The role of narrative in giving life value and the difference between absolute and objective morality were argued Thursday, April 8 at “Is Abortion Immoral? A Debate.”
The event was held by university ministries and included Jay Watts, vice president of the Life Training Institute, and Vicki Searl, senior music and math double major, arguing for the resolution “Abortion is from the moment of conception immoral.”
Justin Barnard, associate dean of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship, and Allison Pulliam, junior political science and broadcast journalism double major, argued against the resolution.
Todd Brady, vice president for university ministries, said Barnard personally holds a pro-life position and that Searl and Pulliam were assigned their roles, meaning the argumentation did not necessarily represent their personal beliefs. Barnard’s role in the debate was kept anonymous on publicity materials partly to avoid his presence being misconstrued, Barnard said.
“I hope that we all walk away understanding the power of words and having a better understanding that how we speak to one another really matters,” Brady said.
Watts and Searl based their argumentation on three premises from Francis Beckwith’s book “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.”
The premises are that the unborn entity from the moment of conception is a full-fledged member of the human community, that it is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of the community, that every successful abortion kills a full-fledged member of that community and thus abortion is prima facie, or “at first face,” morally wrong.
“We are human from the moment we come into existence,” Watts said. “We are not required to do anything to prove or demonstrate our humanity.”
Barnard argued that not all ending of biological life is morally wrong, meaning biology is not enough to determine whether killing is immoral.
“If it’s not biology, what is it?” Barnard asked. “The answer on our part is it is biography. It is not biology, it’s biography. Killing is immoral when and only when it ends the story of a life before that story has reached its narrative conclusion.”
Since many or most embryos have not begun a story or will never begin such a story, ending the lives of those organisms is not morally wrong, he argued.
Pulliam argued that a blanket claim cannot be made about the morality of abortion, especially when considering cases such as ectopic pregnancies, which may result in serious health complications or the death of the mother unless aborted.
“This is clearly terminating a pregnancy, ending a form of life after the moment of conception,” Pulliam said. “But it’s not immoral, because when you’re looking at that, it’s actually preserving the value of life.”
Pulliam also discussed fetal abnormalities when a child may not survive more than a few hours after birth and cases when carrying a pregnancy to term might risk the mother’s psychological health.
Searl argued that exceptions do not disprove the resolution, particularly because she and Watts were arguing for an objective rather than absolute standard.
In cases when two moralities come into conflict, such as when someone must lie to save a life, both lying and allowing a preventable death are objectively bad, but not absolutely, Searl said.
“By saying it’s objectively morally wrong, I’m not saying it’s a moral absolute,” Watts said. “What I’m saying is that on its face, at first understanding, [abortion] is wrong.”
Searl also questioned whether Barnard’s idea of biography being essential to the value of life was vague, without a clear way to indicate when an organism’s story began.
“Just because I can’t tell you exactly when the transition occurs between day and night doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between night and day,” Barnard said in response. “Just because I can’t tell you exactly when the transition occurs between having a story or not having a story doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between having a story or not having a story.”
Watts concluded the debate by saying that both philosophical and biological arguments indicate an embryo is a member of the human community.
“When we’re talking about killing another living being, which … they concede that [abortion] does, we’d better be sure that life has not begun,” Watts said.
Angela Taylor, sophomore bio-chemistry major, said the debate was helpful for the audience to better discuss the issues. Taylor also said Barnard and Pulliam argued convincingly for their side, even if they did not personally agree.
“I think it made the negative even more inspired to find the best arguments and to work extra hard to see if they could find the most convincing negative arguments they possibly can just to give the affirmative the opportunity to refute those,” Taylor said.
Gabby Bonner, senior biology major, said the debate could have been more interesting if it had included a speaker who personally espoused pro-choice views.
Brandon Rutledge, sophomore social work major, said having a genuinely pro-choice speaker would have “made it more competitive,” with stronger argumentation from the negative side of the debate.
Julia Berends, junior nursing major, said both sides were persuasive with their arguments.
“It’s always good to hear the other side,” Berends said. “When you’re in a lot of Christian communities you tend to hear a lot of one-sided arguments and a very shallow version of the other side. I think it’s important to hear the full arguments and consider what the other side is saying.”