George Tiller, etc.

In light of Tiller’s assassination it’s worth reading this 2004 essay by Gretchen Voss about her heartwrenching decision to have a late-term abortion. Voss’ story is sad, “pro-life” terrorism is sad, and “pro-life” hatred is sad. It’s terribly glib for anyone to assume that repealing Roe v. Wade will make this difficult issue any less thornier for all involved.

Speaking of old articles, here’s a bizarre fifteen-year-old one from the New York Times Magazine: “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal”. It’s a really interesting piece on the wild pseudo-science of somatotypes that gets weirder with every paragraph. 

Lastly, here’s why kids should talk back to their parents; or, why teaching classical rhetoric to your children may improve relations (and make your kid a smarmy snot). Except, as usual, mythos gets short shrift (also: where’s Gorgias?). So other than logos, ethos, and pathos, you can also persuade by telling a story. Even fat ol’ Plato injected his philosophy with stories to better make a point.

Intuitive Abortion Arguments

Many Pro-lifers love arguments based on intuition: show someone a photo of a fetus (always a fetus, never a blastocyst), and they’re supposed to intuitively feel that this is a person worth saving. So too with their photos of an aborted fetus, proffered in the hopes that America will legislate based on that which we find icky. Here’s my own emotional plea:

This is a zygote. It costs Americans ~$300 to kill a zygote.

This is an Iraqi girl. It costs Americans ~$1.5million to kill an Iraqi girl.

Which is more valuable, the zygote or the Iraqi? Which has more dignity? If you had to kill one, which would it be and why? How many deaths of one justify the loss of the other? 

The intuitive argument is thus: can you really honestly look the little Iraqi girl in the eyes and tell her she is worth no more than a diploid cell? That “what it means to be human” is simply to have a genome? 

Some (many?) of you now undoubtedly think I’ve “crossed the line.” So think carefully: what is that line, precisely? And why have I transgressed? And do your answers to those questions give clues to what’s wrong with the abortion debate and what to do about it?

Interventionism for Fun and Profit

Yesterday I came across this Congressional Research Service report listing “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2004.” I took the data and made a graph:

It would appear Presidents Clinton & Bush enjoy playing chess with armed forces. It will be interesting to see the updated report through the present year since the first 5 years set us on pace to out-do the military extravaganza of the ’90s.

Response to Sharyn Kopf

Sharyn Kopf is the latest pro-lifer to get a little worked up over my abortion editorial from a month ago. On its most basic level, that editorial argued the following:

1. If we don’t know if embryos are persons, then neither ‘side’ ought to be dogmatic about their position.
2. It is the case that we don’t know if embryos are persons.
3. Therefore, neither ‘side’ ought to be dogmatic about their position.

Unlike Mr Vasser — who attacked a wide range of perceived sins on my part — Miss Kopf takes a different tact by attempting (albeit circuitously) to criticize premise (1); most pro-lifers generally criticize premise (2), so we’ll see where her curious effort winds up.

To the zygote turned gamete who wrote the abortion article: Perhaps you should have subtitled it, “Aw, why can’t we all just get along?”

Her proposed subtitle misses the point, but minor quibble (maybe). More interestingly, she fails to name me. Hi, I’m Kevin. Let me do some armchair psychologizing: perhaps she prefers to see me as a “zygote turned gamete” because it de-personalizes things? In other words, if she admits that I’m a Cedarville student named Kevin then it gets more complicated. For her purposes, I’m no longer a 6th-year philosophy major with a unique past & complex psyche at the university she represents, but a liberal automaton programmed to spit out pro-choice pap without connection to desires, emotions, or personality. Makes me much easier to dismiss.

Since there seems to be an aversion to using scripture to support these dubious shades of gray—choosing, rather, to demote Psalm 139 to the status of “beautiful,” as if it’s merely poetry to be enjoyed or passed over at whim— allow me.

Aversion? Perhaps Miss Kopf ought to consider that certain Scriptural considerations were omitted simply due to space? Or, as I obliquely argued in the essay, that Scripture is largely silent on this issue? It’s confusing too how I “demoted” Psalm 139 since I feel I’m doing just the opposite. To me, calling something “poetry” or “beautiful” is not an insult. Maybe Miss Kopf feels differently. The implicit assumption here is that Scripture verses are primarily about the propositions we wrest from them, and only secondarily about genre or authorial intent. If, in other words, Psalm 139 is not a sturdy chair passage for pro-life arguments then it is of no real consequent to us. Peculiar reasoning to be sure.

Actually, the Son of God has a way with words, so I’ll let him: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.” Luke 6:22

Notice, first of all, that we’re going to be blessed when hated, ostracized, insulted and spurned for the sake of the Son of Man, not the sake of the recently-formed zygotes. Secondly, I wonder if Miss Kopf really wants to stand by this argument:

1. If I sincerely hold a belief to be true and are mocked for that belief, then that belief is in fact true.
2. That a zygote has personhood is a belief I hold to be true and am mocked for.
3. Therefore, it is in fact true that zygotes are persons.

Could it not just be the case that you are mocked because you’re being ridiculous, and not that you’re a martyr for some righteous cause?

