November 04, 2006

Should elective abortion be illegal? Part the last

While any debate that includes a good cross-examination section is always rhetorically interesting, my personal favourite part is always the Q&A section at the end. Here is an opportunity for anyone in the audience, if he can get a few seconds at the microphone, to insert himself into the debate. Normally I have a question after hearing two sides go at it for an hour or two. However, on Monday night, by the time I put my head up after my note-taking, there were already half a dozen others already lined up behind each mike. Since I already knew that questions were to be limited to eight, there was no chance I would be able to ask mine. What I wanted to ask was this, addressing Tracy or Jeannette:

"You have continually argued that elective abortion should be legal on the basis of existing law, specifically, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, laws change, and the Charter was not the law of the land before 1982. How would you have argued your case in 1981?"

My intent, of course, would have been twofold: First, to expose the circularity of the pro-choice argument in this respect. At least two of the abortion debates I have attended have appealed to existing law, essentially saying, "It's legal, get over it." But what if existing law, or its interpretation with respect to abortion rights, is wrong? Second, my intent would have been to pull the rug out from under Tracy or Jeannette and compel them to argue in different categories than they had been, to see if they had any substance behind their position. I also know Jojo well enough to have confidence he would have known where I was going with this.

Speaking of judicial fiat, it's also important to note that although the majortiy position in R. v. Morgentaler was that the existing abortion law contravened Section 7 of the Charter, there was no consensus position. Hence Morgentaler does not create precedent. (It also did not prevent Parliament from, at some future point, creating law to restrict abortion; Justice Bertha Wilson, who wrote the most pro-choice opinion, also argued that the value of the fetus is proportional to the lateness of its gestation and that any such legislation must take that into account.)

In this section of the debate, questioners had one minute to form their question; the respondent had two minutes to answer, then the opponent had a minute to rebut. However, there was a great deal of confusion, because although questions were limited to eight, there was no restriction on to whom they could be addressed. This led to ad hoc negotiations during several questions as to who got the two-minute response, and in some cases, the one side answered the question first though it was clearly intended to challenge the other. It's natural in such a debate that the pro-life side receives the most challenges, and that was the case on Monday. The moderator should have directed that one microphone be used for questions to Jojo, and the other for questions to Jeannette and Tracy, then alternated between them to ensure equality and fairness (and less confusion).

Question and answer (24 minutes)

Question: What about a forced or complicated pregnancy, or a disabled child?

Jojo: If it is a child, do we have the right to abort it? A person's value is not based on what he can do. Nor do dire economic straits justify murder - or abortion, if the unborn are human. Also, "women's rights" are in a sad state when women, such as my opponents, aren't able to say that sex-selection abortion is wrong.

Jeannette: I had a child with a congenital birth defect, and I chose to carry it to term. It is important that I had the choice. That is no one's business but my own.

Jojo stays on point: the question of what we can do with the unborn rests on its nature, not on our hardship. Jeannette continues to beat the "right to choose" drum. When you don't have an argument, just keep repeating the slogans.

Question: [addressed to Jeannette or Tracy] Do you show graphic abortion videos of coat-hanger abortions or women shooting themselves in the belly with a BB gun? [to Jojo] How can you justify legalizing misogyny?

Tracy [I think]: We don't show graphic images; we believe that dialogue can be had without them.

Jojo: You're ignoring my point. Arguments don't have gender. My boss is a woman, and she uses the same arguments I do. Also, when you talk about human rights, it's important to know whose human rights you are talking about?

Another variation on the "Men can't get pregnant, so shut up" theme. Jojo's boss is Stephanie Gray, and I would love to see her do a debate here sometime - not because I think she's necessarily any more capable than Jojo, but I want to know what happens when the pro-choicers get the "Men can't get pregnant" card taken away from them. (Although the next questioner did make the snarky comment, "Women can be misogynist too.")

On the other hand, pro-choicers really don't care that men can't get pregnant, as long as the men in question are Henry Morgentaler, or the four male Supreme Court justices who delivered the majority decision in R. v. Morgentaler along with Bertha Wilson.

I assume Jojo's remarks about human rights have to do with the way the question was phrased, which I have omitted from my notes.

