November 01, 2006

Should elective abortion be illegal? Part 2

Yesterday I started posting a summary of a debate held Monday between Jojo Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform. I began with the opening statements. The second major section of the debate was the cross-examination, in which the sides each had six minutes in which to grill their opponent. Jojo was the first to cross-examine.

Here is my summary and paraphrase of the cross-examination. Unfortunately, my notes here are very sketchy. This is partly because of the unstructured nature of cross-examination; there were times when the discussion was simply flying too quickly to follow in writing. I was also still filling in some of the details of the opening statements when it started. Usually I'm pretty good about remembering a few points while I'm catching up on others, but not in this case. I've noted the gap in my records, and since I also have no specific recollection of the discussion at that point, I have decided it is better to leave it blank than inadvertently put words in anyone's mouth.

I've marked the two opposing sides as Q and A, representing the side asking the questions and the one answering, regardless of whether any specific utterance is a question or an answer.

Cross-examination (6 minutes)

Jojo: Q: Do you believe it should be legal for a mother to kill her two-year-old child if he was conceived by rape?

A: According to section 223 of the Criminal Code of Canada, a person is someone who "has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother." So it should not be legal.

Q: But there was a time when women, blacks, or someone like me [Jojo is Filipino] would not have legally been defined as a person either.

[There is a gap here in my notes; this cross-examination period concluded with an exchange along the following lines:]

Q: What is it that's in a pregnant woman?

A: It's a pregnancy.

Q: OK, but what is she pregnant with?

A: Depending on the stage of the pregnancy, it's a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus.

Q: Yes, but what kind of fetus? When I was in high school, we dissected fetuses in science class. They were pig fetuses. Is that what is inside a pregnant woman, a pig fetus?

A: [pause] No.

Tracy and Jeannette: Q: Are the unborn human beings?

A: Biologically, yes.

Q: The images you showed are brutal; you are saying that they are images of people?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you believe you are justified in showing such brutal images?

A: Yes, because they are necessary to show the reality of abortion to some people who do not understand it.

Q: They would not act as a deterrent to women who have decided to have an abortion.

A: If they are not a deterrent, then in the interests of informed consent, you should have no problem allowing people to show them in front of an abortion clinic where people would look at them, or allowing a woman inside the abortion clinic to see the ultrasound of her fetus instead of turning the monitor away. Is that correct?

Q: [pause] If a fetus cannot survive outside the womb, is it human?

A: Yes. Many kinds of people, such as astronauts, operate in environments where they cannot survive. We don't deny them personhood.


Sorry about the paucity of notes for the first cross-examination period. As I recall, Jojo was trying to steer the debate toward the identity of the unborn, while the two pro-choice women were trying to appeal to the legal definition of "person." Much of the unrecorded debate centred around the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Jojo's analogy comparing blacks, women, or Filipinos to fetuses. Jojo, of course, was trying to establish that a human fetus is the same kind of thing. The "pregnant pause" at the very end of the first cross-examination period underscores that he had successfully forced Tracy (who was debating him at that point) to concede that point. Though I doubt she was willing to admit it: although I didn't record her exact words, she was more insistent than I can convey in print that a woman has a "pregnancy." I guess no one ever taught her the difference between abstract and a concrete nouns.

During the first cross-examination period, a bit of time was spent in meta-discussion about whether Jojo was permitted to interrupt Tracy or Jeannette while they were speaking to steer their answers back on course. According to the debate rules, he was.

The second "pregnant pause" is Jojo putting the lie to the pro-choicer's claims to advocate informed consent. Neither woman answered one way or another whether they thought it was OK, in the name of informed consent, to show images of fetuses or ultrasounds to women at an abortion clinic. (If you actually have to think about that, your answer is "no.")

Jojo fumbled over his words a bit when he cited the analogy of astronauts as someone who would not survive outside of his natural habitat, eliciting a collective "Huh?" from the group of pro-choice women sitting a few rows behind me. His point was that just as a fetus' natural habitat is the uterus and it cannot survive outside it without help (e.g. an incubator), an astronaut's natural habitat is an atmosphere and he cannot survive outside it without help (a spacesuit). Nonetheless, we don't deny an astronaut's personhood just because he works in orbit in the vacuum of space. In other words, our environment does not determine what we are.

I didn't understand why the cross-examination period was put immediately after the opening statements. The point of cross-examination is to directly confront the weaknesses of your opponent's argument, which would be best accomplished after the rebuttal period. At that point, you have seen which parts of your argument the other side has not dealt with adequately, and press those points directly.