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Pro-Life Naïfs in the Big City Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Wednesday, 27 October 2010

It’s a story older than literature. Young naïfs come from the provinces only to have their pockets picked by big city denizens. This is at least part of the story of the “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Fair Minded Words” conference on abortion that took place a few weekends ago at Princeton.

Abortion advocates came with a great deal of confidence and a clear agenda. Many of the pro-lifers came with little more than good will, not a little embarrassment, and in many cases an incomplete ability to articulate the pro-life position.

The problem started with the organizing committee. On the pro-abortion side sat abortion battleship Frances Kissling, onetime director of the misnamed Catholics for a Free Choice, along with Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who famously believes born children may be killed. On the other side sat newly minted assistant professor Charles Camosy of Fordham and Jennifer Miller, who runs a one-woman bioethics group that has an annual budget of $25,000. Imagine these two holding up the pro-life side opposite two grizzled veterans of the pubic-policy wars. It was a little like your local high school playing the New York Yankees.

The good guys did manage to get a few excellent pro-life advocates: John Finnis of Oxford, Helen Alvare of George Mason University, Christian Brugger of St. John Vianney Seminary, and William Hurlbut of Stanford. But for the most part the pro-lifers were out-numbered and outclassed. Every single panel was weighted in favor of the pro-abortion side, some embarrassingly so. The panel on preventing unintended pregnancies consisted of four abortion advocates pushing contraception and one priest ineptly explaining Catholic teaching. Pro-lifers who knew what they were doing would never have allowed these kinds of odds. It was worse than what happens on the leftwing MSNBC.

On the opening panel – which set the tone for the day – Jennifer Miller could not have been more embarrassed by the position she was supposed to defend. Another panelist, a former staff member of Planned Parenthood, suggested that Miller would answer a question from the pro-life perspective. Miller nervously refused to answer saying “we had a teleconference on this subject and decided we would not reveal our positions,” even though most of the speakers on the opening panel had already revealed themselves to be pro-abortion. Miller actually referred to abortion clinic escorts as “patient advocates.” It seems Miller got at least a touch of the Stockholm Syndrome during the conference planning.

Charles Camosy, the other organizer on the pro-life side, says he was inspired to do the conference while listening to Barack Obama’s Notre Dame speech, wherein Obama called for a dialogue on abortion that would include “open hearts and open minds.” There is an old saying in Washington, D.C., that where you stand is determined by where you sit (in the House and Senate chambers). Note that Camosy sat right in front of the president at Notre Dame rather than standing with those protesting his honorary degree at a Catholic university. At the conference, Camosy said the controversy around Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame demonstrated all that was wrong with the abortion debate in America. Most of us would say it was a high-water mark for the Church in America, especially that so many bishops publically protested. Not Camosy.


       Pro-lifers at Princeton: Stockholm Syndrome?

Besides the speakers who were outmatched or embarrassed or both, many of the others seem to be of the progressive persuasion, which meant the conference was at least in part the Left speaking to the farther Left. Any conference where Notre Dame’s Cathy Kaveny is on the pro-life side means the conference is in trouble from the start. Kaveny is known for siding with Barack Obama, and taking every opportunity to scold pro-lifers, including bishops, who dare to take a strong public position. Another of these was an Evangelical pastor who described himself as a progressive and who could not bring himself to say anything much stronger than abortion should be resisted.

One big puzzle is where were all the big pro-life guns of either academia or activism? I am told that many of them turned Miller and Camosy down, though I have not heard why. Did they lack confidence in the organizers? Or just not want to validate someone like Frances Kissling?

Not surprisingly, organizers claimed victory. How could they not when so many speakers congratulated the conference as “historical”? Camosy wrote there were areas of common interest such as protecting the consciences of health-care workers, though this was confused at best. Panelists said doctors may personally be able to refuse, but not institutions.

Writing in the leftwing website Commonweal, law professor Robert Vischer claimed a breakthrough on the humanity of the unborn child, though this is hardly news. Naomi Wolf first broached the subject fifteen years ago. He admitted there was no agreement on selective abortions, that is, abortions of girl-babies and the disabled even though two of the panelists have disabled children. Another panel could not agree on fetal pain.

Veteran pro-life academic/activist Helen Alvare found the conference helpful in one regard. It reminded her that the arguments of the other side have not really changed in the almost forty years of the Roe regime. The pro-abortion side, she said, is convinced that pro-lifers don’t really care about the unborn child but care more deeply about punishing sexual practices of which we disapprove. This echoes even the words of President Obama who famously said he would support his daughter’s abortion since she should not be “punished” with an unwanted baby.

In the end, what does it matter if there is common ground between Jennifer Miller and Frances Kissling? Such an agreement would change exactly nothing in the abortion debate. And let’s face it, Kissling and her crew have no intention of giving an inch. They’re having too much fun picking the pockets of the rubes.
 

