November 02, 2006

Should elective abortion be illegal? Part 3

This is third post summarizing and paraphrasing a debate on the question, "Should elective abortion be illegal?" that was held on Monday night at Carleton University between Jojo Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, and a team consisting of Tracy Davidson of Planned Parenthood Ottawa and Jeannette Doucet of Canadians for Choice. Following the cross-examination period (posted yesterday) was a rebuttal period of ten minutes. Again, Jojo spoke first.

Rebuttal (10 minutes)

Jojo: My opponents have not answered the question, "What is the unborn?" This is an essential question; without answering it, all my opponents are saying is, "We don't know what it is, but we should be able to kill it anyway."

There are only four relevant differences between the born and the unborn, which can be remembered by the acronym "SLED."

[I interrupt here to note that in my own notes, I only wrote out, "SLED." Hence the following bullet points are my personal summary of what the acronym means, not specifically what Jojo himself said, though I have re-used a few of his examples where I could.]

  • Size: The unborn are smaller than the born. But women, in general, are smaller than men; Filipinos are, in general, smaller than Caucasians. Yet women and Filipinos are not less of a person. How small we are does not determine what we are.
  • Level of development: The unborn are less developed than the born. But a two-year-old boy is not as completely developed as an adult man. He is not, therefore, less of a person. How far we've grown does not determine what we are.
  • Environment: Where you are does not determine what you are. If I move into a new apartment in another city, that does not affect my status as a human being. How, then, would a trip of a few inches down the birth canal do so?
  • Degree of dependency: It is true that the unborn depend on the body of their mothers for life support, and outside the womb they would die without medical intervention. But the same is true of someone who requires kidney dialysis, or an astronaut on a spacewalk: without external life support, they would die. They are not less human than normal, healthy people walking around outside. Relying on others to keep you alive does not determine what we are.

The alternatives are performance-based criteria: "the more you can do, the more of a person you are." More personhood equals more rights. But this is what Lincoln argued against, in the context of slavery, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates: men do not have rights because of their white skin, or their greater intelligence - otherwise someone more intelligent than them could enslave them in turn. Their rights derived from what they are. The only true criterion for personhood is one's essential nature, and the only objective point of delineation where we can say a being becomes a human person is fertilization. My opponents have given legal reasons why elective abortion should be legal, but they have not given any real ones.

Jeannette: The question we are here to debate tonight is, "Should elective abortion be illegal?" It is not, "What is the unborn?" or "When does life begin?" We were not under the impression that we were here to debate those things, and it is unfair to be confronted with those arguments.

0.7% of all abortions are late-term. Far and away these are due to risks to the mother or the fetus.

The SLED test is beside the point; the point is, women have the right to choose.

Tracy: Yes, human life has value. In fact, all women facing unintended pregnancies should be valued and respected.

If the unborn are human, then I respect Jojo's position, and I hope that if he is ever faced with an unintended pregancy, it doesn't cause problems for him.


If you really want to lose brownie points in a debate, in my opinion there is no better way than to start off your rebuttal by complaining that your opponent is being "unfair" (Jeannette's word) because you didn't come prepared to answer his arguments. I have attended three debates on this subject in Ottawa, and without exception, the pro-life side focused on the identity of the unborn and the pro-choice side cried foul. Following the rebuttals in this debate, the moderator informed us that the agreed-upon rules stipulated there was no restriction on the content of the arguments each side could present.

What do they expect? Who seriously thinks that you can answer whether abortion should be made illegal, unless you can first determine the identity of the unborn? When you've figured out what it is, then you can decide whether you may kill it.

Suppose I have an apple core that, having eaten the apple, I want to get rid of. It's easy: I just toss it into a nearby trash can - or, if I'm in a wooded or grown-over area, I can even just chuck it into the bushes. It's a piece of fruit that does no harm to the environment (and it might even do some good if a hungry squirrel comes along, or the seeds take root). But suppose instead of an apple core, I have a few cans of old household cleaning supplies that I need to get out of the basement. That's not so easy: many chemicals can't just be thrown into the trash, and I certainly can't toss them into the underbrush. Getting rid of Toxic chemicals raises a whole slew of ethical and legal issues that getting rid of apples doesn't. In other words, what it is determines how we may dispose of it.

In the end, however, the women's argument boils down to nothing more than this: "Abortion should be legal because women have the right to choose, which is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Therefore, get over it." I've noted the circularity of this argument already; it says, "Abortion should be legal because it is legal." It completely sidesteps the very question of what the unborn are: "It doesn't matter, it's legal to kill them anyway." This doesn't refute Jojo's point; it proves it.

Jojo's argument goes like this: Human persons have the right to life. By any relevant scientific and philosophical criteria, the unborn are human persons. Therefore, they have the right to life. Hence elective abortion should not be legal, since it unjustifiably violates a human person's right to life. Simple, straightforward, and logical. Unfortunately, plain reason doesn't often prove itself to be the pro-choice side's strong suit, compared to, say, emoting. (And to the credit of all concerned, this is the most civil debate on this topic that I have personally attended.)

In his presentation, Jojo used a direct quotation from Lincoln, which I was unable to reproduce. I hope I've summarized it accurately.

Tracy's parting shot reaches snark factor 5, surely. But it's a variation on a common piece of bad pro-choice rhetoric: Men can't get pregnant (so their opinion is suspect). Arguments don't have gender, and they should be judged on their merits, not by who delivers them. This issue was raised more overtly in the Q&A, so I'll reserve further comment until then.