Students Against Life

Ok, let me flog this dead horse one last time and then I’ll shut up about it. This is the e-mail we received yesterday from a campus organization called “Students For Life”:

Protest Abortion
“Open your mouth for those who cannot speak, and for the rights of those who are left without help.” – Proverbs 31:8What: Greene County Life Chain
When: Sunday, September 30 from 2:30 to 3:30 pm
Where: the corner of Main and Detroit in front of the Courthouse in Xenia
Why: because over 34,000 children are legally killed in Ohio each year

Students for Life will be providing transportation for those who need it. Please reply to this e-mail if you need a ride. Signs will be provided at the event.

– Cedarville Students for Life

Did you spot the problem(s)? See now, here’s the thing: I’m a “student for life,” in many senses of the phrase. And there’s a large part of me that likes to insta-delete this spam and just go eat M&M’s or play tiddlywinks. But sometimes disgusting rhetoric brings out my ornery side. So I wrote back, as President of Students Against Life:

Dear Students For Life,Thank you for your invitation to the Greene County Life Chain. We at Students Against Life will also be in attendance, though as members of the opposing team we’re obviously hoping it’ll be a Greene County Anti-Life Chain. Naturally, we will be there to support abortion because we’re your opponents so it’s our obligation as good sportsmen. Like Bill Clinton used to say, we need to keep abortion “Unsafe, Legal, and Popular.” As you know, we’ve fallen short of our Quota of Legally Killed Children in Ohio goals for this year so we’re hoping this Sunday’s rally will significantly impact our figures.

It’s quite obvious where our teams differ (you’re pro-life, we’re anti-life), but we wanted to extend an olive branch and write to affirm our common ground. Like you, we also support the polarization of debate and affirm with you that dialogue is most productive when there are obvious dichotomies so it’s not confusing for the fans at home. Like you, we at Students Against Life prefer sloganeering over nuanced argument — what fun would a discussion be if it wasn’t all conflated terms and straw men? And we certainly want to affirm with you that this is entirely a moral game: political, constitutional, philosophic, legislative, and/or scientific questions are best left to the sophists (they have too much time on their hands anyway). So as you can see, despite our fundamentally different World-Views® our groups share a lot of similarities and we ought to get together sometime in an ecumenical celebration (we’ll bring the beer, you bring more binaries!). Cheers.

– Students Against Life

Funny or not, I think I have a point. I checked out their website hoping for more insight and was not surprised to see that “Students for Life” actually means “Students Against Legalized Abortion… Oh And Sometimes We Think About Other Injustices and Occasionally We’re Anti-War As Long As That War Is Between Uncivilized Nations And Not Initiated By America.” Furthermore, I was not surprised to learn that a group seemingly dedicated to fuzzy logic would author a page on “the argument for pro-life” that is dedicated to proving the uncontroversial claim that fetuses are human. Nobody in this debate denies that, just as nobody in this debate is anti-life or pro-abortion (as SFL and their president, Murray Vasser, keep asserting). The real question here is whether a fetus is a person (has a “soul,” “spark of life,” “human spirit” etc). If there are some on the “other side” who say a fetus is not human, this is usually sloppy shorthand for the above. Yet SFL’s entire “pro-life argument” consists of quotes copied from the nearest available biology texts — quotes nobody on either “side” denies whatsoever. SFL obviously focuses on this because addressing the real problem is infinitely more difficult. The burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that a zygote has personhood AND how/why (when, we might query, does God inject a soul? or were the souls floating around prior, waiting for a zygote/body to appear? etc). Do you see why this is a significantly more difficult issue? Personhood & personal identity have been some of the most hotly debate issues throughout the history of philosophy. That SFL wants to gloss over this with cute sloganeering is sad, but not surprising to me. In everything I have read by SFL, they consistently insist on framing the discussion with false dichotomies and mis-leading terms that seem rather contrary to the spirit of charitable dialogue and a community of shalom.

There’s another bit of amazing SFL writing found here:

“…I infer that if [Lauren Winner] had talked about the 2008 elections, she would have suggested that Christians should vote for one of the Democratic frontrunners. This is not something that I would applaud. The reason has nothing to do with the Democratic Party; the reason is simply that all of the Democratic frontrunners support abortion. If a pro-abortion Republican like Giuliani were running against a pro-life Democrat, I would do everything I could to get that Democrat elected. It’s not about the party; it’s about the issue of abortion.”

