that?”
These are all topics that fit naturally into most high school government courses. But Edwards, the middle school history teacher, said she might discuss Dobbs this coming school year too if her students are curious about the decision. “We have to grab that interest where it lies. So if lies with Dobbs, I’m going to do it,” she said.
In thinking about how she might structure a lesson, Edwards is planning to have students read both the main decision and the dissent. That way, the conversation is less about students’ personal positions, and more focused on their analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments.
She hopes to convey that these debates are playing out in real time, and that it’s OK for students to feel like they don’t have all the answers. “Saying that you don’t know something is a really wise thing to do,” Edwards said.
For more on how the Dobbs decision is changing government and politics courses, including Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics, see this story.
History and other social studies courses
While most states reference Roe in relation to constitutional precedent, there are a few states—Massachusetts, New York, and Oklahoma—that situate Roe as part of the women’s rights movement.
For example, Massachusetts’ high school standards ask students to “analyze the causes and course of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s,” listing topics including Roe, but also the birth control pill, the National Organization of Women, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
And if Roe and abortion aren’t specifically mentioned in most state standards about the women’s movement, teachers can still weave the topics into discussion of that era, said Lauren Colley, an assistant professor of integrated social studies education at the University of Cincinnati.
Abortion history goes back even farther than that, though. States started passing anti-abortion laws in the early- and mid-1800s. By the late 19th century, the procedure was criminalized or restricted in every state, with exceptions for abortions performed by doctors to save a woman’s life, said Leslie Reagan, a history professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the author of the book When Abortion Was a Crime. Reagan spoke at a July 28th webinar hosted by the National Council for the Social Studies.
But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, abortion wasn’t considered illegal under common law if it was performed before the “quickening”—the first time that fetal movement could be felt, Reagan said. It was regularly practiced, and usually induced with herbal remedies, she said.
History teachers in particular are feeling a lot of pressure, and feel like there’s a magnifying glass on what they’re doing.
Teaching about abortion, Roe, and Dobbs is one way to talk about reproductive rights and reproductive justice—key themes in women’s history, Colley said. But it doesn’t have to be limited to Roe: There are opportunities to examine other topics through this lens, too. Throughout U.S. history, Colley said, people have fought to have control over their reproductive health and for the right to raise their children.
This thread of historical analysis can be woven through many commonly taught topics—for example, as way to discuss sexual violence during slavery. “Oftentimes teachers talk about the coerced physical labor, but we brush over the coerced reproductive labor,” Colley said.
Taking this approach, though, can be especially fraught right now. Educators say that the growing movement to restrict how they can discuss race, sex, and gender in the classroom has left them unsure what historical events they’re allowed to talk about.
Sex-related topics can feel among the most challenging. Some research has shown that among all taboo topics, teachers are most likely to avoid discussing sex and sexual identity in class, Colley said.
But classroom conversations about abortion don’t have to be debates over morality or religion, Colley said. Instead, she said, teachers can focus lessons on inquiry, asking students to explore the policy implications of the Dobbs decision and examine the history of abortion as a part of social movements.
The anti-abortion movement that strengthened in the years after the Roe decision, for example, has been hugely influential in shaping political discourse around the issue, state laws, and ideologically aligned courts.
Health and sex education
Surprisingly, sex education standards largely avoid abortion to an even greater degree than social studies standards.
Only nine states and the District of Columbia have guidance or policies about whether or how to discuss abortion in sex education, according to a 2022 policy review from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, a nonprofit that promotes comprehensive sex education.
Of these states, six prohibit discussion of abortion as a potential outcome of pregnancy. South Carolina, for example, bans talking about abortion except in the context of the complications that it might cause.
Two states—Vermont and Colorado—and D.C. are “affirming” of abortion as an option. But even if a state does require courses to cover abortion, it’s not guaranteed that students will learn about it. That’s because not all states mandate that schools offer sex education, and even those that do leave the curriculum almost entirely up to districts to craft. After the Dobbs decision, several news stories noted that many of the states that planned to restrict access to or ban abortion do not mandate sex education.
In the past few years, some states have added additional restrictions to sex education programs. Arkansas, for example, passed a law in 2021 that prohibited schools from contracting with any person or entity that “counsels in favor of abortion.” Also last year, Montana banned schools from working with any provider of sex education that also provides abortion services.
On the other end of the spectrum is Illinois, which adopted the National Sex Education Standards in 2021. The standards span from grades K-12 and teach about topics such as consent, healthy communication, and sexual and gender identity. Their adoption was applauded by advocates of comprehensive sex education, but has received backlash as well from Republican state legislators.
The national standards say that 8th graders should be able to identify abortion as one outcome of pregnancy, alongside parenting and adoption. Tenth graders are expected to analyze the laws that address sexual health services for minors, including abortion, and identify reliable sources of information on the procedure. In 12th grade, students analyze societal factors that can influence decisions about pregnancy options, including abortion.
Illinois schools can choose to opt-out of these standards, and many have done so.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2022 edition of Education Week as How the Overturning of ‘Roe v. Wade’ Will Reverberate Through Classrooms