The University of Chicago is one of the world’s preeminent institutions of higher education. It boasts an affiliation with the fourth-most Nobel laureates of any university in the world, and its historically free market-oriented economics department — where luminaries such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman once roamed the halls — has the most Nobel laureate affiliations of any economics department in the world. The University of Chicago Law School produces more U.S. Supreme Court law clerks than any law school besides Harvard and Yale. UChicago’s Booth School of Business perennially ranks in the top five business schools in the U.S.
The university’s commitment to free speech principles, furthermore, is laudably ironclad: The so-called “Chicago principles” represent the academic “gold standard” for freedom of expression in the American academy. Three years ago, the school even went so far as to mail a letter to all incoming college freshmen to tell them that the school does not condone “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces.”
The foregoing makes me a very proud UChicago alumnus. But it also makes even more painful the tale that follows.
Steve Jacobs graduated a few weeks ago with a Ph.D. from UChicago’s interdisciplinary Department of Comparative Human Development. And Jacobs, who went through hell on earth over the course of a stress-inducing decade to procure that illustrious academic capstone, spoke exclusively with The Daily Wire to tell his story.
Jacobs, a white Christian, decided to touch the ultimate third-rail issue for the culturally militant progressives who dominate the American academy: Abortion. But Jacobs, who has a background as a certified mediator, did not pursue his Ph.D. as a cudgel to wield in this preeminent culture war struggle. On the contrary, he hoped to “produce research that can become a contribution to a contentious debate that is harming our body politic,” and to “help people become informed, so that the competition of ideas can take place on a level playing field.” A model citizen, Jacobs strove to produce academic research that might better inform the abortion debate in America at-large, and might then be utilized as a means to a broader societal reconciliation on the hot-button issue.
Jacobs’ Ph.D. dissertation, which will soon be public, is entitled, “Balancing Abortion Rights And Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate.” The dissertation has many components, including a wide-ranging international survey of academic biologists to inquire, from a biological perspective, “when life begins.” Jacobs published an intermediary paper last summer that explained why this section of the dissertation is so important: Out of 2,899 American adults surveyed, a whopping 81% majority selected biologists as the group “most qualified to answer the question of when a human’s life begins.” Furthermore, Jacobs’ own research suggests that 83% of pro-choicers surveyed believe that support for legal abortion would decrease “if it became common knowledge that fetuses are biological humans at fertilization.” And as a historical matter, American society’s fluctuating ideas about when life begins has often been a primary driver of our abortion legal regime. There is ample reason to believe, therefore, that support for unborn children’s legal rights might be artificially suppressed, and support for abortion rights artificially inflated, if it were to be revealed that Americans were largely ignorant of the biological reality as to when life begins.
The results of Jacobs’ global survey of academic biologists was astonishing in its consensus: “Overall, 95% of all biologists affirmed the biological view that a human’s life begins at fertilization (5212 out of 5502).” Again, the overwhelming nature of this consensus must be emphasized: The biologically human nature of the fertilized zygote is one of two necessary preconditions for the pro-life policy argument, and Jacobs’ research — which had a global reach — forecloses any question as to the biological inquiry. Pro-choicers who arrive at a different “scientific” conclusion — and Jacobs’ research indicates that only 23% of pro-choicers recognize the fetus as a biological human being throughout the entire gestational continuum — ought to re-evaluate, accordingly. And as Jacobs told me, his scholarly research should galvanize lawmakers to “stop debating whether a fetus is a human and start debating whether all humans have rights and, if so, how to balance one human’s right to abort and another human’s right to life.”
In a sane world, that would conclude our story. Unfortunately, Jacobs’ suffering on the path to attaining his Ph.D. is something that no young researcher ought to experience — let alone at a world-class academic institution such as the University of Chicago.
Jacobs first arrived at UChicago in 2009. For five years, his expressed desire to produce academic scholarship on the abortion debate was constantly rebuffed. Jacobs’ fellow students, peer mentors, and the professoriate often told him that he was too white, too male, and too Christian to wade into the abortion debate. Finally, in 2014, shortly after enrolling in law school at Northwestern as a means to fortify his abortion-related credentials, Jacobs met a UChicago professor who seemed quite promising. The professor initially assured Jacobs that he would supervise Jacobs’ abortion research after he graduated from Northwestern Law and returned to the UChicago Ph.D. program. After five years of wallowing in obscurity, Jacobs thought he finally had secured a faculty adviser.
After returning to UChicago, Jacobs began to construct his global survey of academic biologists. He spent over 500 hours going through the faculty directories of biology departments at universities all over the globe. Within days of beginning his survey, a biologist accused Jacobs of being a pro-life plant, threatened to sabotage his work, and reported Jacobs to UChicago’s ethics committee. Jacobs’ adviser, who had shown so much promise of integrity, had him halt all research. When Jacobs ultimately restarted his research, the complaints became too voluminous — and too scathing — for Jacobs’ thesis adviser (himself an ardent pro-choice advocate) to let the research continue. Here is a sampling of the vituperative feedback that Jacobs’ anodyne research — which merely asked biologists for their biological opinions on when human life begins — elicited from the global biologist community:
- “Is this a studied fund by Trump and ku klux klan?”
