Last month hundreds of University of Victoria students witnessed a debate that pro-abortion groups on campus didn’t want to happen and a graphic video they didn’t want them to see.
The debate happened only because philosophy professor Eike Henner Kluge agreed to step in for the “pro-choice” side after the university Women’s Centre, the Students Protecting Choice club, and the professors from women’s studies, philosophy and law departments all declined to defend the pro-choice position, with the exception of Kluge.
Nonetheless, so many came to the midafternoon debate on Oct. 21 that the participants quickly agreed to stage a second debate right after the first. In all, 400 students and community members attended.
“It was a victory just to penetrate the other side’s insistence the issue isn’t worth debating,” said Stephanie Gray, director of the Calgary-based Centre for Bioethical Reform.
Kluge opened his comments by condemning the pro-choice advocates who had refused to defend their own beliefs. “It’s deplorable,” he declared, because it undermined “the spirit of free inquiry” fundamental to the university.
Whether defenders of legalized abortion believe in free inquiry at all is in question. Eight years ago the student society’s board of directors voted to kick out the campus pro-life club Youth Protecting Youth because its views on abortion ran counter to the society’s. This drew the censure of British Columbia’s human-rights tribunal, and, under threat of a fine, the board rescinded its decision.
With a membership that is mostly Catholic, but with the support of several evangelical Protestant clubs on campus, Youth Protecting Youth faced renewed attacks from pro-abortion groups on campus over the past two years, leading to repeated denials of funding from the student society on the grounds Youth Protecting Youth was “intimidating” female students with its posters of healthy children, women, old men and disabled persons.
Over the last two years, the university student society’s board of directors has repeatedly denied the Youth Protecting Youth pro-life group its club funding as punishment for allegedly “intimidating” female students with pro-life messages. The latest defunding vote, only two weeks before the debate, sparked a protest from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
The prospect of Gray’s appearance in a debate sponsored by Youth Protecting Youth was cited in the decision to again deny the group funding. The pictures she presents in public were deemed “intimidating.”
Gray lived up to her advance billing by showing a short but bloody film of an abortion. Protesting students from the pro-choice club easily blocked the 5’6” Gray from view but could not conceal the gruesome images on the overhead screen.
Gray argued that the weakness, dependency and size of unborn children were morally insufficient reasons for considering them inhuman and disposable. Disabled people and newborns are equally dependent and vulnerable, but “they are human beings. So the question tonight is, clearly, ‘Are the unborn human beings or not?’”
Kluge responded by conceding that fetuses were human beings. “They are not a biological part of the mother,” he declared, adding, “They are a bloody parasite,” a remark that sparked nervous laughter from some and silence from most.
For Kluge, the real question is not the humanity of fetuses, but their personhood, which depends, he said, on their ability to think and to feel pain. Because the ability to do so is sufficiently developed in the fetus by about 20 weeks after conception, after that time “abortion is unethical.”
Kluge also noted that the Canadian Supreme Court decision that threw out the abortion law in 1988 did not rule out future laws that protect fetuses at some point in their development in the womb.
Kluge also condemned appeals to emotion and applied this to Gray’s use of abortion pictures.
In rebuttal, Gray led off by defending her pictures: “We use pictures to show the effects of drunk driving and genocide. Images are a reasonable tool to get at the truth.”
She argued as well that Kluge’s definition of a person was too subjective and hard to measure. Her definition of a person — a human being — is strictly biological.
In fact, molecular biology and embryology show that a human embryo is, from the moment of conception, a boy or a girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal human life expectancy. The Church teaches that “from the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism, No. 2270).
An audience survey taken afterwards showed that few minds had been changed, Gray told the Register. Most people who filled out the survey were true believers in one camp or the other.
However, free speech was a clear winner: Students emerged calling for more debates on controversial subjects, a clear rejection of the pro-choice tactic of denying pro-life students a voice.
There could be no clearer expression of this view than the University of Victoria’s Women’s Centre coordinator Sinead Charbonneau’s statement to the student newspaper, the Martlet.
“I think that Youth Protecting Youth is engaged in a fallacious practice of intimidation. Religiously minded students should have the choice to be able to organize on campus, but when their ideology infringes on the rights of other people, their practices should be stymied, and their presence should be minimized.”
Countered Anastasia Pearse, president of Youth Protecting Youth: “Many think this is a closed issue. We’ve shown that it isn’t. I’m pleased with the result.”
Father Dean Henderson, Catholic chaplain at the university, agreed. “I was absolutely thrilled the debate took place at all, and equally so that it took place in such an authentic and intellectually honest way, free from distractions such as the funding issue, abortion politics and women’s issues. I’m grateful to Eike Kluge for making it possible and more appreciative than ever for Stephanie Gray’s wonderful vocation.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.