Three factors determine whether a debate results in an intelligent exchange of ideas or is reduced to a joint press conference. The first is the debate structure. The second is whether content is censored. The third is the tactical approach of each speaker. As I suspected going into the exchange, my debate Friday with Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy (530 students present) was disappointing on points one and two and amusing on the third. It made me long to get back to tangling with Nadine Strossen.
Nevertheless, I’ll say up front that I’m convinced I won the exchange if victory is defined by strength of ideas, clarity in communicating them, and a gracious manner. My use of humor at selected points also played well. For his part, Senator Leach scored points for being quite funny throughout the exchange and for a few one-liners that were clever, though in my view not persuasive. He lost cosmetic points for twice trying to override the debate moderator, exceeding his time limits, and for attempting to dodge questions put to both of us by a student panel.
But none of those infractions speak to the true weakness of his presentation. His primary flaw was simply this: He presented no formal case of his own. He didn’t even pretend to have one. And at no point did he seriously attempt to refute mine. As one 9th grade girl remarked, “ I couldn’t believe how he had nothing to say against you.” A 12th grader headed to Amherst said the content difference between the two presentations was stark and remarkable. Thus, while humor made Senator Leach entertaining, an actual argument for his case was nowhere to be found. At the end of the day, I think objective members of the audience sensed that and it’s why I’m confident the pro-life side ultimately prevailed. I’m tempted to say it was an ugly win, but it was a win nonetheless.
That’s my take on the big picture. If you want details, read on.
1) The debate structure was weak. Each speaker got a 12-minute opening, a five-minute rebuttal, then 15-minutes of questions from the student panel, followed by a 5-minute closing. I had to fight to get that. At first, the debate organizers wanted short (five-minute) openings with no formal rebuttals. They wanted to go right to questions from a student panel. When I refused to participate unless the openings were lengthened to at least 12-minutes followed by at least a 5-minute rebuttals (so I could address the Senator’s claims), the school thankfully relented and agreed to those minimal terms. Even so, the structure did not allow for complete rebuttals and left many claims unchallenged.
2) The content was censored. The Episcopal Academy did not allow me to show the students images of abortion, despite my best efforts to argue otherwise. Up till this point in my career, that alone was reason enough to refuse participation (and in the future, it will be again). But after consultation with my staff, we decided to test the waters and see what happens when the pictures are not shown. This was a mistake. It leaves pro-abortion students thinking that abortion is a preference issue, like choosing chocolate ice cream over vanilla. It also leaves them unaware of the true nature of abortion. Although the staff at the academy was professional, well-intentioned, and gracious (and gets high marks for making the debate a requirement for students), we will not make that mistake again. If you censor our debate content, we will politely decline to participate.
3) The tactical approach of Senator Leach substituted ad-hominem attacks and raw assertions for rational argument. Leach spoke first. Here is my summary of his major points, which he randomly strung together with no common thread between them. You can decide if there is an actual argument here: 1) People disagree over abortion, so it should remain legal. 2) The unborn, like brain-dead people, are not self-aware. 3) The law doesn’t require you to use your own kidney to support another person, so how can it demand that you use your own body to do so?, 4) Who decides? Women or the state? 5) If Scott is right, women who are raped can’t get abortions, 6) Government should stay out of the abortion decision and trust women to make their own choices, especially since even the Court didn’t say when life begins, 7) If abortion is restricted, women will die from dangerous illegal abortions, 8) Embryos are smaller than a pinhead, thus have no rights that trump those of fully-grown women.
As I see it, there is no real argument here, just a series of unconnected assertions that the senator made no attempt to defend. In a moment, I’ll explain what’s wrong with these assertions. But unlike the Senator, I actually presented a case.
When it was my trun, I began by saying that I agreed with everything the Senator just said. I agreed there should be no laws against abortion. I agreed that we should trust women to make their own decisions without state interference. I agreed government should stay out of the decision to abort. I agreed that pro-lifers like me should butt out of this debate. In short, I agreed completely—IF. If what? If the unborn are not human. And if Senator Leach could present scientific evidence to show that the unborn are not members of the human family and philosophic evidence to show that even if they are, we have no duty to value them, I would concede. In short, I was willing to buy his argument for self-determination and liberty, but only after he demonstrated the unborn are not human. I then asked the audience to consider this question: Would any of his assertions work as a justification for killing toddlers? If not, what was he assuming about the unborn? That’s right, he was assuming that they are not human, like toddlers are. But he needed to argue for this, not merely assume it.
