While Lewis Auditorium was packed with students from Cornell and Ithaca College who came to listen to a debate about the morality and legality of abortion on Thursday evening, several students wearing pink gathered outside Goldwin Smith Hall in support of reproductive rights.
Prof. Jonathan Peeters, philosophy and religion, Ithaca College spoke on the pro-abortion side, while Stephanie Gray, faculty at the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, argued against abortion rights.
The “Pink Out” demonstration was organized by the Planned Parenthood Generation Action at Cornell, a student group that aims to secure reproductive justice for all and fight for education, healthcare and access, according to a Facebook page.
Multiple police officers were stationed outside of the auditorium. Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur said at the beginning that the University was “super supportive” of the right to protest, but that there was a designated protest area outside the auditorium and warned that disrupting the event inside the auditorium would not be tolerated.
At least one person in the audience held up a pink “I stand with Planned Parenthood” sign during part of the debate, but there were no major disruptions.
Hosting the Debate
Patrick Lynch ’18, president of Debate in Science and Health, one of the co-sponsoring organizations, told The Sun that hosting the debate encouraged free speech on campus. The ability to talk about the issue in an intelligent, level-headed and non-political manner was something he said was unique to an academic environment.
“Especially the way modern media works is that it incentivizes you to give a controversial opinion or opinion that caters to a specific viewpoint,” he said. “I think that situations like these are unique because they’re not looking for voters, they’re not looking for some sort of money endorsement, they’re literally just speaking what may or may not be their personal opinion, but they’re representing an intellectual opinion about this issue.”
Although Lynch emphasized the importance of listening to both sides of a controversial issue, he said the protest “just adds to the excitement of the debate” and that it was important for people to be able to show their opinions if they were passionate about one side.
However, not everyone was so tolerant about the protest. In a Sun letter to the editor, Robert Foote, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Cornell affiliate chaplain, questioned the motivations behind the protest and highlighted the benefits of open debate.
Melody Zimmerman, a community member who was the main organizer of the event, told The Sun that she was a little sad that people were protesting a conversation that presented both sides of the issues.
“I wish that people could engage in the conversation without feeling attacked,” she said.
Zoe Maisel ’18, co-president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action, told The Sun that her group was against having the debate because it “normalizes the idea that the control of people’s bodies is okay.”
“This isn’t a discussion of free speech for us, this is a discussion of ‘what do we care about as an organization?’” she said.
However, Maisel emphasized that the group would not be stopping anyone from going to the event nor would they directly engage with it.
By protesting the event, she said that the group wanted to stand in solidarity with people who have accessed abortion services and might not feel great about the event.
“We know that a lot of people access abortion care, it’s our friends, it’s ourselves, it’s our coworkers, it’s our partners and it’s really important to show that we’re in solidarity with them.”
For Alanna Salwen ’19, it was important to protest because the debate gives a platform to “violent rhetoric” that de-legitimizes people’s choice, saying that the pro-life argument is founded on “pseudoscience and lies” and stigmatizing people.
On the anti-abortion side of the debate, Gray based her argument around two premises.
The first was that it is wrong to directly and intentionally kill an innocent human being and the second was that abortion directly and intentionally kills an innocent human being. She stated that there was no debate about the first premise and her goal was to prove the second promise.
In her opening statement, Gray addressed three points. The first were the “hard cases” of abortion, including teenage pregnancies, pregnancies involving babies with disabilities and pregnancies as a result of rape.
To address this, Gray invoked the personal stories of people she knew who regretted having abortions as well as those who did not regret not having abortions.
Gray’s second point revolved around the question of when life began, which she argued was at fertilization.
In her third point, Gray showed a graphic video that compared a pre-born child in utero before and after abortion.
In her rebuttal to what she called Peeters’ “bodily rights” argument that people should not control someone else’s body, Gray argued that parents have a basic responsibility to meet the needs of their offspring.
“Maintaining a pregnancy would be analogous to feeding the two-year old child,” she said.
Arguing in favor of the legality of abortions, Peeters laid out a typical anti-abortion argument and proceeded to refute it.
His typical anti-abortion argument, which he said he thought Gray followed, was that a conclusion that abortion should be illegal was based on two premises that embryos/fetuses have a right to life and abortion brings about the death of embryos/fetuses.
Although he said he disagreed with the validity of the premises, Peeters said that even by assuming that they were true, concluding that abortion was illegal does not logically follow from the premises.
To demonstrate this, Peeters applied a lesson from the court case McFall v. Shimp to the issue of abortion. In McFall v. Shimp, Peeters explained that the court determined it was not permissible for the state to force one person to give another his bone marrow.
The central lesson that Peeters said could be gleaned from this case is that “the right to life does not give one a right to use another’s body even if one needs it in order to go on living.”
He then applied this lesson specifically to the case of abortion, arguing that the assumptions that the fetus is a person and needs the woman’s body to continue living are not enough to give the fetus a right to a woman’s body.
In his closing statement, Peeters said that his focus was to present a legality argument and that he would leave the morality of abortion up to the audience.
Overall, Zimmerman said she thought the debate went very well and liked how the debaters helped frame the issue in different ways.