Wednesday's abortion debate brings philosophical perspectives

On March 6, 2014

  • On Wednesday, students packed Knox 20 to watch the “Abortion. is it Ethical?” discussion. The night was filled with anecdotes and hypothetical scenarios both debaters used to support their stance. Catherine Nolan, a Ph.D. student in philosophy, argued the anti-abortion side, and Stephan Kershnar (standing), a professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, argued for abortion rights.

Picture you and your friends are on a plane with Tony Stark from the comic book series Iron Man. Stark sees Pepper Pots making out with another man, becomes enraged and forces everyone out of the plane miles above of the earth.

Wednesday's "Abortion: is it Ethical?" discussion was filled with anecdotes and hypothetical scenarios like this as the two debaters attempted to debunk each other's positions using philosophy as the basis of their arguments.

"We can only ask people to leave once we've invited them to somewhere, not that we can kill them in order to remove them," said Catherine Nolan, a Ph.D. student in philosophy who argued the anti-abortion side. "Even if someone does not have the right to be somewhere, you can't kill or let them die."

Students packed Knox 20 to listen to Nolan and Stephan Kershnar, a professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia who argued for abortion rights, debate the controversial topic of abortion. The event centered on the moral implications of abortion, rather than the legal or religious ones.

"We believe the training and experience of philosophers rendered them well prepared to shed light on controversial issues," said David Hershenov, chair of UB's Philosophy Department and moderator of the debate.

Nolan used the Tony Stark anecdote to respond to Kershnar's claim that a host has the option to dismiss everyone at a party at his or her discretion. She said in the same way, a fetus, who is invited, cannot be "dismissed" from a woman's womb at the discretion of that woman.

Kershnar centered his position on the thesis that abortion is morally permissible.

At one point, Nolan suggested that abortion involved "killing" the fetus. Kershnar responded by asking whether the millions of abortions that have taken place should result in the mothers being arrested for murder.

Kershnar used many hypothetical cases to demonstrate his points.

In one case, he described a woman who opened her window, which had bars to prevent burglars, to let air into the room. Because the bars were defective, a burglar climbed into the window. Kershnar said it is illogical to claim the burglar has a right to be in the house because the bars were defective.

In the same way, he said, it is absurd to claim a fetus has a right to be inside of a woman. He said if a fetus has no right to be inside a woman, then it may be removed with "proportionate force" - and abortion is that force.

Nolan countered his point, claiming, "Even if someone does not have the right to be somewhere, you can't kill or let them die."

Nolan addressed what she called a common abortion rights argument. She said many people justify legalizing abortion because it gives women a safe place to receive the procedure instead of "back-alley abortions."

"People often argue that we need to agree on some type of behavior in order to control it - in order to help the people who engage in it because it's going to happen regardless," Nolan said.

She said whether it is safe or not doesn't change whether abortion is ethical.

Nolan posed the analogy: If a professor teaches his or her students easy ways to plagiarize and cheat, it doesn't justify plagiarizing or cheating. She said it would be ridiculous for a professor to make "something wrong" easily accessible for students.

She added that instead of focusing attention on abortions, people should focus on the women.

"We don't actually care and want to ignore her problems," she said. "Abortion is not a solution."

Last year's abortion debate ended with abortion rights debaters leaving early; many people in the audience, on both sides of the argument, were shouting and dissatisfied.

This year, however, the event proved that two people with different views could have a peaceful and logical discussion about the controversial issue.


Giselle Lam contributed reporting to this story.



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