Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to debate various people who willingly defended that abortion is morally justifiable up to a certain point. With the exception of Ontario’s late-term abortionist Dr. Fraser Fellows, my opponents have always been professors. That was also the case when I debated Dr. Wayne Sumner at the University of Toronto on March 12th and at Ryerson University on April 8th—events that I believe give us useful insights into a worldview that allows for abortions.
In preparation for the debates, I read Dr. Sumner’s book Abortion and Moral Theoryand appreciated the thoughtful analysis of women’s right’s arguments. He explains that those who justify abortion based on bodily autonomy arguments or due to circumstances are wrong because they deny the humanity of the pre-born. Turns out we can agree on some things, I thought to myself.
That was short-lived, however. Dr. Sumner goes on to explain that pro-lifers are also wrong because they value the pre-born simply for being human and that, he argues, is morally irrelevant. Instead, the professor makes the case for sentience being the property our rights should be based on. What gives any creature value, in other words, is the ability for consciousness and suffering, which we develop between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy—as far as we currently know at least.
During the first debate, my plan was to focus on the arbitrary nature of this criterion. I have lost count of the many different criteria pro-“choice” people have come up with as a justification for abortion. One is opposed to abortion once the pre-born have a heartbeat (3 weeks after fertilization) while the next thinks it’s wrong after they have fully formed organs (around eight weeks). A third believes that what counts is having brain waves and yet another brings up being able to live outside the mother’s body. Dr. Sumner’s view is simply one of many so whose do we pick? How do we decide where to draw the line?
Hoping for an honest debate, I was somewhat surprised when my opponent used his opening statement to say why the pro-life position is wrong, mentioning the same reasons from his book, then adding that abortion should be allowed because, well, freedom of conscience. Wait, I remember thinking, that’s supposed to be his rebuttal.What happened to making the case for abortion, sentience arguments and all?
I attempted to use cross examination to have Dr. Sumner say what he actually thinks about the pre-born. After all, in order to rebut your opponent’s case for abortion, he first has to make one. Seven minutes turned out to be much too short for that, perhaps purposely so. And when it was his turn to cross-examine me, the professor honed in on something else.
“Do animals have rights? And why do humans have human rights?”
Of course that’s not what we were there for. The question up for debate wasn’t why humans have rights, nor whether we should include other species as well. Though those are interesting and important questions, the one up for debate was whether abortion is a human right or human right’s violation. And Dr. Sumner yet had to make a positive case for his view.
I used my final 15 minutes to address issues the professor mentioned during the debate and in his book. As it turned out, he would use his time to make a case for things I then wasn’t able to rebut anymore. Apparently the audience wasn’t entirely convinced. During Q&A, a large number of people wanted clarification on why sentience should be a right-conferring property and why it is less arbitrary than simply being alive as a member of our kind.
One student, for instance, wrote on her survey:
Professor Sumner’s argument was purely based on function and capacity but there must be objective truth. It is not good enough to say what is good for you—that’s just moral relativism.
All in all, the debate yielded good results—the surveys are one way of knowing this—but I left hoping for an opportunity to challenge the professor’s views more. You can imagine my excitement when the Ryerson pro-life students were unable to find an opponent on their campus, and Dr. Sumner agreed to debate again.
April 8th came and Dr. Sumner, perhaps not surprisingly, presented almost exactly the same opening statement as the first time. This time, however, cross examination presented more of an opportunity to press the professor on his views. Basically anyone who has sentience and the ability for suffering should have a right to life, he argued, but that has two implications: 1) some animal species will be included and 2) some human beings will be excluded.
If Dr. Sumner truly believes this, I thought, he would have to be opposed to late-term abortions. But he wasn’t. Children with disorders should be allowed to be aborted, he figured, so I asked about those with Down Syndrome. That made him a bit uncomfortable because, lucky children, their disability wasn’t “severe enough.” Despite that, Dr. Sumner supported a woman’s right to abort, even then. As it turns out, here was another philosophy professor quite comfortable with child-killing, for whatever reason.
It astounds me that there are professors willing to spend their free time and get up in front of rooms full of people to justify the butchering of the youngest of our kind. It angers me that, while they make arguments for why abortion should be allowed up to a certain point, they don’t have much of a problem with the same practice past that point. We should take note of this, and here’s why.
Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer once said that philosophy used to be the pursuit of truth. Today’s philosophers, however, by and large reject any concept of absolute truth and as a result, everything becomes relative.
This became painfully clear during the last debate. Dr. Sumner started out defending abortion until sentience, then admitted he wasn’t opposed to late-term abortions, and finally used his closing statement to make a case for physician-assisted suicide. Nothing drove it home clearer, however, than when he made the shocking admission of being fine with infanticide too.
But we shouldn’t be shocked. Once anyone’s human rights are up for debate, no one is safe anymore. Yesterday it was the pre-born, today the newborn, and (why not?) tomorrow the sick and elderly. Such a view results in inequality and even bloodshed, something Dr. Sumner couldn’t deny.
Thankfully, others noticed this too. A student by the name of Melissa messaged later:
I didn’t get a chance to talk to Maaike after the event, but I really wanted to say thank you! That was an amazing event and I’m so glad I went. She changed my opinion on abortion. And the visuals were excruciatingly effective. I cried.
Melissa recognized a simple and comprehensive truth we consistently bring to campuses: that the only view that ensures all humans are safe is one that values us for what we are, not what we do. In order to safeguard equality amongst humans, our rights must therefore be based on something we share equally, which is our humanity. That’s why human rights should begin when each human life begins and that point—determined objectively and scientifically—is fertilization.
The alternative is a view which values humans for their functions. Not only is that subjective and arbitrary, it also has extremely bloody consequences. Whether one has a background in philosophy or not, we can all recognize that that’s just a bad idea.
Note: A video recording of the first debate can be found below. For the best rebuttal of Dr. Sumner’s arguments, stay tuned for a video of the second debate, which will be added as soon as our video editor makes it available.