Adventures may be a little strong. I was a largely passive observer of the debate at Tomkin's Park
. This blog post is mostly about the impressions I got watching the debate rather than my personal beliefs on abortion. If you want that, you can read this
The format was simple: Each side had two speakers, who alternated. I don't know how the first speaker was decided (I missed the very beginning) but the anti-abortion side went first and third and the pro-choice side went second and fourth. The format was also in-the-round: Both observers and participants were in a tight circle of about two dozen folding chairs. Around that was several cameras. Because of the closed in nature and the cameras, I opted to sit well away from the action. Everything was on loud speaker though, so I had no problem hearing the arguments.
The first anti-abortionist speaker was on when I arrived and he was hammering on an argument that it's wrong to kill humans and abortion kills humans, because things like "zygote", "embryo" and "fetus" were simply age categories, like "infant", "child" and "adult". Fetuses are human, killing a human is wrong, therefore abortion is wrong and should be outlawed.
The next speaker, for the pro-choice side was HJ Hornbeck
. He freely admitted that he, personally, has no problem with a fetus being human. He proceeded to argue that believing that wasn't an obstacle to abortion because no one is obligated to use their body to provide for another person. I can't have my kidney commandeered to save someone else and you can't have your uterus commandeered either. There's a right to life, but there's also a right to body autonomy, and as a society we've decided that the latter outweighs the former when they come into conflict.
All well and good, and it's certainly one of the tenets I used to decide on being pro-choice. He sort of went off into look-at-me-I'm-an-intellectual mode after this. While this might be good if you're in a high school debate club setting, where making a point
actually gains you points
, I suspect it has a way of losing people who aren't intellectuals.
More to the point, if you have to ask the audience if they've heard of Thomas Aquinas' Principle of double effect
, you've lost them. Better to describe the principle in layman's terms without naming it. After all, if the principle's reasoning
is valid, you don't need to show how smart you are by naming it
To the point at hand, abortion might be bad, but we're allowed to do something bad if the effect is a net good - i.e. the mother doesn't suffer. And not in a ends-justify-the-means way, but an actual good at least as great as the means are bad.
He also described some cases of compassionate abortion. For example, children doomed by birth defects to a short miserable existence, or cases where the mother will die if the pregnancy is allowed to continue.
All in all, I'd give it a "B". He could polish that speech so that mere mortals could follow it and do much better.
Then came our third speaker. If the first speaker was the the light-and-fluffy anti-abortion "good cop", then this guy was the "bad cop". This would be Merle Terlesky
. If you habitually read my blog, then trust me when I say Merle is not the sort of person you want to know.
Merle is your standard-issue authoritarian reactionary. He wants the government out of his business and in everyone else's. I can't even really remember much of his "arguments" except in that they were damn near rants.
No, what was really interesting about him is that he used to be a member of an Ontario pro-choice group and now speaks of them in damn near apoplectic tones. At first, when the moderator described his bonafides, I wanted to call "bullshit" - I flat out did not believe that he was what he said he was (namely a former pro-choice activist who had switched sides). I even fired up my smart phone to see if I could find contradictory evidence. Between my lack of success and listening to Merle speak, I decided that he probably was a former pro-choice activist.
I don't know what happened to him to make him switch sides, but I doubt it had much to do with the sanctity of life of a fetus. Mostly this was his tone when speaking of his former colleagues at the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. He always named them individually and had nothing good to say about them. He clearly hated them. Personally. I think he feels betrayed by them in some way, possibly imagined. And being betrayed, has lashed out at them in the worst way he can think of. I imagine a scenario where he was smitten with one of the OCAC organizers, became involved to get closer to them, and turned bitter and vindictive when his feeling went unrequited. Sort of the MRA of the anti-abortion set. Not that I have a shred of proof of that.
The final speaker was Tiffany Sostar (our mutual friend JD was the one who clued me in that the debate was going on). She largely made an argument from consent.
Consent is at the foundation of my politics – I believe that consent must be given for anything that happens to our bodies, and I believe that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consenting to kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to be pregnant, and consenting to be pregnant is not the same as consenting to remain pregnant.
You can read her whole speech here
and I recommend that you do so.
And that was the other thing that convinced me to be pro-choice those many years ago. Though she articulated it much better than I did.
The final portion of the debate was a question/answer that was open to anyone in attendance. Aside from a few sad mentally-ill folk who snuck in, it was informative. JD pointed out something to me that I didn't twig to when I was there - every female who spoke was pro-choice. That's not to say every female present was (a few were holding bloody fetus signs nearby). A few points stick out from this:
- The moderator was lucky that the four main speakers stuck to the rules, because he wasn't terribly good about moderating the people who came later. A Q/A period should actually have questions, not polemics.
- You'll do your side a big favour if you don't immediately describe yourself as a "working-class anarchist" when making your arguments. If you want to call for social justice, call for social justice - you don't need to prove it by being part of a group that you believe has the monopoly on that.
- Mr. Terlesky was not able to grasp the "body autonomy" part of the argument for choice, since his counter-questions kept being of the form "why draw the line at birth, why not kill an infant or an elderly relative?"
- I was surprised by the absence of a religious or slut-shaming argument (though Terlesky came close on both - I think he wanted to make both of those arguments, but knew they weren't going to help against either Hornbeck or Sostar. He clearly didn't think much of people who get "convenience abortions", or atheists.
Overall, the biggest problem for the pro-choice side was trying to do too much education all at once. It wasn't just a pro-choice argument, it was also an argument for acceptance of LGBT (and kinky and poly and... etc.) folk. Now I have no problem with this because these are arguments that need to be made. And I'm mindful that telling the folk making these arguments to wait for the perfect time is a kind of oppression (the perfect time never comes, and so things never improve). Absolutely, make those teaching moments happen. Just remember that there are five levels of empathic understanding, and when making a case, you can really only argue on the target's level, or one level up, if you want to make an impact. Argue too high and your audience ignores you. And frankly, when dealing with LGBT/free-thinking pro-choice people you can argue a level four or five, but with authoritarian religious zealots, you're really looking at a two or three. They can't argue up multiple levels, but you can argue down a couple. Sad as that is, it puts the onus on you to win them over rather than for them to educate themselves.
Of course, they're under no obligation to do so, but I like to hope that throttling back on some arguments will win over some fence sitters (and I consider "I think abortion is wrong, but I'm not willing to outlaw it"
to be sitting on the fence. These people are pro-choice, even if they can't admit the term applies to them).
Being outside the circle, I didn't have the option to make a statement or ask a question, though I seriously considered both. And frankly, I wouldn't have been trying to match anyone's level of empathic understanding, I'd be trying to take the piss out of them. Perhaps it's for the best that I didn't.
Anyway, the statement I wanted to make:
I'd like to commend the protesters over there on their bloody fetus placards. Others may condemn you, but I won't. I want you to put the goriest most debased pictures of torn-apart body parts possible on display. Hell, I want you to make an audio component to go with it - something from a horror movie mixing babies screaming with pigs being slaughtered. And the reason I want all of this is because every time you guys send some poor seven-year old home in tears, you've lost another potential ally. The longer you stand on this corner pissing people off, the more people you push over to the pro-choice side because they want nothing to do with a bunch of irrational, gore-obsessed zealots. Keep it up.
The question I'd have asked would basically be the Fred Clark
If you got your way and abortion was illegal, how would you enforce it? What's the acceptable penalty for a woman who procures an abortion. Not the doctor, the mother.
And that last one I really hope Merle Terlesky answered, because, damn, I bet he's thought long and hard about how the women who've wronged him should be punished. And I want everyone in earshot to hear that answer.