Panel debates ethical issues of abortion controversy at conference
The conference was inspired by President Barack Obama’s 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame University, in which he called for openness in discussing abortion and women’s rights. Scholars and activists from leading universities and institutions like Bioethics International, one of the most respected authorities on ethical issues, convened to debate issues including a woman’s moral duty to her fetus, the decision to terminate a pregnancy based on fetal anomalies and sex, and the economic and social support provided for continuing pregnancy.
“Policy and legislation alone cannot bridge the abortion debate divide,” said Jennifer Miller, the Executive Director of Bioethics International, who co-chaired the event.
The conference, held in McCosh Hall, aimed to set an example of constructive and civil discourse “at a time when our standards of public discussion seem to have reached a new low,” Charles Beitz, director of the Center for Human Values, said in an e-mail.
A panel on the moral status of the fetus drew a packed auditorium in McCosh 50 on Friday afternoon, as bioethics professor Peter Singer, Oxford professor John Finnis and Georgetown professor Margaret Little expressed divergent views but avoided labeling abortion as right or wrong.
Finnis talked about the shift in public perception since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, two Supreme Court cases that asserted abortion as a constitutional right, were decided in 1973. These cases have caused people to deny that “what they could see as a human baby was a human person or has moral status,” he explained. He added that current laws allow for the abortion of fetuses that could survive outside the womb. An estimated 22 percent of all pregnancies, excluding miscarriages, are aborted in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Little said that the fetus’s moral status increases gradually as it develops: Earlier abortions can be decently — “indeed, honorably” — ended, but later abortions are “incredibly serious.”
But Singer argued that a fetus, even when it becomes a newborn, lacks the same moral status of an adult. He later said, “Our rights over our own bodies are not absolute if the rights of others are affected.”
The conference’s final forum focused on the widely contested issue of the courts’ role in deciding abortion’s legal status. Singer was joined by Penn professor Frances Kissling, as well as three law school professors: Richard Garnett of Notre Dame, Dawn Johnsen of Indiana University and Robin West of Georgetown.
Garnett and West argued that the Constitution and the Supreme Court introduce rigidity by restricting the role of politics and democracy.
“The Constitution should be limited to specifying the procedures necessary for a democracy to function properly; provided that happens, on issues of political substance, the majority view should prevail,” Singer added.
Johnsen, however, spoke in favor of the Supreme Court’s past rulings and its protection of fundamental liberties. “The government’s role is to help women’s health and decision making. It is not to make life-altering decisions for them,” she said.
Kissling took a broader view, stressing the importance of respecting and enforcing a woman’s rights to her body. “I don’t care how you accomplish it, whether through a constitution, the U.N., state laws or federal laws.”
Every panel concluded with a question-and-answer session between the speakers and the audience.
Many audience members said they were very pleased with the discourse, calling it a great opportunity for diverse views to come together.
“They came far. Many of the speakers were not short of brilliant,” said Richard Chasin, a senior associate at the Public Conversations Project.
Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum said she felt that the event was “a step in the right direction” but wished for “more voices in the room.”
“It was very academic,” Yeung said, adding that there was only one “prominent speaker of color.”
The co-chairs — Singer, Kissling and Miller — concluded Saturday’s session by asking each member of the audience to share thoughts with the person next to them as a gesture of fostering and forging the event’s spirit.
Along with the Center for Human Values, the conference was sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, the religion department, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Fordham University Department of Theology, the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics and Bioethics International.
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a statement made by Jennifer Miller of Bioethics International to bioethics professor Peter Singer.