Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Debate at Dalhousie University

Last night, I attended the debate between Stephanie Gray of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform and Dr. Mark Mercer, philosphy professor from Saint Mary's University.

The subject was Is abortion immoral? and Should it be made illegal?

Ms Gray led off with 20 minute opening remarks; she is extremely articulate, very well-prepared, she has done this so many times that she is like a well-oiled logic machine. I have heard her several times before, so nothing was really new and I only jotted down two points she emphasized: the only real questions are always- When does life begin? and Are the pre-born human?

Dr. Mercer followed with his introductory remarks; he has a very relaxed style, which does not lend itself well to a debate, and I found him to wander off on tangents plus his remarks did not seem to be organized, either on paper or in his own mind. I can`t remember how many times he said Ì don`t know, but it was frequent enough to think "not again!"

I did jot some notes of his remarks which included:
- there is nothing unethical about killing a human zygote, embryo or fetus
- abortion is not in the least ethically troubling
- there is nothing special about being part of a species

He listed the ethically salient properties that make a human entity a person whose life is worth protecting:
- ability to experience pain and pleasure
- consciousness
- being a locus of feeling or emotion
- being a locus of thought
- self-consciousness
- rationality
- "things matter to me"
- "things are going well or badly for me"

He stated that Ms Gray`s underlying premise - that being a member of the species homo sapiens entitles life to protection - was not ethically significant. He then made reference to Peter Singer and I knew exactly where he was going with his side of the debate. As he summed up his opening remarks: If ìt`s not unethical to kill a cow to serve someone`s needs, then it is not unethical to kill a fetus if it serves someone`s needs.

Then there followed an opportunity for both debaters to question each other about certain points they had made. Ms Gray zoomed in on Mercer`s remarks about where he would draw the line for protecting human life - would it be at 18 months? as he indicated that is when most children have some sense of self. Or would it be a little earlier? or what about a child who hadn`t developed certain abilities by that point? Could they then be killed?

Mercer did not give definitive answers to any of her questions; again he said repeatedly - I don`t know. He did say that he would approve of abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, but that a mother in the last stages should be encouraged to deliver the baby, since there would be someone willing to take the child and care for it. He did say that he was not in favour of euthanizing disabled children. At least he recommended adoption for those who are unwanted.

Both then had five minutes to make some closing remarks. Gray came back to her fundamental premise, that being a member of the human family is what we all have in common and that is what should give us protection, even while in the womb. To Mercer`s remarks about there is nothing special about being a member of a species, Gray made the statement that "there is a big difference between killing your dog to feed your child and killing your child to feed your dog". This elicited a round of applause from the hundred plus people who had gathered to hear the debate.

Gray said that ultimately the abortion debate comes down to a question of power. If the baby in the womb could fight back, how many abortionists would actually continue to do abortions? Outlawing abortion is ultimately about respecting people who cannot fight back when their lives are threatened.

Mercer made the remark that countries which have legalized abortion are countries that are more egalitarian than others. One audience member questioned him on this, saying that our constitutions are founded on the principles of natural law, which we assume is somehow inherent in people's makeup. To eliminate the respect for the human species and say that it makes no difference whether you are a human being or not, would this not challenge the very underpinning of our society? Mercer responded "yes, it would and I am okay with that".

I have to conclude with one of Stephanie Gray's questions to the audience: given her view and that proposed by Dr. Mercer, where human beings do not deserve respect by virtue of being human beings, which world would you want to live in? Indeed, which world?

Unfortunately the evening concluded with a member of the Women's Center for Dalhousie University getting very angry with Dr. Mercer. She asked why had the pro-life group been able to bring in a speaker from Calgary and all the university had to offer was Dr. Mercer? In her words to Dr. Mercer "you have not said one thing this evening that a single pro-choice person in this room could agree with." Her remarks should have been made in private to Dr. Mercer; instead she humiliated him in public, taking out her frustration on him that the pro-choice side was made to look foolish by the articulate logic of Ms. Gray.

I went up to Dr. Mercer to thank him for coming to this, in fact for even stepping up to the plate. Two years ago, when Jojo Ruba came to Saint Mary's, we tried to find someone to debate him on the abortion issue. Both the Dal Law Students for Choice and the Medical Students for Choice declined, giving the excuse that it was exam time and they weren't prepared to do this. It was only Dr. Mercer who criticized the way Ruba was treated by SMU in 2009, and it was only Dr. Mercer who was willing to debate Gray. So thank you Dr. Mercer, even though I don't think your argument holds any water at all.

I left with a friend who made the comment that Mercer seemed to lack any passion for the subject at all. Perhaps this is the most distressing thing, to listen to someone for whom an issue of life and death doesn't seem to matter, he is okay either way. What a sad outlook to have that one species doesn't matter more than another, that one life doesn't matter more than another, that these big questions elicit only a blase response. Indeed, which world do you want to live in?


Jan Clark said...

I too attend the debate last night.
Although, in retrospect, it wasn't much of a debate. I had the distince feeling that Stephanie's 20 min opening speech actually "swayed" her opponent. He seem confused, uneasy, and seemed to not believe what he was saying. I think SHE GOT TO HIM!
Stephanie was EXCELLENT - her visit and debate should have been promoted in all bulletins in all Churchs'. Wonderful evening.
Jan Clark, Dartmouth

Anonymous said...

Good overview. Thanks.