I’m not going to dissect this much because I really just wanted to post about SFL’s approach to the “abortion debate.” Suffice to say I think it’s extremely dangerous that the president of SFL votes solely on the basis of a candidate’s stance on legalized abortion. The US president has so little effect in this area that it’s absurd to make that the key issue over and above other questions of qualification for the most important job in the country. Your efforts ought to be focused on the judicial and legislative branches; this latter part raising the obvious question: since Republicans controlled the Senate & House for twelve years why couldn’t they “reverse” Roe v Wade or pass other legislation that could accomplish the same thing? Randall Balmer, for one, suggests that this is simply because most elected Republicans really don’t care about legalized abortion at all. They simply use this issue (and hot button topics like gay marriage) to motivate a certain demographic to garner votes.

Let’s continue reading from the same source (by Murray Vasser) quoted above:

“Now, some people might wonder why I would elevate abortion above all of the other issues facing our nation. In America, over 1,000,000 people are violently and brutally murdered each year through legal abortions. There is no social injustice in this nation that comes even close to abortion.”

Notice the equivocation yet again, the same one he made in the SFL: he refuses to ever say “fetuses” and automatically conflates “human” with “person” without attempting to prove this. The terms he chooses are designed to inflame emotions and sensationalize the discussion to obscure the real issues. Secondly, it’s extremely confusing on what basis Vasser (and SFL I’m assuming) can claim abortion is the #1 case of injustice in this nation (and the world?). His unstated, unchallenged premise is that this is determined strictly numerically. Perhaps there are other options for determining the greatest injustice?
1. That which causes the greatest amount of pain
2. That which causes the most prolonged period of suffering
3. That which a community (or authority) has decided to be the greatest
4. That which Jesus himself spoke most often (most passionately) about
Etc. There are may be other ways to determine this. At least defined according to some (all?) of the definitions above, legalized abortion does not qualify. Note of course that you don’t even have to necessarily disagree with Vasser to see this as questionable thinking. It may actually be the case that genocide is a lesser evil than abortion, but how we decide this (or why) and how we defend that are a whole new can of worms. Continuing on…

“…most of the other evils in society (such as poverty, racial inequality, etc.) are disliked by almost everyone. Those who differ over such issues are divided only in their approach to stopping these evils. Abortion is different, because some people hate it and want to stop it, while others applaud it and want to keep it.

This is absurd. Abortion is exactly like those other issues. Does Mr. Vasser seriously believe Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter “applaud [abortion] and want to keep it”? I do not know for sure, but I’d guess the vast majority of those who support legalized abortion do not fit Vasser’s descriptions (perhaps Peter Singer is an exception?). It’s extremely surprising to me that the president of an organization obsessed with the abortion debate is so clearly confused about the terms of the debate. Because he’s stuck on binaries (You’re either for abortion or you’re against it), he’s incapable of seeing that there may be moral reasons to oppose abortion but medical/social/pragmatic/legal/constitutional/philosophical reasons to support the legalization of the practice. SFL prefers to keep the question solely centered on moral terms because it’s easier for them to control the debate that way. As Christians at a Christian university in a Christian nation, they may be tempted to believe they’ve cornered the market on morality so it’s to easy sit atop a throne and objectively deem this evil, that holy. Were SFL and its president to take seriously the debate over constitutional interpretation (and philosophical questions of freedom, democracy, personhood, etc) it would probably require nuanced discussion and research into tricky issues. It may require suspension of judgement or compromise (or middle ground), things that are incongruent with demagogical activism of the brand that SFL practices.

Obviously, I am not expecting this level of debate in a mass campus-wide e-mail but their SFL website might be a start for their defense. The more fundamental issue here is that SFL have gone out of their way to demonstrate their unwillingness to actual engage the subject (their repeated use of mis-leading, polarizing terms possibly constitutes Exhibit A). I’ve been thinking and talking about this too much not because I’m particularly interested in a rigorous debate over legalized abortion (since – gasp! – I don’t have everything figured out), but because I think SFL’s rhetoric is all too characteristic of what passes of intelligent discussion. Their constant equivocation and obfuscation is indicative of a dismal lack of substantive engagement with the issues and a disturbing willingness to deliberately sensationalize (in, it appears, an attempt to solicit sign-holding protest-drones). This is neither real activism, real intellectual honesty, nor real grace.

Your president of Students For Life & Kittens, signing off.

6 thoughts on “Students Against Life

  1. Loved your “letter” (did you actually send it?). I suspect SFL members will need a dictionary to understand it. Someone needs to send evangelicals a memo: Use the labels pro-abortion and anti-abortion.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    I stumbled across your blog today. I never knew I was so famous. 🙂

    First of all, I want to make the distinction between the statements that I have made online and the official statements from Students for Life. You blended them both in your criticism, and referred to a recent note that I posted on my personal facebook profile as “SFL writing.” This is not fair to me or to the organization.

    Secondly, I would like to emphasize that I have been completely oblivious to your objections to my writings. I do not believe that we have ever met. To be honest, I am a little bit hurt by your characterization of me as someone who avoids honest discussion and bypasses complex issues with over-simplified slogans. I assure you that I am very willing to interact with your views, though they differ substantially from my own. At any point in time you could have contacted me personally and expressed your disagreements.