- “OUR SOCIETY SHOULD EMBRACE SCIENCE AND NOT RELIGION, WE WILL BE A MORE KINDER AND ACCEPTING SOCIETY ALL PEOPLE AND NOT A TRUMPIAN SOCIETY OF AND FASCISM AND EXCLUSION OF IMMIGRANTS. DIVERSITY IS BUILDS A NATION AND ISOLATIONISM DESTROY IT.”
- “Sure hope YOU aren’t a f^%$#ing christian!!”
- “I filled the survey, but I thought that many of the questions were highly manipulative … I believe it’s a horribly manipulative survey and its end is to support the religious patriarchal abuse of women’s rights that has gone on for way too long.”
- “This is some stupid right to life thing … YUCK I believe in RIGHT TO CHOICE!!!!!!!”
- “Thats a really crap ‘survey’. You have such major political issues in your country, maybe you should focus on raising standards. I am ashamed for Uni of Chicago to see such rubbish disseminated.”
- “I do not want to be involved in this blimpish, evangelical roll-back of social achievements. Also, I do not want to receive further emails from you.”
Amidst this onslaught of hatred from the global biologist community, Jacobs’ adviser had him halt all research until he could first successfully defend his research proposal in front of a dissertation committee. Jacobs successfully defended his proposal in front of the committee in September 2017 — but his adviser then reneged yet again and accused Jacobs of conducting unethical research. As Jacobs told me: My adviser “routinely reminded me that he, himself, was pro-choice and expressed a radical view of abortion rights, but I had believed that he could put aside his personal beliefs for the sake of his academic integrity.” But, on the contrary, as Jacobs also told me: The adviser “likened my work to morally objectionable research and acted as if I was working toward a goal that he found morally reprehensible.” The adviser ultimately drew a hard line and categorically refused to support Jacobs’ research — even going so far as to threaten not to approve Jacobs’ dissertation, were he to remain on Jacobs’ dissertation committee.
Fortunately for Jacobs, he eventually found a noble member of the UChicago Department of Comparative Human Development who agreed to serve as a lead faculty adviser. And ultimately, after his data collection was halted twice more by intensive pushback from the global biologist community, Jacobs finished his research. However, due to the pushback, he was unable to achieve the survey response rate that is generally required for publication in top scholarly journals.
Despite all the setbacks — and one additional accusation of nefarious motivations, from the faculty head of the relevant UChicago ethics committee — Jacobs eventually defended his dissertation successfully.
The whole saga is extremely revealing as to the remarkably biased nature of the American — indeed, global — academy. “My experience was that [my initial adviser] had difficulty in staying objective in upholding his duties … when it came to my work,” Jacobs told me. “Unfortunately, when it came to my work, he became a political animal, was unable to protect himself from his deeply held beliefs about abortion, and could not stop himself from interfering.”
When I asked Jacobs why he thought his initial adviser behaved this way, why the faculty head of the UChicago ethics committee questioned the academic sincerity of his motivations, and why the biologists he surveyed reacted so petulantly, Jacobs explained that abortion is the “crown jewel” of the modern progressive movement. It’s a “quintessential sacred cow,” he added, and the pro-choice side is deeply concerned about suppressing research that could undermine the presuppositions upon which that “sacred cow” is so fragilely constructed. As Jacobs says, it is the phenomenon that social scientists call “identity protective cognition” that leads to human beings deliberately obfuscating and avoiding the search for truth.
But the truth is that pro-lifers’ biological views on when life begins (59% saying life begins at fertilization) is much closer to the biological consensus (95% saying the same) than are pro-choicers’ biological views (23% saying the same) on the same question.
Jacobs, now a Ph.D., reflects back on his tumultuous time at UChicago with a mix of frustration and thankfulness that someone in his department came to his defense when he needed it most:
“Academics’ fear of balanced research on the U.S. abortion debate cost me five years of my life. I spent those five years in anguish at the realization that representatives of one of the finest academic institutions were willing to sacrifice their principles of academic freedom to protect their ideology; that they were willing to jeopardize their reputation of open inquiry to kill research that explored the dogma surrounding abortion rights. Despite those bad actors, stewards of the UChicago tradition displayed courage in putting aside their biases, upholding their academic principles, and helping me conduct my research.”
Alas, leftist domination of the American academy is hardly a recent trend. But it is an increasingly brazen, unabashed, and ubiquitous one. What happened to Steve Jacobs is utterly shameful and tragic. It is deeply depressing to think of such heavy-handed suppression at one of the world’s greatest research universities. But God willing, Jacobs’ research will now hopefully contribute to shifting the abortion debate back toward biological truth — and toward a continued and rejuvenated effort to legally protect the unborn.