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Pro-Life Dialogue with a Fresno City College Biology Professor

The highlights from my debate with a college professor who thought we were a bunch of religious extremists with a deceptive fetal development display.

This last weekend I led a Right to Life of Central CA sponsored Justice For All seminar and outreach at Fresno City College. We had a great turnout at the outreach but a lot of our volunteers wanted to listen in on other dialogues before trying it themselves, so I spent part of the morning doing one of my favorite things: talking to pro-choice people.

Allow me to show you the outreach tools we set up.

We had a poll table that asks, “Should abortion remain legal?”

We had another table that said, “Take our equal rights survey.”

We also set up Justice For All’s “Where Do You Draw the Line” exhibit, which holds a basic fetal development chart with a free speech paper underneath for people to interact with.

That’s the exhibit I was standing in front of while having conversations that morning. I was actually in the middle of a good dialogue with someone when I was interrupted. The woman I was talking to first, believed that women should have the right to do whatever they want with anything inside of their bodies. I was asking her about Thalidomide based on the thought experiment that Dr. Rich Poupard originally published and that my brother Timothy later expanded on, when an older man loudly interrupted that Thalidomide had nothing to do with abortion. I turned to engage him and the woman I was originally speaking with quickly left.

I tried not to show my annoyance as I put out my hand and introduced myself to this new person. He told me his name was Howard and that he was a biology professor at Fresno City College, and proceeded to go on a long diatribe about how misleading our exhibit was. (This was the first of many long rants. I probably did about 15% of the talking in this entire dialogue. He repeated himself a lot, so I’ll just relay the main points he made and how I responded.)

Howard’s first rant was about the fetal development exhibit. He dropped his credentials several times while complaining about our use of biology on the sign.

I asked, “As a biology professor, do you disagree with any of the biological evidence we’ve placed on the exhibit?”

Howard responded, “No, it’s all accurate. It’s basic 2nd grade biology!”

I smiled and said, “I agree with you about that.”

Howard’s concern was that we were turning a philosophical issue into a biological one.

I told Howard that I agreed that abortion is not merely a biological issue, and then I pointed to the “human rights” language on the top right corner of the exhibit.

I said, “There are biological pictures on the exhibit, but we’re asking a philosophical question. We’re asking when human rights should begin, and we’re asking people to draw a line to signify when they think those human rights should be recognized. It’s a philosophical question about rights and value, not a biological question about when an organism’s life begins.”

Howard complained that when people walk by, they will assume we’re only talking about biology.

I responded that our primary objective was to create good dialogues on the subject of abortion, and our choice of outreach tools was based on what we have found to work the best so far. The fetal development exhibit, even though it doesn’t have any graphic abortion pictures on it, has proven to be very helpful in getting people to stop so we can begin a conversation that gets to the philosophy quickly.

I explained to Howard, “We use these five pictures of fetal development because on this campus almost everybody agrees that human rights should begin sometime between fertilization and birth, so we didn’t put pictures of toddlers on this particular exhibit.”

Howard quickly jumped to another topic: he ranted about us being “deceptive, paternalistic, religious, right-wing extremists.”

After his rant was over I said, “Wow, those are a lot of assumptions you just made about us.”

I knew I had a choice. I could either accuse him of making an ad hominem fallacy, asking him to engage our arguments and not our religious or political views, or I could show he was wrong by putting a face on a person with a combination of views that Howard didn’t think was possible.

I chose the latter and brought my friend Ellen from Secular Pro-Life, who was standing right there, into the conversation. I said, “Ellen, what do you think of Howard’s accusation that we’re all paternalistic, religious, conservatives?”

Ellen said, “Well, lots of pro-life people are religious, but I’m an atheist. I wouldn’t identify with lots of conservative views, and I’m certainly not paternalistic, and I know a lot of other pro-life atheists from lots of different political persuasions.”

I pointed to Ellen’s sister Monica (also from Secular Pro-Life) who was talking to somebody about ten yards away and said, “That’s Monica. She’s an agnostic who also wouldn’t identify with many conservative views.”

Howard was visibly less confident about his tactic of lumping us all into one group, but tried to save it by pointing at Ellen and saying, “But you’re an anecdote!”