By the way, here is one case where I agree with the pro-choice presenters in principle: It is possible to have dialogue about abortion without bringing out the graphic images. If I were in Jojo's shoes on Monday night, I would have stuck to a strictly verbal presentation, because that is where my gifts lie. However, I'm in agreement with the reasons Jojo presented why he uses them. As a classical rhetorician, I believe in using the best available means to persuade in a given situtation; what works for one speaker or one audience might not work as well for another speaker or audience.

Question: If abortion were bad for women's health, would you still support it?

Jojo: Obviously not! How abortion affects women's health doesn't change what the unborn are.

Jeannette and Tracy: Regardless of the risks to her health, abortion should still be her choice to make.

Weren't Jeannette and Tracy constantly beating the "illegal abortions are unsafe" drum earlier in the debate? Upholding the sanctity of choice sure leads to some goofy inconsistencies.

Question: With respect to your analogy comparing slavery to abortion: If slavery is unjustified, how can you justify enslaving women to pregnancy?

Jojo: If the unborn are human beings, like black people are, then the analogy makes sense. On the other hand, it is insulting to compare pregnancy with slavery, because it is natural for women to be pregnant; their bodies are designed for it. But it's not natural for black people to be slaves.

Tracy: From the pro-choice perspective, a woman is not enslaved to a pregnancy. However, it is not a "natural" state for women to be pregnant; it's a potential state. It's not natural to be pregnant all the time.

And the crowd goes wild! When Jojo said it was natural for women to be pregnant, a couple dozen feminists in the room collectively and vocally denied reality. After hearing "Men can't get pregnant!" repeated ad nauseam, I was sure they already knew that it's their plumbing that is designed for having babies.

Also, if you can figure out where Tracy was going with her distinction between "natural" and "potential," or you can find where Jojo said women should be pregnant "all the time," please email me.

Question: Section 7 of the Charter protects the vulnerable, but is a fetus is at its most vulnerable?

Jeannette: Under section 223 of the Criminal Code of Canada, a fetus is not considered a person; therefore, it doesn't fit the definition of vulnerable.

Jojo: I think we can all agree that it's possible for the law to be wrong.

I suppose that if women can be misogynists, then pro-choice feminists can be fundies. They just keep thumping that law, as though God handed it to Moses on a stone tablet.

Question: Could you please clarify your analogy comparing abortion to the Holocaust? Also, what is the source of the pictures you use; I have had an abortion, and my experience was different than was portrayed in your video.

Jojo: In Nazi Germany, personhood was tied to ethnicity, thus certain people, the Jews, had no right to life. But the right to life doesn't depend on societal conventions such as ethnicity.

Those videos were taken in abortion clinics, and we need to protect our sources. If you are claiming that they do not accurately portray abortion, then please show me what an abortion really looks like.

Tracy: Thank you for having the confidence to come forward with your experience.

Howls of derision again when Jojo said he had to protect the source of his images, which is odd when you consider that the most important abortion decision in recent history (Roe v. Wade) centres on the right to privacy of the woman.

Also, now we learn that experience trumps evidence. In a postmodern worldview, narrative often functions as a substitute for propositional truth. But might there not be a good reason why her personal experience is different from someone else's?

The question about the Holocaust came out of Jojo's closing statement, in which he cited Corrie ten Boom, whose family had suffered and died in concentration camps for sheltering Jews in their Amsterdam home, because doing the right thing trumped the legal ramifications of disobeying the Nazis.

Question: Just because illegal things are done illegally, is no argument for making them legal. Your arguments are illogical.

Jeannette: If you were a woman, you would better appreciate the right to control your own fertility.

Jojo: You don't have to be a slave to say slavery is wrong, and you don't have to be a woman to say abortion is wrong. Abortion may be safe, but whom is it safe for?

Men can't get pregnant. Keep beating that drum, ladies!

Question: Regarding the legalities of abortion, if human rights are declared by the judiciary, doesn't protecting abortion rights basically enshrine gender inequality?

Jojo: There is no change needed in our recognition of human rights. We just need to recognize what the unborn are. Our bodily rights end at the point where we do harm to others.

Jeannette: Women are already at a biological disadvantage, which is why abortion and birth control have been practiced throughout history.

I'm not really sure where the questioner was going with this.

Question: Could you please comment on the abstinence movement in the U.S.?

