Response to Murray Vasser

Murray Vasser, President of CU Students For Life, had his rebuttal published in the latest issue of Cedars. My fisking is long overdue:

Over the past few years, I have been involved in organizing events to protest the genocide in Darfur. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm with which students spoke out in defense of the vulnerable and forgotten. However, when I began a pro-life organization on campus, I was disappointed to see this enthusiasm replaced with caustic criticism.

This is pretty revealing. The response to genocide in Darfur suggests that our student body is easily motivated for issues they care about and that cynicism & apathy aren’t characteristic of us at large. Furthermore, if you take a survey (and I’m sure it’s been done) there is little doubt in my mind that the vast majority of students object to both the morality & legalization of abortion (that is, they’re “pro-life”). What this might mean then is that the cool reception – even “caustic criticism” – that SFL encounters probably has more to do with their organization and how they run it than the issue itself. This, undoubtedly, is not a consideration Mr. Vasser wants to entertain. But in my estimation, SFL ought to re-consider how they frame themselves and the debate in order to better understand why they isolate pro-life students (such as myself) and draw “caustic criticism” from people (a) easily motivated and (b) who care about the “abortion issue” quite a lot.

The following sarcastic response to our prayer vigil outside of a late term abortion clinic in Dayton demonstrates the way in which abortion is viewed differently than other social injustices: “Let me know one day your place of business so I can stand outside and tell the people that are coming in that they shouldn’t go in, and then let me tell them about alternatives to what you do. All the while slowing down your business so that your employees and you have to take a pay cut […] sounds like something Christ would do.”

Not a comment/email by me, for the record.

Recently Kevin Cole wrote an article in Cedarville’s student newspaper defending the validity of the “Christian pro-choice perspective,” arguing that “following Christ might mean refusing rigid moral categories when it comes to abortion.” While Kevin affirms that the unborn are human beings (members of the species Homo sapiens), he questions if they are really “persons.”

It’s the very first paragraph related to me and he’s already missed the point. If you’ve followed the story thus far, you’ll remember that my last exchange with Mr. Vasser on this blog suffer from the same difficulties. I feel (and am open to correction here) that my article had a fairly clear thesis statement. I argued for a weakening of the debate, NOT for “the validity of the ‘Christian pro-choice perspective.” I can’t help but wonder if the quotes represent Mr. Vasser’s abiding skepticism that there can even be such a thing. Regardless, did he fail to notice that my article contained both a pro and con legalization argument… and that I did not explicitly support or reject EITHER one? And yes, I questioned whether zygotes are persons but I did not come down on the side of “no” as Mr. Vasser implies (I rather plainly pleaded agnostic).

Some argue that a fetus is not a “person” because it is not self-aware; yet a fetus is no less self-aware than a newborn infant. Others argue that a fetus is not a “person” because it can not survive on its own, yet neither can an infant. There is no objective definition of personhood that exclusively excludes the unborn.

This is essentially a rabbit trail, since my article doesn’t even begin to offer or critique any definition of personhood. I’m going to do my best to stick to my original intent (discussing the framing of the debate) so I’ll just quickly make one note: Mr. Vasser is going to have a hell of a time marshalling empirical psychology or medical evidence to support the idea that a zygote is just as “self-aware” as a newborn infant. He likes to use the phrase “fetus” while ignoring “embryo” since the latter is much trickier for his arguments. A fetus, for example, has brain waves (if not a fully-developed brain itself) while an embryo does not (pre-sixth week at least). One gets the feeling from this article — and this is easily confirmed via the SFL website — that Mr. Vasser is entirely uncomfortable with the whole notion of personhood (unlike his pro-life ally and head of the CU Center for Bioethics, Dr. Sullivan).

Nevertheless, Kevin argues that “we don’t know when or how a person becomes/is a person,” and so Christians should not dogmatically assert that abortion is evil. I wonder, then, if Kevin believes that infanticide is wrong. How is it that this ambiguity concerning the personhood of the unborn does not extend to Tutsis, Armenians, homosexuals, or Jews?

