This post may draw all kinds of crazy trolls. And I suppose the headline is inflammatory just by using the word “abortion.” But, I’m not actually going to talk about abortion particularly directly. Instead, I’m actually going to talk about a time in 1995 when I participated in an amateur debate on abortion.
A few months ago, I started writing a post in response to one of the stories, making the rounds at the time, about differences in brain function between liberals and conservatives. Just beginning to write that post, though, caused me to recall this experience and what a formative effect it had on me. Maybe I’ll get around to writing that other post eventually, but I doubt it. I would certainly argue that I have observed changes in the way my brain processes information as my politics have shifted left. (I’m still not particularly liberal by any objective standard; although I might seem like a crazy pinko in the current warped political environment of the U.S.) Some of my closest friend have heard this story before, but I’ve never told it publicly.
During my school years, I participated in a program known as Lads to Leaders. This was a leadership development program available to churches within the conservative, evangelical movement in which I was raised. While I see many things about the program that today cause me to cringe, I must give credit where credit is due: I would not be the person I am today, with the leadership skills that I have today, without having participated in this program over the years. (If someone from the organization follows a link to this blog post in their referrer logs, I’m sure that they, too, may cringe, given how I have diverged from many of the teachings of their fellowship. Such is life.)
In any case, if memory serves, 1995, my senior year in high school, was the first year in which they offered a debate competition as part of their national convention. A close friend (greetings, JPH!) and I decided to participate. The subject of the debates for the first year was abortion. (I hope, frankly, that they have since gotten a bit better at choosing topics.) The affirmative position was something hard-lined and inflammatory. I think it was “Resolved that abortion is murder.” In any case, it didn’t seem particularly fair, as the affirmative statement was something with which most people in the organization, including the judges, would be strongly inclined to agree. (A good debate topic should not be settled, particularly amongst the judges. Maybe the judges’ opinion shouldn’t matter. But, as long as the judges are human, it does and will matter.)
JPH and I procrastinated, as we often did, and wound up working late the night before preparing our materials. As we finished our preparations, I remember commenting to JPH that we had actually built a stronger case for the negative side, as we had expected it to be so much harder to prepare a biblical argument against the proposition. (In reality, though, it might have actually been easier. The biblical texts, in my perfect hind-sighted opinion, do not support the hard line proposition, and we had collected much more supplemental material supporting the negative.) We even toyed with the idea of actually choosing the negative side if given the option.
The day of the competition dawned, and there were six teams in our division. Three of them were all from the same church, let’s call it Church A, since I don’t remember the identity of the church, nor is it particularly important. It was decided that there would be three matches, each consisting of one team from Church A and one of the other teams; this way, the teams from Church A did not have to compete directly against each other. JPH and I drew the third match.
At the start of each match, there was a coin toss. The team winning the toss got to choose the affirmative side or the negative side. The teams from Church A won the toss in each of the first two matches. And, predictably, each Church A team chose the affirmative. So, during the first two matches JPH and I sat in the audience and listened to the arguments that Church A had put together in support of the proposition. They were particularly weak – much weaker than what we had prepared for either side. In addition, both of the first two Church A teams made basically the same arguments from the same evidence. It was obvious that they had done all of their research together. And, frankly, the teams from Church A bested both of their first opponents, who obviously agreed with the affirmative case despite their weak efforts to construct arguments for the negative side.
Finally, our turn came. JPH and I won the coin toss. After a mere moment of deliberation, we chose the negative side. There was a collective gasp in the room when we made our choice, but the choice to us was obvious. We had already heard Church A’s affirmative arguments and they were weak; we had no idea what they might have on the negative side. In addition, we felt that we had developed a strong negative case.
JPH and I completely and utterly destroyed the poor team from Church A. I don’t remember much of what we said, except that in one argument we actually tied a Carl Sagan quote (about how it is the patterns of human thought that make us human) in with a biblical argument, which still cracks me up. (I believe we referred to him as “a leading scientist” though, as famous atheist Carl Sagan would’ve been viewed with disdain in that audience.) Never in my life have I left a subjective competition feeling so certain of victory.
Afterwards, one of the judges shook my hand. He told me that it had been a difficult decision for them, but they believed that they had made the right call. We found out that night at the awards ceremony that we had taken first place. (The teams from Church A in the first two rounds took second and third, respectively.) Despite the fact that it was obvious to me that we had won fair and square, I’ll always respect those judges for agreeing, even though it was obviously difficult for them to go against their preconceptions.
In any case, when I look back at the development of my ability to tolerate ambiguity (one of the characteristics of a “liberal”), that debate is a touchstone for me. At the time, I think my actual opinion still rested with the affirmative side of the argument (though not as strongly as you might expect for a conservative kid raised in a conservative church), but I was appalled at the weak arguments which were being (successfully) used to buttress it. While it seemed as if the other 5 teams in the debate had basically dismissed the negative side as not worth defending, we had taken the negative argument at least as seriously as the affirmative one. (The Church A teams, if they had taken the negative seriously, would surely have crafted stronger affirmative arguments; their other two opponents appeared to have nearly conceded before the debates even started.) The ability to deliver arguments passionately (and honestly) for a side that I didn’t necessarily agree with and stand in that gap over a long period of time really changed me.
I still have ambiguous feelings about abortion when it comes to the issue of personal morality (which is easy for me, given that I can say with certainty that I will never have one). I am no longer ambiguous about the legal issues, though: I think the decision to have an abortion is a very personal decision that the government shouldn’t touch with a hundred-foot pole. As Bill Clinton famously said, I believe that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”