October 31, 2006

Debate: Should elective abortion be illegal? Part 1

That is the question that was to be argued at a debate I attended last night. Taking the affirmative was a close friend of mine, Jojo Ruba, who a few years ago left Ottawa and moved out West to take up pro-life advocacy full-time with an organization called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. Tracy Davidson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, took the negative position, along with a last-minute partner, Jeannette Doucet, a volunteer spokesman with Canadians for Choice. The debate was held at the Azraeli Theatre on the campus of Carleton University, and moderated by a late replacement from the local civil liberties association, which takes no official position on abortion (and hence he admitted he had no axe to grind with either side). Considering that he joined the debate at the last minute (due to the scheduled moderator becoming ill) and had no experience moderating debates, I thought he did all right.

Over the next few days I want to incrementally post a summary of the debate, section by section, followed by my comments. This is mainly for time's sake, but also in the hope that a few extra days of contemplation might give me something additional to reflect upon. My comments will more than likely focus mainly on the pro-choice side, simply because my approach to the abortion question is essentially the same as Jojo's, and if I have nothing more to say than "Me too," there's little point in saying anything at all.

Opening statements (18 minutes)

Jojo: Jojo began his presentation by thanking the audience and his opponents for coming, because it was good to come together and have debates about important things. He stated that he was ready to concede the argument to his opponents, provided they could show that the unborn are not human.

Next, he said that in order to properly discuss abortion, it is important to know what abortion is. At this point he ran a video clip of about five minutes showing abortions in progress. At the end, defending his use of such graphic imagery, Jojo pointed out that Stephen Spielberg once gave copies of Schindler's List to every high school in the U.S. because he believed that students needed to see the Holocaust's horrors for themselves. He also cited a 1996 quotation from feminist philosopher Naomi Wolf, who said: "How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy."

There are two ways of avoiding the question of the humanity of the unborn. The first is to say that it is irrelevant to whether abortion should be legalized. However, this leads us to a position where we could make the same kinds of arguments to justify killing persons who are already born, as well. The second is to say that we cannot know whether the unborn are human beings. However, this is irresponsible. Would you demolish a building if you were not certain there was no one inside it? If we kill the unborn without knowing what they are, then we are morally responsible if we later learn that they are human beings. However, we know what the unborn are: they are human, because their parents are human. Human development begins at fertilization.

Therefore, before we can answer the question of whether elective abortion should be illegal, we must settle the question of what the unborn are. There is no biological debate about where human life begins: it is at fertilization. But if something is human, is it a person? There are only four relevant differences between the unborn and the born, and none justify excluding the unborn from personhood. The pro-life position is that since the unborn are human persons, they must be protected by the same human rights as other persons. Therefore, elective abortion should be illegal.

The denying side split their time between the two of them (this frequently happened throughout the debate, and subsequently will be noted simply by naming the speaker):

Jeannette: From very early on, women have used some form of birth control or abortion to control their fertility. The law said nothing about the state of the unborn prior to the point where the woman could feel the movement of the fetus. It was only in the 19th century that laws against abortion came on the books. This was primarily due to lobbying by physicians, seeking to monopolize health care and take control of women's reproductive health away from the midwives.

Making abortion illegal did not deter women from seeking abortions. It just drove the practice underground, into the "dark, unsanitary corners of our society" [her phrase]. Illegality just made abortion less safe. Botched abortions meant death, which affected not only the women, but their families, which were left motherless.

In 1969, the abortion law was changed to permit abortion if a three-member panel of doctors was satisfied the woman's life was in danger if the pregnancy was continued. The process was demeaning and humiliating to the woman, and there was no right of appeal if her claim was rejected.

It was during this time that Dr. Henry Morgentaler began defying the law and performing abortion on demand. Though he was arrested and imprisoned, he fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1988 the Supreme Court struck down the existing abortion law on the basis that it violated the Charter rights of life, liberty, and security of the person. Currently Canada has no law restricting abortion.

By definition, elective abortion means abortions that are not carried out because of an emergency. The majority of abortions in Canada are elective.

Abortion is safe and legal; safe because it is legal. Recriminalization would only make it unsafe and humiliating again. But we needn't worry because we live in Canada, and such a law would be declared unconstitutional.

Tracy: Choice means examining all options. "Pro-choice" does not mean "pro-abortion." It means pro the right to choose parenting, adoption, or abortion.

Forty percent of all pregnancies are unintended. [Here Tracy summarized the services provided by Planned Parenthood.]

There are as many reasons to choose abortion as there are women who choose it. Some are not emotionally or financially ready to have children. Some want to preserve the family they already have. Some are unable to provide for a child. What is important is that they have the choice.

In 2003, the last year for which we have complete statistics, 104,099 women in Canada chose a safe and legal abortion. Of these, 97% were in the first trimester; 53% were women in their 20s. Abortion is a moral decision, a matter of conscience. The question is, whose conscience is paramount, the woman's or the state's? In a free society, it must be the individual's. Abortion is a right enshrined in the Charter guarantee of "life, liberty and security of the person."


I'm used to Jojo's presentation - he and I have both attended the Pro-Life 101 seminar put on by Scott Klusendorf (formerly of Stand to Reason and now heading up the Life Training Institute), only Jojo has also chosen to do this as a career, whereas I tend to just blog and occasionally get into arguments. If your church or organization is looking for someone to conduct a seminar on the topic of pro-life apologetics, you can't do much better than Scott.

Tracy and Jeannette didn't deal with the issue of human personhood, instead focusing on legalities and the sanctity of human rights. (As Jojo remarked to me afterward, their history of abortion in Canada saved him a lot of time.) This set the tone for the remainder of their presentation, as we'll see in future installations. But their argument at this point appears tautologous: "Elective abortion should be legal because it is legal."

I also found it interesting that Jeannette cast the criminalization of abortion in the 19th century as an example of male political oppression of women. Could it not be the case that as medical science finally began to mature in those years, we learned more about human reproduction than we had previously known? She made mention of the concept of "quickening," the point at which the mother becomes aware that she is pregnant because she can feel the fetus moving in her womb. This isn't the first time I've heard someone argue on the basis of this obsolete science, as I've blogged before. Today we have home pregnancy tests, X-rays, and ultrasound. It sounds foolish hearing a contemporary woman pining for the medical standards of the Middle Ages.