The University of California-San Francisco’s new online abortion course raises serious concerns about whether its format and curriculum will interfere with its ability to safely and effectively teach its subject matter, experts on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and medicine told The College Fix.
The sheer size and non-simultaneous nature of MOOCs are inherent limitations that are especially problematic for abortion as a medical matter, said Rachelle Peterson, a research associate at the National Association of Scholars who studies MOOCs and took one offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a research project.
The course’s website says that “Abortion is safe and has lower morbidity and mortality than childbirth,” but those are general findings, not necessarily applicable for every abortion, Peterson said.
“[B]ecause the practice of medicine requires a wealth of knowledge that is then applied to each specific case, this MOOC will offer limited value to the practice of medicine and could actually jeopardize health,” said Peterson in an email.
The Daily Beast reported in October that an estimated 3,000 people have signed up for the free course, and one of its creators, professor of obstetrician and abortion activist Jody Steinauer, said its purpose was to “inspire” students to “increase access to safe abortion and decrease stigma about abortion.”
Since the course is open to anyone, a student considering an abortion may decide that having one would be a safe, advisable decision, without taking personal factors into account, Peterson said.
“The decision to have an abortion is a deeply tragic one; a woman facing such a decision deserves personal counsel and advice, not broad, aggregate statistics presented impersonally in a pre-recorded video,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the deficiencies in the class format are exacerbated by the lack of rigorous analytical demand placed on students. The only assessments – multiple-choice questions and two peer-reviewed essays – do not hold students to a high standard of careful analysis of presented data, she said.
It’s not clear whether students are expected to be able to perform abortions upon completion of the class, but if the course does “attempt to teach procedures for performing surgical abortions, this would present a serious danger,” Peterson said.
The course presents some people as “experts” whom students should look at skeptically, said Rebecca Oas, associate director of research for the Center for Family and Human Rights Institute, a Catholic organization advocating “the dignity of the human person.”
Oas, who has a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular biology and is herself taking the university’s abortion MOOC, cited Rebecca Gomperts as one such questionable expert. Gomperts’ Women on Waves organization helps women perform chemical abortions on themselves in countries where it’s illegal.
“It is evident in many of the interviews [with the course’s creators] that one of the goals of the course is to ‘de-medicalize’ abortion – that is, to take it out of the context of the doctor-patient relationship and out of a regulated health care system,” Oas said in an email.
“The instructors discuss obtaining illegal abortion drugs from black market sources and inducing abortions outside a clinical context using directions obtained online from dubious and legally problematic sources,” Oas said. “Encouraging this kind of medical vigilantism is simply irresponsible.”
Oas has previously catalogued abortion advocates’ use of “stealth training” to provide access to abortion through workshops on “miscarriage management” – using a papaya to simulate a womb – among other methods.
The abortion class implies that the medical community approves of the de-medicalization of an inherently medical procedure, misleading future health care workers, Oas said.
That not only gives credibility to those who sell fake or contaminated drugs to women or give them potentially deadly instructions on dosage and complications, Oas added – it hurts the credibility of the healthcare system and its regulatory institutions.
More troubling than the limitations of the course’s online format is the bias in the curriculum, Peterson and Oas said separately.
Peterson said the course blurs together medical information and political advocacy. While a MOOC can convey information like an encyclopedia does, simply listing procedures and their uses or risks, “conveying information is very different from presenting arguments in favor of abortion,” she said.
Oas said that “while the instructors acknowledge that the subject matter is ‘sensitive,’ the pro-life perspective is excluded except when filtered through the words of those who disagree with it.”
College Fix reporter Genevieve McCarthy is a student at Thomas Aquinas College.
IMAGE: Matthias Weinberger/Flickr