Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tonight's Debate with Nadine Strossen at UNC [SK]

Good debate tonight at The University of North Carolina with Nadine Strossen, former President of the ACLU. I like Nadine and we get along just fine, though of course I think she's mistaken on the issue at hand.

There were no substantial surprises in this debate, though as you will see below, I did alter my rebuttal speech a bit from our previous encounters.

As true in our previous three debates, Nadine tried to frame the debate with an appeal to reproductive freedom. To paraphrase 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 birth-control programs.

As I point out in The Case for Life, Nadine's claim is question-begging. She simply assumes the unborn are not human beings. Would she make this same claim for human freedom and self-determination if the debate were about killing toddlers instead of fetuses?

Thus, I began my own opening speech, as I often do, 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 me 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 then argued scientifically that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings, and that differences between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today do not justify killing you at that earlier stage of development. (You can read more about that case here and here.) I also showed this video.

During my rebuttal speech, I gave the audience three key reasons why Nadine's overall case was not persuasive.

1. She assumes the unborn are not human, but doesn’t argue for it.
2. Her appeal to moral and legal neutrality is not neutral.
3. She provides an insecure foundation for human rights

1) She assumes the unborn are not human.

A. Let me make an observation. I laid out a scientific case and Nadine responded with an appeal to religion. She said religious leaders don’t agree on whether the unborn is a human being. She even cited the YWCA to prove her point. This is flawed thinking for 3 reasons:

1. It’s a category mistake. That is, the question of when life begins is not a religious question, but an empirical one. To get the answer, we don’t go to the Bible or church tradition, we go to the science of embryology. And the science is clear: From the earliest stages, each of us was a distinct, living, whole human.

2. How does it follow that because people disagree, nobody is right? People once disagreed on whether the earth was flat or round, did follow nobody was right? They also disagreed on slavery, but it didn't follow there were no right answers. As Hadley Arkes points out, the absence of consensus does not mean an absence of truth.

3. If we don’t know if the unborn are human, we shouldn’t kill the unborn because we might be taking a human life. As Ronald Reagan allegedly once said, "If you are out hunting and see bushes rustling in front of and you are not sure if it's the deer you've been after or your best buddy, are you going to open fire?" Not unless you are Dick Cheney! (That got a big laugh.)
B. At the same time, Nadine says we should work together to reduce the need for abortion. But why? If there is nothing wrong with abortion, who cares how many there are? But if elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a human being, that’s a very good reason to legislate against it.

Of course, Nadine says our public policy should focus more on reducing the need for abortion by getting at the underlying causes rather than legislating protection for the unborn. I find this an odd claim. Suppose I said the “underlying cause” of spousal abuse is psychological, so instead of making it illegal for husbands to beat their wives, the solution is to provide counseling for men.” There are “underlying causes” for rape, murder, theft and so on, but that in no way makes it “misguided” to have laws banning such actions.

C. But most importantly, notice how many of Nadine’s comments simply assume the unborn are not human. She doesn’t argue for this, she simply assumes it. We call this begging the question, and it’s a logical fallacy that lurks behind many of her claims. Here are 4 examples:

1. “Laws against abortion impose religious beliefs on others.” Setting aside for the moment that the claim the fetus has a right to life is no more religious than saying it doesn’t, would Nadine argue this way if we were talking about killing toddlers? Never. Only by assuming unborn are not human does her reply work. But that is precisely the point she must argue for and so far hasn’t.

2. “We must respect freedom of conscience that allows women a right to choose.” Well, maybe. But choose what? But what if the topic were locking teenagers up until age 30? (Some of you are tempted.) Would Nadine argue for freedom of conscience for those parents who wish to unjustly incarcerate their kids? Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human can we argue denying them a right to life based on conscience.

3. “Our individual principles of morality cannot control our judicial decisions. Our obligation is to liberty.” Is that true or just her individual moral view? But again, notice she assumes the unborn are not human. Would she argue for individual liberty if the choice before us was the right to kill toddlers? Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human can she argue this way. But that’s a point she must prove, not merely assume.

4. “The State should not enter the private realm of family life.” Really? What is a family wants the right to rough up a toddler in the privacy of the bedroom. Should we allow this in the name of respecting the private realm of families? Only by assuming the unborn are human can we justify taking the lives of the unborn in the name of privacy.