What? No compromising? No—I’ll use your words—weakening our beliefs in order to “de-dogmatize the debate”? Golly, it almost sounds like he expects us to stand our ground and, as a result, be hated outcasts! Oh, wait … he does: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

This is where Miss Kopf would’ve benefited from an editor to clean up the juvenile tactics. Is this type of barbed rhetoric also used with constituents, media, donors and alumni, or does Miss Kopf only save her vitriol for students paying $100k for a Cedarville education? The sharp sarcasm seems more befitting a 10th-grader discovering an opposing viewpoint for the first time (“golly,” “oh wait,” “do me a favor”) than a college-educated PR director whose entire job depends on communication. I realize that sounds condescending, but surely I’m not alone reading the tone as shrill indignation: how… dare… he…! There’s an air of disbelief, as if she’s baffled that there exist any difference of opinion here. She might be startled to learn the number of faculty, staff, alumni, and students who’ve expressed support for my essay. In any case, her argument remains, as detailed above, rather unimpressive.

Notice the choice of words: “when men hate you,” “you will have trouble.” Do me a favor and read Hebrews 11—specifically verses 32-38—then tell me again how we should be weak-minded wimps who wander about “recognizing shades of gray,” and kowtowing to anti-God, anti-life claptrap.

I have to concede this point to Miss Kopf: I am a wimp, but not because of my opinions on abortion. Presumably she means weak-willed for she’s excoriating me for not standing up for the clear-and-distinct Truth of God, not that I’m of feeble mind (though perhaps she wants to maintain that as well). Perhaps this rebuttal is proof enough that “getting along” or “compromising” is not the real issues for here I am, standing up for myself and inviting scorn (does this mean I’m right by her criteria?). I strongly believe lots of things without being dogmatic about them in nearly the same manner that Miss Kopf (and Mr Vasser) are about abortion issues. That is what a lot of what weak thought is about: maybe I’m wrong! It’s not weak-mindedness, it’s reflexivity — including being reflexive about my weakening lest we be accused of self-contradiction (“All is interpretation and interpretation is all; and this too is an interpretation”).

What Miss Kopf fails to careful delineate is the difference between the issues that have shades of gray and the issues that don’t. Her scare quotes imply she doesn’t even believe fuzzy areas exist, but I doubt she literally means that. Scripture has more to say about music than abortion, and yet it’s safe to assume Miss Kopf is far less dogmatic about her musical choices than her pro-life position. Thus, instead of ranting against “weak-minded wimps who wander about ‘recognizing shades of gray’,” she ought to have spent her time arguing about why abortion is an issue without wiggle-room. What is it about this issue that excludes nuance? Furthermore, I’d press as to which parts of the abortion debate are black-and-white since within the pro-life camp there are differing opinions about various aspects of the debate.

If we’re not making “this world” angry by speaking out against sin and, in this instance, the mass extermination of human life, we’re doing something wrong.// Sharyn Kopf
Assistant Director
Public Relations
Cedarville University

I was going to comment on this last paragraph but I’ve gotten bored. I’m a weak-willed wimp anyways. At any rate, this post is dedicated to Shawn Graves.

Letter from Sharyn Kopf

To the zygote turned gamete who wrote the abortion article: Perhaps you should have subtitled it, “Aw, why can’t we all just get along?”

Since there seems to be an aversion to using scripture to support these dubious shades of gray—choosing, rather, to demote Psalm 139 to the status of “beautiful,” as if it’s merely poetry to be enjoyed or passed over at whim— allow me.

Actually, the Son of God has a way with words, so I’ll let him: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.” Luke 6:22

What? No compromising? No—I’ll use your words—weakening our beliefs in order to “de-dogmatize the debate”? Golly, it almost sounds like he expects us to stand our ground and, as a result, be hated outcasts! Oh, wait … he does: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Notice the choice of words: “when men hate you,” “you will have trouble.” Do me a favor and read Hebrews 11—specifically verses 32-38—then tell me again how we should be weak-minded wimps who wander about “recognizing shades of gray,” and kowtowing to anti-God, anti-life claptrap.

If we’re not making “this world” angry by speaking out against sin and, in this instance, the mass extermination of human life, we’re doing something wrong.

// Sharyn Kopf
Assistant Director
Public Relations
Cedarville University

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.

Weakening the Abortion Debate

I got published. The November 15th issue of Cedars featured this editorial and a review of The Darjeeling Limited. Next issue, out December 6th, should have my review of Yeasayer’s debut album “All Hour Cymbals.” Perhaps I’ll post those two reviews later. For now, here’s the abortion article with – bonus! – my comments in green (these were unpublished obviously):

Our campus was fortunate to be visited a few weeks ago by Matthew Eppinette of Americans United for Life. His visit provided, among other things, a chance to further the conversation on bioethics, morality, and the sanctity of life. Of particular interest to me was his discussion of abortion, though I was disappointed that the Christian pro-choice perspective was given short shrift (unsurprisingly) and that the Christian pro-life perspective was defended so poorly (surprisingly). [Even more surprising: 0/12 students interviewed had ever heard the phrase “short shrift.”] However, rather than using my limited space to debate the particulars of a complex debate (one involving issues of law, constitution, biology, and philosophy – not just morality), I want to suggest an alternative way of even approaching the questions. Quite simply, against the dogmatism of the hard-line pro-life position (represented by Mr. Eppinette), I want to propose a more self-reflexive approach to the “abortion issue.” [That we usually say ‘issue’ in the singular strikes me as grossly reductionist. But I caved.] This approach can be called a weakening: away from sensationalized politicking and toward a kind of agnosticism aimed at de-dogmatizing the debate. [This is my subtle attempt at inserting some postmodern jargon — “weak thought” is a notion from Gianni Vattimo, which I have vastly oversimplified for the purposes of this article.]

