Many who hold the pro-choice position subscribe to a postmodern worldview. They are not arguing that we can kill the unborn because a woman’s right to choose trumps the right to life of the unborn. They are arguing that ambiguity on the question of when life begins supplies adequate justification for abortion on demand. The argument from ambiguity was central to former ACLU president Nadine Strossen’s presentation when I debated her recently on the campus of Oregon State University (OSU).
I was pleased that Nadine’s opening argument relied heavily on the claim that we cannot know when life begins. This played into the strategy I had chosen prior to the onset of the debate. Nadine did two other things I had hoped she would do in her opening statement: 1) Argue that Roe v. Wade was a moderate decision that balanced the competing interests of the individual and the state, and 2) argue that the Roe decision was necessary to stop the deaths of women who were dying as a result of unsafe abortions. In my own opening argument, which followed hers, I tried to establish two things:
1. There is clear consensus in the science of embryology that life begins at conception. Scientifically speaking, the unborn are distinct, living, whole human beings actively involved in the process of developing themselves from within from the very point of conception.
2. There is no difference between the adults we are today and the unborn humans we once were that would justify killing us at an earlier stage of development. In other words, there is no essential difference between a “human” and a “person.” Furthermore, any effort to justify abortion with philosophical distinctions among the living would invite systematic human inequality. At the end of the day, our society must choose between human equality and abortion. We simply cannot have both.
After we presented our opening statements, Nadine had an opportunity to offer a rebuttal. In that rebuttal, she challenged my claim that there was an absolute consensus among embryologists that life begins at conception. She quoted a source saying that the question could not be answered conclusively. This was a good tactic for Nadine to employ. She was obviously prepared. Fortunately, I had fully anticipated her move.
In my rebuttal, which followed hers, I drew on the work of Francis Beckwith. As Beckwith has previously written, Roe v. Wade concedes that the question of the parameters of a woman’s right to abortion is inextricably bound to the question of when life begins. Therefore, if someone is agnostic on the question of when life begins, they are also agnostic on the parameters of a woman’s right to choose. I began my rebuttal by establishing this crucial point.
Rather than conceding that there was a legitimate doubt about when life begins, I decided to reassert the point that the matter was settled. I did this by firing off numerous sources. Among them, I included former Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher and Princeton Philosopher Peter Singer. I wanted to establish the fact that many honest pro-choice advocates conceded the point. In fact, they have done so for decades.
Fortunately, OSU Socratic Club debates are structured in such a way as to allow opponents to have an informal half-hour exchange following the opening statements and rebuttals. During that exchange, Nadine came across as cordial and well informed. She also impressed me as sincerely interested in my views on a number of issues related to the debate topic. She was a worthy and articulate opponent.
One downside to Nadine’s choice of questions was that they sometimes gave the appearance of trying to divert the issue from the question of the status of the unborn. When Nadine interjected the phrase “potential life” into our discussion I tried to seize the moment to refocus the debate. I asked her whether by using the phrase “potential life” she meant to deny that the unborn were humans (in a biological sense) or persons (in a philosophical sense). Her answer was “both.”
Having established that the unborn have separate DNA and that there is cell division and metabolism from the point of conception, I replied with the following: “But, Nadine, dead things don’t grow.” In fact, I said it twice during the exchange.
That statement ended up being the takeaway line from the entire debate. In fact, nearly everyone who saw the debate and spoke to me afterwards quoted that one line. It was effective because Nadine and I were in danger of getting into a war of quoting texts no one has ever read. But “dead things don’t grow” was an unmistakable appeal to common sense that I believe solidified my central thesis and allowed the pro-life position to prevail in the overall exchange.
Therefore, I would like to conclude this column by thanking my friend Jay Watts for supplying me with that line, which I saw in a recent episode of “Life is Best” – a series hosted by my friend Scott Klusendorf. That series may be the best thing Scott has ever done for the pro-life movement – and that is really saying something.
My advice to pro-lifers debaters who wish to compete (and prevail!) in debates on hostile turf is twofold. First, read everything Francis Beckwith writes on the topic of abortion. Second, watch every video, speech, and debate featuring Scott Klusendorf speaking and teaching on the topic of abortion.
The best place to start is right here: http://www.lifeisbest.tv.
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