UCSB Students for Life of America hosted an event titled the “The Abortion Debate” between pro-choice UCSB professor of philosophy Quentin Gee and pro-life author Trent Horn to discuss abortion and women’s reproductive rights in the United States.
Horn is the author of pro-life book Persuasive Pro-Life: How to Talk About Our Culture’s Toughest Issue, which claims to equip readers with the knowledge to be “a bold and effective apologist for the unborn.” Gee’s current research focuses on collective responsibility and the topic’s relation to ethical, political and legal philosophy. The debate format followed a 15-minute opening speech, 10-minute rebuttal and an eight-minute cross examination for each participant and ended with an audience Q&A session. Ph.D. candidate in philosophy Keith Hess moderated the debate.
Opening the evening’s discussion, Gee said debates at universities cannot be based on religious dogma and should instead pursue a “practically available, publically moral status” for the issue. Gee then posed a hypothetical “thought experiment” about the ethicality of aborting fetuses.
“If you were in a fertility clinic which was about to burn down, and you could save one infant in basket or save 10,000 embryos in cold storage, I doubt anyone would vote to save the embryos.”
According to Gee, the “cutoff line” for permissible abortion can operate at 23 weeks gestational age. Gee said although it is a contentious issue, the fetus cannot commonly feel pain at this stage.
“I don’t think it is necessarily wrong afterwards, but as a precaution to avoid a potential problem,” Gee said.
Gee said those who factor religious reasoning into the abortion debate lack knowledge of embryotic life.
“If you do in fact think the embryo has same status as baby, approximately 50 percent of embryos fail to lead to full pregnancy because of an inability to implant to the uterine wall,” Gee said. “By this logic, if you don’t think God is the number one baby death enabler, death is not indicative of the status of a fetus.”
Gee said the core of his argument is that a fetus’s conceivable rights do not hold precedence to a woman’s rights in controlling her body.
“A fetus and newborn baby, even if they have interests, doesn’t mean they trump all other interests,” Gee said. “I think it is possible for a woman to say ‘I cannot take care of this baby’ … it wouldn’t be looked upon well … but I think this is permissible.”
In his introductory statement, Horn said it is generally wrong to directly kill innocent human beings, that fetuses are innocent human beings and that it is therefore wrong to kill fetuses.
Horn then showed a series of photographs of fetuses at various stages of development from eight weeks to 22 weeks. According to Horn, abortion is the killing of a human being.
“Abortion is not a passive removal of life, it is the act of killing a child via dismemberment,” Horn said. “It’s like giving someone a kidney and then ripping it out, killing him or her in a violent process.”
Horn said because a fetus is a human with potential for growth, it follows that the fetus has the basic right to not be killed.
“Saying an unborn is inhuman because it is just a fetus is like saying a 15-year-old is not a human because they are just a teenager,” Horn said.
According to Horn, subjecting fetuses to a non-human status based on their inability to feel pain is an act of “ableism,” a form of discrimination based on stigmatizing disability. Horn also said Gee’s “thought experiment” is unfounded because logical decisions cannot be based on intuition.
“My position is unborn [fetuses] are human organisms; all humans should have basic human rights regardless of their functional ability,” Horn said, “Just because we have different intuitions at different times doesn’t mean we should rely on our feelings. Instead, let’s look toward rational arguments.”
The cross examination portion of the debate contrasted Horn’s requirement for a definition of personhood with Gee’s assertion that intuition plays a role in deciding the moral worth of a human in any stage.
Gee said rather than a definition of personhood, the moral state of a fetus involves a “cluster of requirements.”
“There is some sort of mental concept, no possibility for a rich mental life. It involves a conscious interest and desire to keep living,” Gee said.
In response, Horn said a fetus does not need to consciously demonstrate its desire for life in order to be considered viable for the right of life.
“I think you can have an interest in living without consciously alluding to it, because the zygote — there is some element of an interest in its living in terms of growth,” Horn said.
Horn and Gee began the Q&A portion of the event by responding to the question of what would motivate the two participants to change their stance on the topic of abortion.
Horn said he would require an argument separating the worth of humans with those of children.
“I could be moved to change my mind if it could be shown that all human beings don’t have equal rights … that they don’t really have a right to live in the organ designed for them,” Horn said.
Gee said he would change his position if a fetus was shown to have certain mental capabilities.
“I would require something on the order of showing that the organism in question has a deep, fairly rich mental life,” Gee said. “I think if you could show that, we could be concerned with killing the life.”
In a closing statement, Gee said he would like to reassert his claim that a fetus’s rights should not be considered with more weight than a woman’s “deeply personal” autonomy over her own body.
“While there is some value for whichever stage the zygote or fetus is in, I don’t think it is a value that trumps a woman’s right to bodily integrity,” Gee said. “If there was a body that had the same moral status as you and me, then there would be more value.”
In Horn’s closing statement, he said humans should be defined and valued by their membership in a social community rather than their functional capabilities.
“Human beings should be valued not for their functions, but because they belong to this community. I think an important question tonight is ‘Who are we allowed to kill?’” Horn said. “We should have a pit in our stomach regardless of whether it is a child or a fetus, because in the end, they all have the same intrinsic potential.”
First-year political science major Delaney Forester said she wanted to further understand Horn’s position.
“Horn made a comment earlier about a biological parent’s inherent responsibility to take care of a child unless they are deemed unfit,” Forester said. “My question is, what is the deciding factor in what makes you unfit?”
Hess said the audience contributed to a civil and constructive debate, allowing both speakers to properly assert their views.
“I liked how the students kept it civil. There wasn’t any … hot-heads or name-calling so I think this is the way that debates should be done,” Hess said.
UCSB Students for Life of America President and fourth-year economics major Katie Devlin said the event was successful in fostering a productive discussion on the controversial topic of abortion.
“I thought both speakers did a wonderful job. The audience also had really good questions,” Devlin said. “It was great how we could have a civil conversation about this sometimes controversial topic.
A version of this story appeared on page 6 of the Thursday, October 22, 2015 print edition of the Daily Nexus.