[Deleted from here was my original argument against Eppinette that was long and unsuitable for a newspaper. Basically, Eppinette defines personhood in terms of “the image of God” which I find more than a little absurd. For starters, we’d generally want the “image of God” to include notions of relationality, emotions, rationality, etc — none of which a zygote has.] My primary dispute is not necessarily that Eppinette wants to endow embryos with complete personhood (as he articulated in both Thursday sessions), but that he fails to be upfront about his faith commitments while simultaneously maintaining such absolutism about them. Weakening the debate may mean that we ought to admit that our stance on the issue is probably deeply tied to our emotions, personality or disposition. After all, perhaps you’re either simply the kind of person who believes there are 400,000 American citizens cryogenically frozen and desperate for our help (as Eppinette believes), or you’re the kind of person who’s just a little more incredulous toward that idea. [This is a reference to his claim – which I haven’t verified – that there are 400,000 neglected embryos sitting in freezers around this country some of which are then used for stem cell research, some brought to term for adoptions, and some simply discarded.]

Furthermore, weakening the abortion debate may mean that we recognize the extent to which we’ve been culturally conditioned, both in terms of our positions and our ways of even framing our positions. Instead of passing off blatant eisegesis as solid exegesis (the hijacking of the beautiful Psalm 139 is particularly disgraceful), [I mean this wholeheartedly, even though I realize it alienates a large group of people. Pulling pro-life arguments from Psalm 139 is just grotesque to me. Sorry.] admit that the theological arguments for the pro-life position are based on certain unprovable presuppositions and not on Scripture itself – as a number of pro-life, Evangelical theologians already have. This opens up the way to less dogmatic (and less marginalizing) ways of proceeding in the conversation. If you want to be pro-life, this may mean arguing that because we don’t know when or how a person becomes/is a person, we ought to outlaw abortion “just in case.” [I change my mind on this argument a lot, but I generally find it to be pretty strong for me and is probably the only reason I’d ever be “pro-life”] It’s a wager open to the possibility of being wrong, but still willing to take action based upon belief. If you want to be pro-choice, you might argue that since we’re essentially agnostic on the personhood of zygotes, we ought to be open to a variety of individual choices and not legally restrict an individual in what is essentially a personal moral decision.

Lastly, an approach less dogmatic than Eppinette’s may not only be more productive for dialogue, but also open the way for a more robustly ethical position. We ought to become open to the possibility that radically following Christ might mean refusing rigid moral categories when it comes to abortion. If there is a formula or matrix to just uniformly apply to any tough question, in what sense can we be said to have acted ethically? [This is Kierkegaard & Derrida – brought home to me more recently by James K.A. Smith. I’m more and more convinced of the “undecidability” of truly ethical decisions.] In recognizing shades of gray, we’re forced to truly confront the dilemmas of life. Leaving behind dogmatic articulations on either side (and we ought to even question the terminology of “sides”) re-asserts personal moral responsibility and re-introduces a certain humility into a topic that’s too often needlessly divisive. The question of “sides” could’ve realistically been a whole new essay. I think it’s astounding how many metaphors we draw from sports & war — and if sports are war (as it’s often claimed, even in poker!), then we’re just left with combat. Debate shouldn’t be combat though, and I’d believe that even if I weren’t a pacifist — and even if I weren’t accustomed to the deconstructive subversion of binaries. There are very few areas in life where I’m not told to take sides, to pick a team and hope to win. BUT I SUCK AT SPORTS. Make your own inference.

One last note on Eppinette: after he spoke on Thursday night I went up to him to ask a question. Before I asked it though, I inquired as to what we call the union of sperm & egg, that first “thing.” I thought it was a zygote, but wanted to be sure before I used it in a sentence. Plus, I wanted to disarm Eppinette by lobbing him a softball (damn sports metaphors!) instead of just assaulting him (war!) with “omg ur position is teh suk!” Here’s the thing… Eppinette did not know what the union of sperm & egg produced. I’m not writing this to be needlessly cruel, I just think it’s sadly indicative of the level of discourse Christians bring to these debates. This man has a masters in “Bioethics” and travels the country defending the pro-life position… yet can’t answer basic biology questions? My ignorance here – I think – is excusable. His seems pretty telling. Eppinette’s presentation was chock full of “science” and “hard facts” and yadayada — how much of that does he know, and how much did he copy from Wikipedia with no understanding of what he’s reciting? Cheap shot, I deserve a red card (sports!) so I’ll stop already.

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.