This is where various people have told me they think Mr. Vasser goes horribly astray (I disagree, I think he was confused from the get-go). For it’s not entirely clear how we get from a dispute over a diploid cell to my supposed condemnation of Tutsis, Armenians, homosexuals, and Jews. The real goal of this paragraph is the erection of an enormous straw man, though that phrase is misleading for even straw has more substance than this argument. If Mr. Vasser can paint me as a ethnocentrist, racist, homophobe, and anti-semite then he’s erected an ad hominem quadfecta that sufficiently distracts anyone from listening to what I’m actually saying. I’m simply baffled if Mr. Vasser genuinely does not see any differences, other than size presumably, between a zygote and, say, himself. Even Matt Eppinette (remember?) conceded that the only similarity was shared genetic code, though I’m assuming he also wants to say the zygote has a soul and that this is what makes it a person. What I don’t understand here, among other things, is what happens in the case of identical twins (other complicated cases could be mentioned). If a zygote has a soul (is a person in the same way that I am a person), then what happens when that cell divides to form two embryos? Is one a person and one not? Both? Neither? Does God give a soul after they’ve split? Before? During? Am I justified in thinking this is complicated and not nearly so black and white as Mr. Vasser dogmatically insists?

Kevin suggests that abortion is not evil because it is ambiguous if the unborn are really persons. I view this with the same disgust as I would the suggestion that the genocide in Darfur is not evil because it is ambiguous if black Africans are really persons. We may cloak our prejudices in sophisticated terms, but behind every social injustice is the assertion that certain human beings are less valuable than others.

This is a remarkable paragraph whose absurdity nearly refutes itself. First note that Mr. Vasser is disgusted, a clue that may suggest he spent more time stewing over my article than he did thinking about it. His word choice re-inforces the point I made in my Cedars article: our take on the issue is deeply tied to our emotions, personalities, dispositions, etc. At rock bottom Mr. Vasser is not so much intellectually perturbed by the pro-choice perspective as he is simply repulsed by it. And I don’t fault him for this. I do, however, fault him for his obvious straw men, implicit ad hominems, and red herrings. His connecting my supposed pro-choice defense (wrong!) with the genocide in Darfur is particuarly egregious — and borderline offensive for personal reasons. Suffice to say that Mr. Vasser is picking a wrong and stupid fight if he wants to bicker about who cares more for the plight of the Sudanese. As I will elaborate on below, Mr. Vasser has chosen very specific terms to ignite the fire of the Cedarville student. Darfur is a very popular topic at CU (rightfully so) and he knows that I’m immediately discredited if he can imply — even slightly, faintly, almost unconciously — that I am in any way whatsoever condoning or apathetic to what’s going on in Africa. These kind of absurd leaps in logic are, perhaps, precisely why SFL encounters “caustic criticism” even on an overwhelmingly pro-life campus. For the record, it may be worth noting that nobody denies the personhood of the Sudanese refugee — not even the Janjaweed are massacring them for this reason. To somehow construe that the struggles of certain black Africans have anything whatsoever to do with my Cedars article on the abortion debate is beyond ludicrous and I’ve already spent too many words addressing this.

Kevin’s postmodernism may allow us to say that based on our western democratic mindset we believe black Africans should not be killed, but it gives us no basis for affirming that this statement is universally true. Therefore, such agnosticism gives us no justification for imposing this belief on others who do not share our preferences. True humanitarianism finds its basis only in the revolutionary teaching of Jesus Christ: that every human being is loved by God and has inestimable value in his sight. It is my certain belief in this truth that will not allow me to stand silently by the brutal murder of children, whether in Darfur or in Dayton.

See now this is where Mr. Vasser becomes unintentionally funny because he’s in over his head. To use the word “postmodernism” here is virtually an open invitation to point this out. [redacted because I was being an asshole] Even if certain ideas in my article can be called “postmodern” (and they can, I admitted this in my last post) the problem is that he’s using the word as a slur, not a descriptor. An astute philosopher in the form of my brother Kraig noted that “postmodernism” is simply the last of many charged words Mr. Vasser has used in order to predispose CU students against my article/perspective — the other obvious example being “Darfur” as I discussed above. By pushing on highly evocative words for this campus he can rather effectively conjure up an image of me that most students can easily and comfortably dismiss. The collective argument becomes, “If you do not want to become one of those – a Jew-hating, genocide-condoning postmodernist like Kevin Cole — then you ought to be pro-life.” This illuminates precisely why I’ve spent so much time on this: to borrow from my friend Sarah, how we frame an issue greatly affects the issue itself. The abortion issue itself is not one I care especially about; issues about language, politics, power plays are what’s fascinating to me, and those are precisely the kinds of things that have come up. They’re the kinds of things I wanted to address in my Cedars essay, and not, as Mr. Vasser contends, a defense of any one position (let alone the pro-choice one). One last point, and a small though related one at that. Notice the “Therefore, such agnosticism…” phrase in Mr. Vasser’s article… what precedes it? “Such agnosticism” refers to the belief that we can’t affirm anything as universally true — but is this really agnosticism? I highlight this to summarize one of the over-arching problems I’ve continually battled: Mr. Vasser does not carefully read the vast majority of what I write, and thus can not carefully articulate why he disagrees. He reels in the reddest herrings alive to distract us from the fact that he never once addressed any of my real points.

