Debate at St Andrews: Is abortion a fundamental human right?

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President of St Andrew’s Students for Life, Jack Stukel, recounts the recent debate his society held in collaboration with the Feminist Society and the Model United Nations Society on whether abortion is a fundamental human right

Going into a debate titled ‘Abortion: A Fundamental Human Right?’ on 12 April, many members of Students For Life – St. Andrews were understandably nervous. Not only were they surely bound to be outnumbered and the tenor of the debate would surely be emotional and hostile, but similar debates around the United Kingdom had even been shut down by vehement protests and unsympathetic administrators. True, the Feminist Society and the Model United Nations society had endorsed and jointly organized the event, but that was no guarantee of the general student body’s willingness to accept free speech.

However, their fears turned out to be unfounded and the debate, by all accounts, proceeded with civility, respect, and decorum. Surprisingly, the pro-life turnout roughly equaled that of the pro-choice side, so a frank and balanced exchange of views was the result. In addition, the debate almost never touched on the right of pro-life societies to exist on campus, a tacit victory for free speech and a ringing endorsement of FemSoc’s President, who, unlike many in her society, has never once challenged the existence of Students For Life – St. Andrews and has, on a number of occasions, cooperated fully with SFL to encourage debate on relevant issues.

The format

 As St. Andrews’ Model United Nations society was the host and moderator of the event, the debate roughly followed Model UN format. The Chair would add all those wishing to speak to a Speakers List and those speakers would then have one minute each to express their point. Periodically, the Chair would accept motions for a break from the Speakers List in the form of moderated caucuses. These would have defined time periods (often 5-10 minutes), defined speaking times (often 30-90 seconds), narrower set topics, and speakers who would be called on directly by the Chair instead of being predetermined in a list. The set topics during this particular debate ranged from the personhood of the unborn child, to women’s health, to abortion alternatives. Though this format was initially confusing to those who had never been a part of Model UN simulations, it provided a controlled and unbiased process for the debate while still encouraging full public participation.

Abortion a human right?

 At first, the debate centered around human rights arguments, as the premise was ‘Abortion: A Fundamental Human Right?’ Pro-choice advocates pointed to the universal right to basic medical care and the so-called ‘Caregiver’ precedent in American law as justifications for abortion. The pro-life side responded by emphasizing the obvious right to life of the child, codified in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Later, the idea of personhood was examined, with the pro-choice definitions of personhood varying from the subjective choice of the mother to the capacity for reason and interest (around age 7). Pro-lifers first defended the unique humanity of life at conception, then detailed the long and dark history of personhood theory from slavery through to Nazism. In the latter half of the debate, the arguments shifted to the effects of abortion on women. Backstreet abortions were inevitably brought up, though that myth was quickly dispelled by the pro-life supporters, citing comparative statistics on maternal mortality rates in both pro-life and pro-choice countries. The world’s ‘Missing Women’ were next examined and that debate focused on the question of whether abortion truly empowers women or entrenches misogyny in patriarchal societies.

All in all, a wide range of topics was covered in an hour and a half of spirited debate. The event was a step forward both for free speech and the pro-life cause. Not only was Students For Life’s right to be heard affirmed, but new members were brought in who would not have otherwise known about the pro-life movement in the UK.

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