Friday, February 1, 2008

My Debate with Nadine Strossen of the ACLU [SK]

Nadine Strossen is President of the ACLU and I consider her a friend. She is pleasant and I enjoy her company each time we debate. I wish more of my opponents were like her.

Last night at Malone College's World View Forum, we debated in front of a full house of 1,000 students, faculty, and others. The ACLU of Ohio even reserved 100 seats in advance.

The theme of our exchange was "Abortion: Legal Right or Moral Wrong?" I thought the event went very well despite a structure that did not allow for adequate rebuttal speeches.

The structure of the forum was as follows:

1. Each speaker had 20 minutes to make opening arguments.
2. Each speaker had 5 minutes to cross-examine the other.
3. A student panel then asked each speaker 3 questions, followed by 45 minutes of Q&A from the audience.
4. Each speaker had 5 minutes for closing statements.

The coin toss went to Nadine which meant she got to speak first. Nadine tried to frame the debate with an appeal to reproductive freedom. To summarize her case, reproductive freedom means the ability to choose whether or not to have children according to one's own personal religious beliefs. That freedom is necessary if all persons are to lead lives of self-determination, opportunity, and human dignity. She repeatedly stressed our need to work together to reduce the high number of abortions, by which she meant pro-lifers should support tax-funded contraception programs.

Notice the question-begging nature of her claim. She simply assumes, without argument, that the unborn are not human beings. Would she make this same claim for human freedom and self-determination if her neighbor suggested killing toddlers as well as fetuses?

Thus, I began my own opening speech by saying the following (paraphrased for brevity):

"Men and women, I agree completely with everything Nadine just said. She's right that abortion is a personal, private matter that should not be restricted in any way. She's right that we shouldn't interfere with personal choices. She's right that pro-lifers should stay out of this decision. Yes, I agree completely IF. IF What? If the unborn are not human beings. And if Nadine can demonstrate that the unborn are not members of the human family, I will concede this exchange and so should everyone else who is pro-life.

Contrary to what some may think, the issue that divides Nadine and I is not that she is pro-choice and I am anti-choice. Truth is, I am vigorously "pro-choice" when it comes to women choosing a number of moral goods. I support a woman’s right to choose her own health care provider, to choose her own school, to choose her own husband, to choose her own job, to choose her own religion, and to choose her own career, to name a few. These are among the many choices that I fully support for the women of our country. But some choices are wrong, like killing innocent human beings simply because they are in the way and cannot defend themselves. No, we shouldn’t be allowed to choose that. So, again, the issue that separates Nadine and I is not that she is pro-choice and I am anti-choice. The issue the divides us is just one question, What is the unborn?

Let me be clear: If the unborn is a human being, killing him or her to benefit others is a serious moral wrong. It treats the distinct human being, with his or her own inherent moral worth, as nothing more than a disposable instrument. Conversely, if the unborn are not human, killing them through elective abortion requires no more justification than having your tooth pulled."
In short, I was willing to buy her argument for freedom and self-determination--but only after she demonstrated that the unborn were not human beings. I agree with Frank Beckwith: It won't work to say we should be a society that supports choice when the very question of who is part of that society, that is, whether or not it includes the unborn, is itself under dispute in the abortion debate. Nadine needed to make a case against the humanity of the unborn.

I then argued scientifically that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. I quoted from numerous embryology textbooks to support my claim. Philosophically, I argued the unborn differ from you and I only in terms of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency and none of the four differences justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. (You can get a fully summary of my scientific and philosophic case here.)

Nadine did not seriously challenge my case scientifically (other than to deny, without any evidence, that science tells us the kind of thing the unborn is) or philosophically. During the cross examination, I asked her why she was troubled by the high number of abortions. After all, if abortion does not take the life of a defenseless human being without justification, why be troubled by the high number of abortions? Why seek to reduce it? She never really answered that question.

Throughout the debate, she insisted that humans had natural rights in virtue of their humanity. I agree completely. Thus, I asked her this question:

"Nadine, you agree with me that humans have natural rights simply because they are human and that government has a duty to protect those rights. You also agree that those rights come to be when we come to be. Science establishes that we came to be at conception. Thus, shouldn't the same government that protects your natural rights protect those of the unborn?"

Again, she didn't really answer the question other than to say the unborn were potential life and people disagree about when life begins. I countered by reading, again, select quotes from embryology text books that establish, without any doubt, when human life begins. I then asked why, given this overwhelming consensus, we should believe her claim instead of the embryologists?

I've got to run catch my plane to Chicago. I will try to say more later today.


  1. Beautiful, beautiful. Well done, my friend. God love you.

  2. This is excellent stuff, as usual, Scott. I'd love to hear more, as you have time.

    God bless and take care,


  3. Thanks for the kind remarks, all. The Malone College newspaper has an article about the debate at the link below, though I did not find the exchange with Nadine nearly as heated as the writer paints it to be. I agree with a student quoted in the picee: “It was a perfect balance of civil discussion and tension between the proponents,” said Siebert, who is a student member of the Worldview Forum Committee.


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