    I will do my best to address each of the criticisms you have raised.

    You called my e-mail “disgusting rhetoric.” I wonder what provoked such emotion. Possibly the phrase “over 34,000 children are legally killed in Ohio each year.” Yet you correctly refer to the claim that fetuses are human as an “uncontroversial claim.” What then about my e-mail did you find so disgusting? Was it because I categorized abortion as evil simply because it results in the death of children, without addressing what you perceive to be a complex ethical issue?

    You claim that the issue is not about whether or not the unborn child is a human (which is undisputable). Instead you claim that the issue is about whether the unborn child is a “person.” Immediately, however, you clarify that a person is someone who “has a ‘soul,’ ‘park of life,’ ‘human spirit’ etc.” But the fact that you have to modify the word “person” with a set of terms which are themselves incredibly ambiguous (spark of life!) demonstrates that the definition of person is ambiguous. That is the entire point of the personhood debate: we don’t know who to categorize as a person! Ergo, we don’t really know what a “person” is. Therefore, we have proposed an unanswerable question, dependent completely on who gets to pick the definition, and not on what the unborn child actually is. On the other hand, we know what a human is, and so we can reach an “undisputable” answer.

    What the abortion debate really centers around is what type of human beings deserve legal protection. This stems from the more basic question of what gives human beings value. If the debate were framed in this manner, pro-abortionists would be forced to defend a very harsh, utilitarian answer which would conflict with the ethic to which the majority of American’s subscribe. So pro-abortion advocates have subtly shifted the question from “which human beings deserve to be protected” to “which human beings are really persons.”

    My arguments are a tactical counter to this semantic posturing. I am fully aware that the debate is closed about whether or not the unborn is a human being. And yet in the minds of most laypeople, their justification for abortion centers around their misguided belief that the unborn child is not really a person, and therefore in some way not fully human. By emphasizing that the unborn child is a human being, we force people back to the central question: “which human beings deserve to be protected.”

    Here is the point, Kevin: we are targeting the people on the fence. We don’t want people to be able to say, “I think abortion is ok because I am not really sure that a fetus is a person.” We want to force people to make one of only two possible declarations: “abortion is wrong because it kills a human being who has intrinsic worth” or “abortion is ok because it kills a human being who has no worth in my eyes.”

    So, Kevin, abortion is not a complex ethical issue. Tearing babies apart is wrong. It is wrong because unborn babies are human beings with intrinsic worth. You claim that I am avoiding the debate by oversimplifying the issue. You fail to understand that at the moment one claims that abortion is a complex ethical issue (while something such as the Holocaust is not), he has admitted that the unborn is in a different category from all other humans. If one can only enter the abortion debate after he has admitted that the murder of an unborn child in an abortion clinic is somehow more ethically complex than the murder of a Jew in a concentration camp, then no objective conclusion can ever be reached, for the premise he has agreed to contains the conclusion: the unborn child is different than the Jew.

    “there may be moral reasons to oppose abortion but medical/social/pragmatic/legal/constitutional/philosophical reasons to support the legalization of the practice.” This is an incredibly dangerous ethic to hold, Kevin! There may be reasons to oppose the Holocaust but pragmatic and philosophical reasons to support the legalization of the practice? I think not.

    You also object to my categorization of abortion as the greatest evil in this country simply because it causes the death of the most people. You suggest the following standards for determining the greatest evils in society:

    1. That which causes the greatest amount of pain
    Do you think an abortion is painless, Kevin? Besides, this is a strange criterion. According to this, it would be worse to scratch someone than to kill one million people in their sleep.

    2. That which causes the most prolonged period of suffering
    So which is worse, one person who suffers for a lifetime or 50 million persons who are brutally, but quickly, murdered?

    3. That which a community (or authority) has decided to be the greatest
    Dangerous criterion, Kevin! The Hutus felt that the social depravations they experienced under the Tutsis were a worse evil than genocide. The Americans felt that economic ruin was a worse evil than slavery. Societies can get it all wrong.

    4. That which Jesus himself spoke most often (most passionately) about
    Have you ever considered that Jesus didn’t speak about such things as genocide, rape, slavery, abortion, etc. because his audience already understood these to be great evils? (By the way, read the Sermon on the Mount again and see if something such as the Atlantic slave trade or partial birth conflicts with the ethic Jesus taught.)

    In closing, I want to address this caricature of our organization: “Students Against Legalized Abortion… Oh And Sometimes We Think About Other Injustices and Occasionally We’re Anti-War As Long As That War Is Between Uncivilized Nations And Not Initiated By America.” Here is the phrase in our mission statement which provoked this response:

    “The primary focus of Cedarville Students for Life is on working towards an end to the horrific practice of abortion. This organization will also oppose any concerted effort to destroy human life, with a special emphasis on children.”