2) Nadine’s appeal to state and moral neutrality is not neutral.

A. Very simply, state neutrality is impossible. The law either recognizes the unborn as valuable human beings and thus protects them or it does not and permits killing them. By agreeing that human embryos are fitting subjects for abortion, the federal courts are taking a public policy position that the unborn do not deserve the same protections owed toddlers or other human beings. This is hardly a neutral position; it’s an extremely controversial one with deep metaphysical underpinnings. Why, then, is it okay for Nadine to legislate her own view on the status of human embryos but not okay for pro-lifers to legislate theirs?

B. Nadine’s appeal to moral neutrality also is not neutral. Notice what she says. “Our individual principles of morality cannot control judicial decisions. Our obligation is to liberty and we must respect freedom of conscience.” Really? Is that morally true or just her individual principle of morality? It’s like she’s saying morality is personal, but here’s some objective rules everyone must follow—“We must respect freedom. We must respect conscience. We have an obligation to liberty.” Says who? Notice she seeks to impose, through law, her own controversial view of morality on pro-lifers who disagree.

Now let me be clear! I have no problem with grounding our laws on objective moral principles. Indeed, if we don’t, law is reduced to mere power. However, what I do take issue with are those who pretend they are neutral regarding morality and the law. No they are not. Nadine wants to legislate her position every bit as much as I want to legislate mine. There is no neutral ground here. Everyone takes a position. And I am fully prepared to accept Nadine’s position on abortion if she can demonstrate the unborn are not human. But a faulty appeal to neutrality just won’t do the trick.

3) Nadine provides an insecure foundation for basic human rights.

She cites the infamous Mystery Passage in Casey by Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." That is, human nature is not fixed, but determined subjectively. But if that is true, there can be no fixed rights that arise from that nature, including a fixed right to an abortion. So why can’t a future Court just arbitrarily decide that women don’t have a right to an abortion? The Court didn’t say.

So what are left with? The Court has affirmed the right of a person to define his own concept of existence, the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of human life. But, writes Hadley Arkes, “was there any reality or truth attaching to him? And what was there about him that commanded the rest of us to respect these decisions he reached about himself and the universe?” Why can’t we just make him up to be someone who has no rights if that fits our own concept of meaning and human life? In short, the Court’s infamous “mystery passage” assumes the very thing it denies. By demanding that we respect a person’s judgment about human life and the meaning of the universe, the Court assumes that the human being in question actually exists, whether my own concept of the universe admits him or not.

With that, you have the main points we covered.



  1. Great job Scott! What was the crowd's response to your arguments? Your logic is impeccable and I don't see how any sane and truly open-minded individual could fail to agree with your logic. Are these debates ever recorded on video? If so, where can I view them?

  2. People have such tunnel vision and it's really quite sad. Ronald Reagen said it better than I ever could, "We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life." When did all humans loose the right to live? In my opinion it’s because sometimes the unborn are thought of, as being 'in the way'. This will not stop with the unborn.

    We have to find a way to save the unborn children. All the effort in the world is worth it, even when saving one life. Yet we can’t stop at one. After sending an email to my family about being pro-life, I was even surprised at the results. In my own family, I have a member who is pro-choice. Even if I have to change the world one person at a time, I will start with my family. Thanks for showing me the path Scott and keep fighting the GOOD fight.

  3. I have a comment about the appeal to the "mystery passage", I believe it was. Wouldn't this mean that it is a violation of liberty to categorize or identify someone else's existence (I'm forgetting the passage's exact wording)? That is, wouldn't that passage negate all pro-abortion personhood arguments, as they all infringe upon the right of the unborn to identify their own selves?

  4. I liked the argument, and especially its style.

    I think it's possible to want to limit the number of abortions without believing that foetuses are inhuman.

    The problem is then you're then stuck with either, changing the definition of murder, or allowing murder in some cases. But then again, I don't think that either of these things are necessarily deal-breakers for certain rigorous ethical codes.

    You brought up some good points that I'll have to think more about. I was never entirely comfortable with the anti-life case, but I have also been unconvinced by the mostly religious arguments of the anti-choice campaign.


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