Ellen retorted, “No, I’m a person.”

Howard quickly backed off and admitted that he may have been wrong about some of his assumptions about us, yet he accused us of being paternalistic again and made a bodily rights argument. In fact, he made precisely the same argument that the woman I was speaking with before had made. Trent Horn calls it the “Sovereign Zone argument.” It basically says that a woman has the right to do anything she wants with anything inside of her body.

I asked Howard what he would think about a mother taking Thalidomide to cure her morning sickness. Howard got very slippery and kept saying things like, “Well, she wouldn’t be able to get a hold of it.”

I responded, “This is a thought experiment. What if she could get a hold of it?”

Howard retorted, “You mean, do I think she should be allowed to assault her own child?!”

I said, “Yes, that is exactly what I’m asking you.”

Howard repeated something about how she wouldn’t be able to get a hold of it and jumped to another topic.

You may be thinking, “Come on, Josh! Don’t let him get away with that! Narrate the debate!”

It was a tough call. I had several volunteers watching this exchange and I chose to err on the side of letting Howard direct the conversation. I may have made the wrong decision on that, but I really wanted our volunteers to watch a pro-life person who could have chosen to argue aggressively over the intellectual points choose instead to sit in the back seat of the conversation.

Howard completely dodged the Thalidomide question and went back to his concern about oversimplifying the debate and complained about our “Should abortion remain legal” poll table. He said, “You’ve only got two options when most people fall between those options!”

I responded, “I’m well aware that most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.” I explained that this poll table stops more people than any other poll table we’ve tried, which is the primary objective for any of our outreach tools: stop people so that we can have a nuanced conversation about their actual views.

I also explained that we train our volunteers to ask people who sign the “Yes” side whether or not they think abortion should be legal through all nine months of pregnancy, among other questions to learn more about the person’s actual views. This way they can engage with the person in front of them and not a straw man.

At this point in the conversation I felt like things were going pretty well. Obviously Howard will finally see that what we’re doing makes sense and that we’re honestly trying to get into dialogues. That’s why I was so surprised by what Howard did next.

Howard once again accused me of being deceptive with the fetal development sign! That’s when I decided to push back harder than I had before. I held out my hand to shake his and said, “Okay, I think we’re done here. You keep accusing me of these really negative things when you don’t know anything about me. You haven’t asked me any questions to learn where I’m actually coming from. You don’t know me.” *Shaking his hand* “So, thanks for the conversation. Have a nice day.”

Howard quickly stopped me, saying, “No, no, no. I didn’t mean it like that. I‘m just concerned that you’re confusing people and oversimplifying the issue.”

I said, “Howard, believe it or not, my career is dedicated to helping pro-life people not oversimplify this issue. I do think people on both sides often oversimplify this issue and it hurts their conversations. I travel the country speaking and writing with the goal of training pro-life people to take the strongest pro-choice arguments seriously and respond to them adequately.

Howard begrudgingly admitted that our outreach tools were obviously working because they not only had stopped a lot of people, (there were about eight conversations going on around us,) but it also stopped him when he had originally planned on ignoring us.

Howard added that my “strategy” of asking lots of questions instead of arguing with him had kept him going this long, when arguing would have probably caused him to leave.

I said, “Yeah, I’d agree that our exhibit did work in this case. But as far as our conversation goes, believe it or not, this isn’t just strategy and tactics. You’re not a chess game to me. I actually want to know what your views are, so that I can seriously consider them. [Tweet that!] You make that harder when you continually accuse me of negative intentions, but I’m still listening to you and considering your arguments. I’m trying to get people to have more nuanced, philosophical conversations about what I believe is a human rights issue.”

Howard retorted, “Well, that’s not what was happening when you used Thalidomide earlier!”

I said, “Howard, I was using that as a thought experiment, to respond to people who say that a woman ‘should have the right to do anything she
wants with anything inside of her body.’ It seems to me that there are exceptions to that extreme view of bodily autonomy, and it seems like you and I both agreed earlier that Thalidomide is one of them.”

Howard’s lunch break was over so he shook my hand and said that he was glad he’d had this conversation and that he thought differently about our group than he did when he first saw us.