February 28, 2009

The campus abortion debate, and how it should be done

(Addendum [Mar. 2/09]: I see that I have a slight uptick in readership today, thanks to ProWomanProLife, JivinJehoshaphat, and jillstanek.com. Welcome! I hope to post about this debate in more detail shortly, so feel free to visit again.)

It was my pleasure last evening to attend a debate, in the Arts Building at the University of Ottawa, on the morality of abortion.

I found out about this debate only a few days before, thanks to a blog post at ProWomanProLife. Then, I almost wasn't able to go: after taking a hard fall on some ice on Thursday night, I was almost too sore to move on Friday. Meanwhile, the weather turned from nice to less nice to quite nasty in only a few hours. But by the evening, I felt limber enough to walk down to the campus - and in fact hardly noticed the soreness on the way home.

I was glad I made it out. The debaters were Stephanie Gray of The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which she co-founded along with Jojo Ruba, and Dr. Andrew Sneddon, professor of philosophy at the U. of O. I've seen Jojo debate a number of times, so I was interested in seeing his colleague for a change. As I have noted numerous times previously, a male pro-life advocate does give any campus womyn who show up an opportunity to point out, albeit fallaciously, that since men can't get pregnant they have no business bringing their opinions to the table. When a woman takes the pro-life side, she spikes that particular gun. (I also had a chance to say hi to Stephanie briefly afterward, and she feels as well that the campus feminists are often more reluctant to beat up another woman.) And, of course, given the history of controversy over pro-life clubs in Canadian universities in recent years, there was also the possibility of some disruption, and I certainly didn't want to miss out on any train wrecks.

But no train wrecks were in evidence. The lecture hall in the Arts Building, which nominally seats 200, was packed out to overflowing. The opening and closing comments by the organizers acknowledged that a crowd of this size, eager to hear a debate, proved that abortion in Canada is not the settled issue many of its advocates claim it is. Moreover, the university was to be commended for its commitment to academic freedom by hosting the debate, and all involved for proving that it could be held civilly and respectfully. These remarks drew long and loud applause: the SMU shouters with their "symbolic action" and "personal autonomy" three weeks ago do not represent the mainstream of student thought.

Dr. Sneddon began the debate with his 20-minute opening statement. He chose to argue the case for personal bodily autonomy: he acknowledged that the unborn are fully human beings with the same moral standing as born persons. Nonetheless, if he were to need a new kidney, his mother is not morally obliged to provide him with one; similarly, since she has autonomy over her own body, she would not be morally obliged to provide her fetus with the use of her uterus. Stephanie's argument was from the humanity of the unborn: that from conception we have a genetically distinct, whole human being and by virtue of having brought him into existence, we have a responsibility to care for his basic needs. Just as we find it abhorrent when a mother neglects or even kills her young children, we should be equally abhorred when she neglects or kills her unborn children.

I wasn't sure how I liked the remainder of the format of the debate. There wasn't a rebuttal period, and instead of what I would call a proper cross-examination, one debater had eight minutes to present questions, and the other then had nine minutes to answer them. I'll note that Dr. Sneddon posed fewer questions and had all of them answered, while Stephanie posed many questions and had some answers deferred (and at least one not answered at all). The debate then ended with 5-minute closing statements and a Q&A. I made several pages of notes during the debate, and I will go into more detail about their respective arguments in future posts.

I was impressed at the even match of the two opponents. Too often, the pro-choice debater has come to the debate armed only with political rhetoric and anecdote, and the debate seems lopsided. Dr. Sneddon, on the other hand, had a well-prepared moral argument for his position that he was ready to defend - although I did not find it convincing, for reasons that I will get into later. And as professional philosophers are wont to do, he was sometimes a little more circumspect about his arguments than the situation would have demanded. In the end, I feel Stephanie won the debate by about half a length, primarily because of her greater focus, clarity, and conciseness, as well as her better preparedness to answer questions.

As much as I enjoy seeing people like Jojo, Stephanie, or Scott Klusendorf give some Planned Parenthood spokeswoman a sound drubbing, it was nice to see a more level playing field, and hence a good fair fight, last night. Kudos to University of Ottawa Students for Life for organizing this event and making it a success, and if they have another, I'll be sure to be there again.