Last night I attend an abortion debate on the campus of Grand Valley State University between Scott Klusendorf, the president of the Life Training Institute, and Nadine Strossen, the president of the ACLU. The debate was put on as part of the campus' fire and ice week where both the Students for Life and the Voices for Healthy Choices put on a variety of events to share their views. The debate was the easily the largest event. The room with about 300-400 seats was packed and people had to be turned away.
The debate format was set up so each speaker was given 15 minutes to make their presentation and then 5 minutes for rebuttals. Participants from the opposing students groups then asked 4 questions each and Klusendorf and Strossen were each given a chance to rebut what the other said in their answers. The general audience was then allowed to ask questions. I'd estimate the audience asked somewhere between 10 and 15 questions (including one by yours truly) and each speaker was given the opportunity if they desired to address the question. The debate concluded with each presenter giving a 3 minute closing statement.
I'll start with the positives for Strossen. Thankfully, she wasn't one of those pro-choicers who argue men can't have a say in the abortion debate and when one of the prepared questions by the Voices for Healthy Choices group asked a question which bordered on making the "you're a man, so your opinion doesn't count" assertion, Strossen said something along the lines of "a presenter's gender shouldn't play a role in this debate." Klusendorf showed a video which showed graphic images of unborn children and Strossen never tried to argue the images were false (I don't believe she ever mentioned the video at all). She also, as far as I can remember, avoided any kind of personal attack on Scott.
Besides that, I was really disappointed in how poor Strossen's presentation and arguments were. I guess I was expecting something more from the president of the ACLU. She noted she had visited Scott's web site and read some of his material yet she didn't seem prepared to deal with his arguments and presentation which are pretty much summed up here.
First off, she used a lot of really bad and/or old pro-choice myths. The 1.2 million abortion per year before Roe myth, the thousands of women died from illegal abortions before Roe myth, and emergency contraception could prevent most or almost all unplanned pregnancies fairy tale. There was also the "safe, legal and rare" comment, numerous quotes from U.S. Supreme Court decisions (including ending her opening presentation with the much ridiculed "mystery of life" quote from Planned Parenthood v. Casey), and noting desire to reduce unplanned pregnancies.
Strossen's true downfall, however, was her decision to completely avoid making an kind of argument regarding what the unborn are. Klusendorf begins the debate by framing it around what the unborn are and stating he will concede the debate if Strossen can prove the unborn aren't human beings. Strossen didn't even try. She couldn't even muster a "alright they may be human beings but they aren't persons" kind of argument. All she could do was continually assert the unborn were "potential life" without ever once making an argument trying to differentiate between "potential life" (which she also said included sperm and egg cells) and actual life. She also asserted that when life begins is a moral question and was unable to come up with a single scientific source to back up her opinion that "there is no scientific consensus" on whether the unborn are alive or not when asked by Klusendorf.
Strossen also tried to play a couple of real obvious rhetorical ploys. At one point, she asserted the prolife movement made no exceptions for the life of the mother. Klusendorf replied by asking her to cite legislation in the U.S. which didn't provide an exception for the life of the mother. Strossen then cited how the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act didn't have an exception for the health of the mother.
Strossen also claims she and the ACLU were fine with parental consent/notifications laws as long as they have a bypass waiver. The ACLU's web page on parental consent/notification legislation says different. She claimed she knew no one who supports infanticide. (Cough)Peter Singer(cough)
Strossen got her best response from the pro-choice members of the audience when she appealed to a woman's bodily autonomy and how women shouldn't be forced to have their bodies controlled. Yet she never really made a strong argument for it. She didn't invest the time needed to make a Judith Jarvis Thomson-like Violinist Argument. It was this "you're not forced to give your kidney up to someone who needs one, so women shouldn't be forced to carrying a potential life" type of assertion. Klusendorf discussed the problem with absolute bodily autonomy in his concluding comments using thalidomide and other examples to show that pregnant women shouldn't have absolute physical autonomy. Strossen's response was that she never argued for absolute bodily autonomy for pregnant women and noted she wasn't opposed to abortion restrictions after viability as long as their were exception for the life and the health of the mother.
Her worst point came, I felt, when she said that she respects the lives of cockroaches and something like she wouldn't necessarily "privilege the lives of humans over animals" in response to Klusendorf's use of Greg Koukl's "Daddy, can I kill this?" argument. I was stunned.
During the question and answer period with the audience, Strossen again and again decided not to make a comment or rebut what Klusendorf argued which seemed real odd to me. It was like she ran out of steam. The question I asked to Strossen was, "If abortion is basic human right and a foundation freedom (which is how she had described abortion) then why should this basic human right be exercised rarely? And are there other foundation freedoms and basic human rights which should be exercised rarely?"
Her response started by listing a couple of other basic rights she thought should be exercised rarely including assisted suicide and killing someone in self-defense. Her reasoning for why was because she has respect for the "potential life" of the fetus. This is utter nonsense considering she also considers sperm and egg to be "potential life." Does Strossen also think men should lose their sperm rarely and women's eggs should only be released rarely? Of course not.
If I had another question or more time, I would have asked how viability changes Strossen's view on abortion. If women have the right not to be encumbered by a pregnancy they don't want then how does viability change that? Even if the child reaches the stage of bare viability, the pregnant woman will still have to carry the child for a couple more months. Why should women be forced to carry a viable pregnancy to term if they don't want to? Why should pregnant women with viable fetuses be forced to use their bodies against their will when no one else in society is forced to do that?
At the beginning of the debate, Strossen noted she was proud to be willing to debate Scott (since Scott's web site notes how some pro-choicers won't debate him). I sincerely doubt that will be case ever again.