Closing down discussion won't do
Anne Furedi, who heads up the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK's largest abortion provider, recently wrote a seminal article extolling the value and importance of debate. (1)
Furedi wrote the article after taking part in a debate organised by Cambridge Students for Life and the Cambridge Medical Society. The motion was: 'Genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion.' Furedi opposed the motion whilst I and Peter D Williams from Right to Life supported it.
However, the debate prompted a protest organised by the Cambridge University Student Union Women's Campaign. They did not just oppose the motion; they wanted to shut down the debate! Furedi commented that it was the first time she had encountered a protest asking people not to attend a debate.
Her article sends a clear message to those who are pro-abortion, that they must engage with their opponents and cannot simply close down the conversation when they disagree. Whilst I would not agree with Furedi's position on abortion, she nevertheless makes useful points about the importance of debate.
First, if we don't join the debate, people will only hear one side of the argument and may be more likely to be convinced by it. Second, if we take our ideas seriously, debate is essential to test and develop our ideas and to convince others.
Third, pitting our arguments against an opponent is one of the best ways to learn to be more clear, concise and precise. Fourth, when we try to silence someone, we tell the world we fear what they might say.
Our approach in the debate was to argue that allowing abortion solely because the baby is disabled is discriminatory. Furedi consequently observed that those who are '"pro-life" are increasingly…focusing on… disability, gender selection and later abortion procedures because they think they are easier issues on which to gain public support'.
She continues: 'Whether they succeed or not depends on how we engage with those arguments – which we won't do well unless we listen, answer and debate…Frankly, taking on able and informed opponents of my views was a challenge, but my opponents…were far less hostile than the protesters who purported to agree with me…but whose signs told me [not to engage in debate].'
She concluded: 'You don't have to be a Cambridge intellectual to understand why debate and discussion should be encouraged.'
My own take-home message was similar: the debate was a valuable and worthwhile exercise, and it was clear that focusing on specific issues where we can more easily gain public support is working.