Jeannette: It's well-intended, but flawed. "Abstinence" means different things to different people. For example, some teenagers define "abstinence" as only going so far; others claim to be "abstinent" if they abstain from sex on weekdays. Hence there are still unintended consequences such as STDs and pregnancy. Women who are "abstinent" will still face unintended pregnancies and the question of choice.

Jojo: That's an important issue, and one we could discuss at another time, but tonight I'm here to discuss abortion.

With this last question, Jojo again underscores the importance of staying on-point. This is something that happens frequently in pro-life circles: the movement loses focus when side issues such as abstinence education or birth control get introduced into the mix. Which is not to say they are not important, just that they are not the issue at hand.

Anyone who thinks "abstinence" means "only on weekends" is an idiot. Sorry.

Some parting shots

I like to eavesdrop, so after the debate was formally over, I wandered down to the front of the room to listen in on the informal discussion that ensued. I picked Jojo's desk as having the most potential for interesting material. I was not disappointed.

Within a few minutes, I was discussing the debate with an older gentleman wearing a button reading "I'm a Man, and I'm Pro-Choice" or words to that effect. The thrust of his position was that it would be better to have fewer abortions, but given the choice between an abortion and an unintended pregnancy that may cause hardship, having an abortion is the lesser of two evils. He kept coming back to this assertion, no matter how many times I asked him, "Why should I believe that an unintended pregnancy is an evil?" he refused to answer. His assertion avoids the issue of the identity of the unborn. If they are indeed human persons, then perhaps having that abortion isn't the lesser evil at all.

While I was having this discussion, a young couple was listening in (apparently I wasn't the only eavesdropper in the room!), and the woman, who was a single mother, asked me: "Why is it that you harp on abortion all the time, and never give women credit when they do make difficult decisions such as choosing to parent, or to give up their babies for adoption?" Well, actually, she said a lot more than that, and went on for about five or six minutes. At the end, I didn't really want to tell her that she was wasting her breath, but I bit the bullet and answered along these lines: "That was a really passionate argument against a position I don't actually hold. I'm all in favour of women making difficult choices like that; if they decide that putting a child up for adoption or raising him themselves is the right thing to do, then more power to them. But some choices are wrong. Abortion is the one choice I can't support, because it is the unjustified taking of a blameless human life. You can't kill people just because if they live it results in hardship."

Her boyfriend told me, "You can't intellectualize this." I really didn't get a chance to answer him, as I was already multitasking two different discussions. But with the benefit of hindsight, what I would have said would have been something like this:

Why not? Just because an issue is emotionally or politically charged, it's not immune from rational scrutiny, is it? Isn't intellectualizing a better approach than emoting? A few years ago there was a pro-life presentation at U. of Ottawa where the pro-choice women nearly rioted to prevent the speaker from being heard; is that beneficial discourse? Does waving rosary beads or coat hangers at a demonstration contribute anything meaningful to the discussion? No. A side having louder voices or cleverer slogans or more props doesn't make them more right. So of course I want to intellectualize. Propositional truth is fundamental to the abortion issue: what are the unborn, and knowing that, what are we permitted to do with them?

Incidentally, there was one woman - one of the slogan-T-shirted feminists sitting a few rows behind me - that I spotted wandering around the lecture hall after the debate with a coat hanger. What she was doing with it was never clear; I would have loved to borrow it so I could put my jacket down while I talked with people.

I have been to three debates on abortion here in Ottawa, and in my opinion, this was the first truly civil one. When Scott Klusendorf was here in 2001, he was shouted down at the University of Ottawa, as I mentioned above; the debate at Carleton that evening nearly didn't happen when the pro-choice opponent temporarily backed out; the whole day was marred by a general tenor of pro-choice nastiness. Jojo's previous debate in 2004 against two members of the Carleton Womyn's Centre had none of the nastiness, but was far less polite than Monday's.

Jojo Ruba, incidentally, is the second person on my hit list of people I would force to start blogging at gunpoint (since Phil has already capitulated). He's articulate, well informed on the issues, obviously able to hold his own even in a two-on-one debate, and capable of communicating the abortion issue to many types of audience, whether secular or Christian. And no, neither he nor the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform are paying me for this plug. If your church or organization wants to be motivated to take abortion seriously, look them up.