I then made my own case. First, I argued scientifically that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Unlike bodily cells which are merely part of another human being, the unborn are themselves whole living members of the human family—even though they have yet to mature. At the same time, they differ from constructed things (that are put together part by part) in that embryos do something no constructed thing like a car ever did: they develop themselves from within, and this entails continuity of being from the begining. Second, I argued philosophically that there was no essential difference between the embryos they once were and the young adults they were today that would justify killing them at the early stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency were not good reasons for saying they had no right to life then but not now. I used Stephen Schwarz’s acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences. At no point did the Senator refute either my scientific argument or my philosophical one. He just kept asserting the points I mentioned above. I made sure the audience noticed that.
True, when your opponent makes no formal argument but simply strings together assertions, rebuttals are tougher. There is no easy way to get to everything that is asserted in the brief period allotted for replies. Nevertheless, I made several points in what little time I had.
First, as Hadley Arkes points out, why should anyone suppose that the absence of consensus means an absence of truth? Just because people disagree does not mean there are no right answers. People once disagreed on slavery and on women having a right to vote. Did that mean nobody was right?
Second, the unborn are not like brain-dead people. A brain-dead individual has suffered an irreversible cessation of the body’s ability to function as a coordinated organism. He or she is properly dead. Embryos, meanwhile, don’t need a brain to function as coordinated organisms. Something else coordinates their bodily systems so that they function as living organisms. Thus, the alleged parallel between the brain-dead individual and the living human embryo utterly breaks down. Meanwhile, if self-awareness gives us value, those with more of it are more human and valuable than those with less. Human equality is impossible.
Third, it is one thing to withhold support. It is quite another to slit your victim’s throat in the name of bodily autonomy. Put simply, abortion is much more than merely withholding a kidney from your child who needs it. It’s actively killing another human being through dismemberment or poisoning. Moreover, if women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy that trumps any rights of their unborn offspring, what’s wrong with a mother taking thalidomide to relieve morning sickness even though the drug results in deformed offspring with no arms or no legs? And if a mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps everything else, what’s wrong with Melissa Ann Rowland refusing to undergo an emergency C-section to save the lives of her crack-addicted twins? When hospital staff begged her to do so, she replied that she’d rather lose a baby than leave a scar on her body. She then went outside for a smoke. Two hours later, she finally agreed to the C-section, but by then it was two late. One of the babies died before delivery. Does the Senator have a problem with that? He shouldn’t. After all, it’s her body, her choice.
Fourth, I agree women should be trusted to make their own personal decisions on abortion, but only if their unborn offspring are not human. Should we trust women to make their own personal decisions on killing toddlers? Never in a million years. Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human does the appeal to trust work. But the senator needs to argue for this, not merely assume it.
Fifth, the Senator was intellectually dishonest to play the rape card. His position is not that abortion should only be legal in cases of rape. His view is that abortion should be legal for any reason or no reason through all nine months of pregnancy, no questions asked. Why, then, is he hiding behind the hard case of rape when his real position is far more extreme? As Frank Beckwith points out, to say that we should legalize all abortions due to a hard case like rape is similar to arguing that we should eliminate all traffic laws because you might have to run a red light rushing a loved one to the hospital. When the student panel asked me about the rape issue and how giving birth to a child might cause the mother psychological pain, I replied as follows: “You are absolutely right. Giving birth to the child may indeed cause her painful memories. I agree. I also agree that women who are victims of violent crimes deserve the best care we can offer. Given we both agree the mother may experience pain whenever she looks at the child, the question becomes this: How should a civil society treat innocent human beings that remind us of a painful event (pause)? Is it okay to kill them so we can feel better? In other words, does hardship justify homicide? Suppose, for example, a two year old reminds his mother of a violent act committed by his father. Is it okay to kill the toddler so his mother can feel better? If not, why is that? Isn’t it because the toddler is a human being whose right to life should not depend on how others feel about him? If the unborn are human, they should not be killed to make us feel better any more than we’d kill a toddler for that reason. It all comes back to the question, what is the unborn?