    We have never said that we are “anti-war” except for wars “initiated by America!” You have erected a straw man which in no way reflects our beliefs. Also, I am not sure which nations you categorize as “uncivilized,” but I find this statement extremely offensive. Since the only other issue that we have directly addressed besides abortion is the genocide against Africans in Darfur (which humanitarian organizations labeled as the most dangerous place for children in the world), your categorization of uncivilized nations also hints at underlying racism.

    If you ever want to talk with me more about these issues Kevin, I would love to meet you sometime. I live in Brock 206. Come by anytime.


  3. By the way, I’m sure you know that you misquoted the slogan. 🙂

    “Keep abortion unsafe, legal, and popular.”

    It is actually, “Keep abortion safe, legal, and rare.”

    I would agree with this slogan if you could demonstrate that any abortion has ever been safe. You see, abortions are 100% lethal.

  4. Murray,
    Thanks for your comments. I apologize for the delay; I was tied up all of yesterday. I’ll say though that this reply is difficult for me because it’s not entirely clear you carefully read my post before responding in the first place. The two biggest issues being your failure to understand the function/meaning of quotation marks, and your seeming inability to tease out key words like “may,” “can,” “possibly,” “perhaps” etc. See, for example…

    1. Your confusion over the intentionality of my Clinton mis-quote… you do realize that e-mail was satire, right? That I’m not REALLY president of a club called Students Against Life? That in satire, facing an obvious mis-quote, it should be a given that this was purposeful?

    2. Your mis-reading of my “criterion” for “greatest social injustice” as what I personally believe. I never suggested any or all of those to be normative nor (and this is key) did I suggest there ought to be criteria for that in the first place. Note words like “perhaps” and “may”.

    3. Your (again) false reading that I personally believe there are “pragmatic” or “philosophical” reasons to oppose abortion practice but support legalized abortion. Careful readers might have realized that “may” signaled this (the list, too, provided clues that these alternate reasons make take various shapes that and I was not particularly advocating one over the other). I did not offer any such reasons myself, but merely suggested that there is more to the “abortion debate” than a simple black/white moral question.

    4. Your bizarre interpretation that I’m actually advocating “spark of life” as the definition of person. That aside was a list of common (or historical) definitions of what constitutes a “person.” I was not arguing for any or all of them. For what it’s worth, “spark of life” was generally attributed after quickening. The theistic pro-lifer generally wants to say a person is that which has a soul (which may, for example, solve the problem of personal continuity on the basis of “same soul”).

    5. Your comical mis-reading of “uncivilized,” failing yet again to note things like context. Astute readers no doubt picked up on the fact that I was projecting this position onto YOUR organization, not advocating it myself. This does bring me to an important point though: that my characature of SFL in that phrase was unfair, I’ll readily concede; that it was unjustified, I won’t. But on the basis of the former, let me apologize. So, too, let me apologize for the times I’ve falsely attributed an error to SFL that was yours, and vice versa (surely you understand the mistake though, considering you ARE SFL’s president). I mean these sincerely.

    The larger problem here of course, is exactly the one I pinpointed from the start: at this point we can’t discuss “the issues” or have any real substantive dialogue on this subject (but initial point also including the assertion that SFL helps keep us stuck in this unfortunate position). For one, it should be noted, the number of words I’ve spilled on this already does not accuratley reflect my level of zeal for this subject. Secondly, your inability to distinguish meta-debate from debate makes getting to the “real” debate exceedingly difficult. Lastly, and relatedly, it’s abundantly clear to me that neither of us are very knowledgeable at all about the actual issues at hand (read Francis Beckwith for someone who is). This is, of course, why I’ve confined my critiques of SFL (and your post) to the way(s) in which you’re framing the terms (and terms) of the debate. After you posted, my view seems further justified on the basis of:

    1. Your inability to make one single post without invoking Godwin’s Law.

    2. Your continued insistence that there are only two possible declarations we can/should be able to make about abortion. One need not be biased against binaries (as I am) to be able to see this as absurd, reductionist, mis-leading, etc.

    3. Your apparent belief that I am/want to tackle the “real issues” or that I am for legalized abortion. You are supposedly “targeting the people on the fence” without realizing that you’re actually just alienating the people on the fence. I am those people, that person. This no doubt strikes you as odd because in your black/white world you’re apparently unaccustomed to finding people who agree with your conclusions but challenge your methods, presuppositions, tactics, etc. Some may also want to see my undogmatic stance on this issue as a lack of mental acumen or moral fortitude, and I’m fine with that judgement. Though of course, I prefer to see it as a sign of intellectual honesty.

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