Phew, done. His reponse & and my rebuttal all wrapped into one juicy package. Good gracious. Also, others have responded to my article and Cedars is supposedly posting those soon. I’ve only read one in advance but if possible I may paste some of them here for your reading pleasure.

4 thoughts on “Response to Murray Vasser

  1. yeah, Mr. Vasser has built his own pro-life philosophy on the ambiguous unstable platform of “personhood”, rather than exploring the meaning of “life/nephesh” as I have so eloquently wrote to you about.
    DOD
    former Board Member
    Southeast Asian Center for Bioethics

  2. Fantastic. Bravo. He uses every tactic you’re warned against in Communications 101. Amazing. I’m actually not sure who I’m applauding for louder–you or him! 🙂
    ~Allison

  3. “…you’re actually just alienating the people on the fence. I am those people, that person.” – Kevin Cole, September 25th 2007

    “…pro-life students (such as myself)” – Kevin Cole, December 9th 2007

    Welcome to the pro-life movement, Kevin. It is encouraging to hear that in just a few short months, my arguments have had such an impact on your thinking.

    Murray “refuses to ever say ‘fetuses.’ The terms he chooses are designed to inflame emotions and sensationalize the discussion.” – Kevin Cole, September 25th 2007

    Murray “likes to use the phrase ‘fetus’ while ignoring ’embryo.’” – Kevin Cole, December 9th 2007

    You are a difficult man to please, Kevin.

    You see now why I prefer to refer to all young Homo sapiens still inside of their mothers as “unborn children.” I understand that this offends you because this term gives dignity to an entity which you would like your readers to view as an impersonal blob of tissue, but this is actually the most scientifically accurate term to use, since the words “fetus” and “embryo” each denote separate stages in the prenatal development.

    “Mr. Vasser is going to have a hell of a time marshalling empirical psychology or medical evidence to support the idea that a zygote is just as ‘self-aware’ as a newborn infant…I’m simply baffled if Mr. Vasser genuinely does not see any differences, other than size presumably, between a zygote and, say, himself.”

    Surely you are not proposing this argument:

    -We do not know if a zygote is a person
    -Therefore abortion might not be wrong (we should “refus[e] rigid moral categories when it comes to abortion”)

    Kevin, zygotes are not surgically aborted! The mother is not even aware that she is pregnant when the child is a zygote. I would love to debate you on the topic of whether or not the zygote is a person (it will be a short debate if you stick to your proposition that the zygote may not be a person because it may not have a soul), but this is irrelevant to our discussion. The above argument is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy. It is every bit as fallacious as this argument:

    -We do not know if a zygote is a person
    -Therefore infanticide might not be wrong

    The only logical conclusion that the premise can support is that it might not be wrong to kill a zygote.

    “Darfur is a very popular topic at CU (rightfully so) and he knows that I’m immediately discredited if he can imply — even slightly, faintly, almost unconciously — that I am in any way whatsoever condoning or apathetic to what’s going on in Africa.”

    Kevin, I did not imply that you believe that the genocide in Darfur is morally acceptable. I know that you believe that the killing of black Africans is wrong. I just do not know why.

    You have argued that we should adopt agnosticism towards the question of whether or not it is wrong to kill an unborn child. Yet you do not believe that we should adopt agnosticism towards the question of whether or not it is wrong to kill black Africans. Why?

    “See now this is where Mr. Vasser becomes unintentionally funny because he’s in over his head. To use the word ‘postmodernism’ here is virtually an open invitation to point this out. [redacted because I was being an asshole] Even if certain ideas in my article can be called “postmodern” (and they can, I admitted this in my last post) the problem is that he’s using the word as a slur, not a descriptor…‘postmodernism’ is simply the last of many charged words Mr. Vasser has used in order to predispose CU students against my article/perspective”

    Your intellectual snobbery is no cover for the fact that you did not answer the question. How does your postmodernism provide any logical basis for humanitarianism?

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