Sixth, the Senator is just plain wrong to say that the government, thanks to Roe v. Wade, is no longer involved in the abortion issue. Sure it is. In fact, one branch of the federal government, the federal courts, has co-opted the issue from the other two branches of government—the legislative and the executive—leaving them no say on the matter. In fact, Roe v. Wade and its companion case Doe v. Bolton instituted through raw judicial power a regime of abortion-on-demand through all nine months of pregnancy. True, justice Harry Blackmun claimed to limit abortion after six months, but the devil is in the details. What he really said, and what Senator Leach failed to say, is that the state may, if it chooses, pass laws protecting unborn humans after 6 months, but if and only if those laws do not interfere with the mother’s “health.” The Court in Doe v. Bolton went on to define “health” so broadly you can drive a Mack Truck through it. In short, “health” does not mean only that the mother’s physical life is in trouble, but anything you want it to mean as related to her “well-being.” That includes her social health, economic health, family health--you name it! That’s why a 1983 U.S. Senate subcommittee concluded that thanks to Roe and Doe, there are no practical restrictions on abortion up until the time of birth! As for the Court not saying when life begins, true, justice Blackmun did say those words, but he didn’t mean them. Notice what he said. He said no one knows when life begins, but that abortion should remain legal through all nine months of pregnancy. Thus, he really did claim to know when life begins in that he gave unborn humans no protection until birth!
Seventh, Leach played the back-alley abortion card, claiming that if abortion is restricted, women will die in droves from dangerous illegal medical procedures. I've dealt at length with this assertion elsewhere, but notice Leach once again assumes the unborn are not human, a point he had yet to argue for. Otherwise, his claim amounts to this: Because some humans will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. But why should the law be faulted for making it more risky for one human to take the life of another completely innocent one? At the same time, it’s simply untrue that thousands of women a year died from illegal abortions prior to Roe. As Mary Calderone, former medical director for Planned Parenthood pointed out in a 1960 article in the American Journal of Public Health, deaths from illegal abortion were extremely low because of two factors—the widespread introduction of antibiotics and the fact the reputable physicians were performing most abortions, even illegal ones.
Eighth, Senator Leach never once gave an argument for why body size determines one’s value. He repeatedly asserted that embryos were smaller than the size of a pinhead, but never gave a reason for why that mattered in deciding who lives and who dies.
I’ll conclude with two final points. First, Leach was stung badly when a student panelist asked him to answer this question (paraphrase): “Senator Leach, does it trouble you that in most states you can be prosecuted for harming or killing a fetus, unless, of course, you do it through abortion?” The Senator’s reply amounted to saying that wanted fetuses are valued by their mothers and thus should not be killed but unwanted ones are different. Wow. Your right to life depends on how wanted you are. As I pointed out to the students, the homeless are unwanted, but that doesn’t mean we can kill them.
Second, I made a tactical error in my closing statement that didn’t sink my case but did give Senator Leach a final laugh line. I began my closing statement by addressing the Senator directly: “You’ve mentioned rape repeatedly in this debate but you and I both know that you don’t think abortion should only be legal in cases of rape. To the contrary, you believe it should be legal for any reason for all nine months of pregnancy. So, suppose for the sake of argument I grant that abortion should be allowed in the case of rape. Would you join me in passing laws to protect all other unborn children who are not conceived that way?” When Senator Leach jumped in to say, “Can I answer that question?” the moderator immediately said no, partly due to his frustration with the Senator for breaking other rules during the debate. For some reason, I immediately echoed the moderator’s answer when I shouldn’t have. Truth is, if I asked the Senator a question, he had a right to answer it. (I should have just posed the question to the audience.) When he was told he could not answer, he replied, “ Can I at least make hand signals?” I have to admit, that was a funny line and helped him close out the debate with a laugh. However, I quickly recovered and used my remaining four minutes to remind the students that I presented an argument—namely, that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn were distinct, living, and whole human beings and that none of the four differences between the embryos they once were and the young adults they are today justified killing them at that earlier stage of development. I reminded them further that nothing the Senator said that morning refuted even one of those points.
My concluding soundbite went something like this: “Look around the room. Go ahead, stare at those around you for a moment. Okay, consider this question: What makes us equal? What is it? If our value is determined by self-awareness or some other property that may come or go, human equality is impossible. After all, some of us are more self-aware than others. Truth is, there is only one thing we all share equally. We all have the same human nature and we had it from the moment we each began to exist. In short, this really is a debate about human equality: Does each and every human being have an equal right to life? In the past, we discriminated on the basis of skin color and gender. Now, with elective abortion, we discriminate on the basis of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. We’ve simply swapped one form of bigotry for another. We can do better. Let’s follow the example put forth in our Declaration of Independence and agree that all humans are created equally and that none should be killed simply because the look different from us.”
I won’t say it was my best debate—I made a few tactical errors (agreeing to debate w/out pics, my concluding question to Senator Leach) which come easy when you are dealing with a flamethrower--but it was a win on hostile turf. Sometimes you win ugly. I’ll take it.