On October 22, Harvard Right to Life hosted a debate between pro-life activist Stephanie Gray Connors and pro-abortion philosopher, ethicist, and professor Peter Singer. The premise of the debate was to determine whether or not abortion is immoral. Gray Connors and Singer each had 12 minutes to present their opening statements before a brief rebuttal, followed by a cross examination and questions from audience members.
During his opening statement, Singer conceded to Gray Connors’s argument that the preborn are living members of the homo sapien species. But Singer argued that human beings have varying degrees of value based on their capacity to be self-aware and feel pain. While Singer admitted basing human worth on these traits presents us with implications about newborns that many would find — in his words — “challenging,” Singer believes this is a part of the abortion debate that should not be ignored. When it comes to the morality of abortion, Singer claimed, abortion cannot be considered immoral, as it is not until sometime after birth that human beings obtain their full right to life.
What Makes Humans Valuable?
Gray Connors argued abortion is immoral because human life at all stages of development is worthy of protection. She began by reading Singer’s 1971 essay titled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” where Singer wrote when it comes to suffering and death, there are assumptions we can make which are believed by the vast majority of people — such as the idea that suffering is a bad. While there might be a few people with eccentric views who disagree, Singer wrote that certain positions are accepted by most to be a universal truth.
Gray Connors used Singer’s claim to illustrate her point that most people agree all human beings are equal, and it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Citing Dr. Maureen Condic’s “When Does Human Life Begin?” paper, Gray Connors explained how a one-celled zygote differs from the egg and sperm cells of its parents in terms of composition and behavior. Based on this, Gray Connors asserted, we know we have a genetically distinct being, and because the individual being is growing, we know it must be alive.
Addressing the claim that real human beings are self-aware and conscious of their desires, Gray Connors noted a one-celled embryo has the nature to be rational and self-aware. However, the embryo is merely in an early stage of development and cannot yet exercise these abilities. But Gray Connors said human rights are not grounded in a person’s age, but by nature of what someone is – a member of the human family.
According to Gray Connors, another point universally accepted is the idea that parents have a duty to care for their children, and not harm them. During her opening statement, Gray Connors explained how she spent 40 years of her life as a mother-to-be. But before the debate, something happened to her.
Announcing her pregnancy, Gray Connors said this event changed her, as she is no longer a mere female now that she has taken on the identity of mother. She now has a duty to care for her offspring. Gray Connors then outlined the different abortion procedures and the methods used to intentionally deprive the preborn child of life.
Singer congratulated Gray Connors on her pregnancy, but argued that abortion is not “incompatible” with being a loving parent. In his rebuttal, Singer explained a parent can end their child’s life if the child’s life has not really begun (since the child is alive in the womb, apparently Singer’s definition of “life” is arbitrary, either at birth or some other unspecified point). Singer also proposed that perhaps the pregnancy arose at an inconvenient time for the mother, saying abortion allows a woman to end the preborn child’s life before there is consciousness and to conceive again when she is better prepared.
He went on to say he personally knows many women who aborted their children but went on to love the children they had later in life. Singer said the child the mother chooses to keep will have a better life than the child the mother aborted, as the woman does not view the second child as a “problem.” Singer did not present any evidence to support this claim, and further examination suggests women who become mothers after an abortion may, in fact, experience emotional complications.
Of course, subjective emotions do not answer the question of parental responsibility. In her rebuttal, Gray Connors discussed a viral video of a runner being chased for six minutes by a female cougar. The cougar thought the runner had been trying to hurt her babies. Gray Connors highlighted how we could all learn a lesson from the female cougar, as she knew instinctively she had a duty to protect the life of her children.
Animal Life Verses Human Life
Singer questioned why being a member of a specific species endows someone with a right to life. He challenged Gray Connors in his opening statement by asking her why a human should be considered more valuable than a chimpanzee. Gray Connors replied in her rebuttal that declaring it is wrong to take the life of one of our fellow human beings does not mean someone cannot also protect the lives of another species.
Saying “all human lives matter,” Gray Connors said, does not automatically mean “animal lives do not matter.”
Singer countered by stating the preborn entity, unlike the chimpanzee, is not conscious, and he questioned how taking its life could be considered morally wrong. As Gray Connors established in her previous rebuttal, killing someone who is anesthetized or is incapable of feeling pain would still be wrong. Gray Connors explained even if consciousness and receptiveness to pain are not present at a person’s death, that individual is still a person.
Throughout the debate, Singer equated human value with the ability to immediately exercise certain capacities. As Gray Connors noted, the implications behind Singer’s arguments are “troubling.” What we are left with is a position that lessens the worth of a human being to justify the violence of abortion.
You can watch the rest of the debate in its entirety on YouTube.
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