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

(c) 2010 The Catholic Thing. All right reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

NOTE: For those who wish to watch the panels mentioned in this column, the link below connects to the conference website. Beneath the title is a list of links, including one marked “event videos”: http://uchv.princeton.edu/Life_Choice/

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Comments (30)Add Comment
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written by Mark, October 28, 2010
Thus the danger of debates. Too many people assume a debate's winner has proven his cause. This ain't necessarily so. I'm reminded of Deborah Lipstadt, who refuses to debate Holocaust deniers since doing so gives them a public venue with the appearance of legitimacy that holds the same potential problems encountered at the Princeton conference.
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written by James, October 28, 2010
But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 4:3
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written by Geddy Lee, October 28, 2010
I think this column is unfortunate. For starters, there is a young, energetic pro-life professor at Fordham, which is no small victory for us. Shouldn't we find ways to support him and his arguments? I thought the other side ate their young?
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written by Jacob, October 28, 2010
I agree with James...the children murdered by leftists are lucky they never had to meet them!

I'd much rather be with God myself.

My way of protesting abortion is by calling a spade a spade...if I talk about it to anyone I speak very calmly and rationally about baby murder.
"You think baby murder should be legal? I understand that, but I don't think it's ok to murder a baby no matter what."
or "It's quite perverse that, to protect women from the hands of men, we let mostly men put their hands inside the woman and murder her baby with a blunt instrument."
or "Just because you can't hear the baby scream when you murder him or her doesn't mean you're not murdering him or (most likely) her." ...a real service to women when you murder them in the womb.
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written by Howard Kainz, October 28, 2010
Austin, did John Finnis et al take part in the debate? Finnis is certainly not a light-weight.
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written by Austin Ruse, October 28, 2010
Finnis is mentioned in the piece.
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written by Concerned prolifer, October 28, 2010
interestingly Austin did NOT attend the conference, the lunches or speakers dinner.
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written by ben, October 28, 2010
We need to support our fellow prolifers not tear them down as Austin does in this unhelpful and rather disturbing article. very bad representation for CFAM
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written by Bill, October 28, 2010
It seems to me that rather than debating the lack of merit of abortion more could be accomplished if, during the intercessory prayers at every Mass, we prayed the following: O God our Father, we pray that the gift of life will not be denied our unborn children.
And one final point.More emphasis should be placed on the biological fact that human life begins at conception.
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written by concerned, October 28, 2010
I find the tone of this column to be more than a bit discouraging. I guess we should forget about working so hard to have a face-to-face conversation with those on the other side and simply lob pot-shots in the blogosphere.
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written by Howard, October 28, 2010
Found this on Google search of "John Finnis Pro-Life'.
*John Finnis is Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy in the University of Oxford and the Biolchini Family Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame. This piece is adapted from his remarks delivered at the conference “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words,” held on the campus of Princeton University on October 15th and 16th, 2010.*
Read it to be agreeable that Mr. Finnis is no light-weight. Good he was there!
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written by Austin Ruse, October 28, 2010
Answering "Concerned Pro-Lifer"....

1. Three of my staff members attended the conference and came away deeply disturbed by what they saw.
2. I personally watched several of the panels on video.
3. I also interviewed other people who attended the conference including one Catholic academic who was angry at what she saw.
4. My contacts say most of the pro-lifers they spoke to at the conference were upset precisely along the lines I describe above.

I stand by what I wrote but would welcome a response from the organizers or others who want to use their own names.
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written by Austin Ruse, October 28, 2010
By the way, I have only ever criticized pro-lifers when I think they deserve it. The first case was a column I wrote here against Randall Terry. This conference was so problematic that it, too, deserved strong criticism. Many, perhaps most, of the pro-lifers in attendance might possibly agree.

Pro-lifers cannot be immune from criticism. We are strong enough and large enough as a movement that we should be able to give and take such criticism. We are in a fight for lives; nothing is more important than that.
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written by Lee, October 28, 2010
Aristotle rightly observed long ago, in Book One of The Rhetoric, that "true things and just things are naturally superior to their opposites," and that, therefore, if the audience's verdict is not what it should be, the fault lies with the advocates for truth and justice - who failed to prevail despite the advantage their side had. Like Mr. Ruse, I also did not attend the debate; but like him and Aristotle, I agree with the principle that any advocates for the pro-life side who failed to present the best arguments are at fault. The solution is certainly not - as some have suggested - to avoid such debates. The solution is to put forward our best advocates and arm them with the best preparation. What Lincoln said about slavery is equally true about abortion: it "is an evil, and an evil cannot bear being discussed." So I say the more abortion is debated, the better it is for truth and justice - and the worse it is for abortion's future -- especially provided, however, that we have able and well prepared advocates on the pro-life side.
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written by -, October 29, 2010
The credit belongs to those actually in the arena- these two are quickly becoming experienced veterans and very well respected- they and are to be congratulated not publically ridiculed. Poor article.
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written by Mark, October 29, 2010
This debate would not have occured without these two. The credit belongs to the ones actually in the arena.
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written by Ellen, October 29, 2010
I think you mean constructive criticism which this is not. Hurrah for these successful efforts to unite over 500 people in dialogue. Who else has created space for a doctor who performs abortions to sit with a picketer.
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written by Kathy, October 29, 2010
It doesn't help any cause to be woefully under-represented and unprepared to do battle with the big guns on the opposition -- unless your David. The question is, to stick with your Yankees analogy: If your pitching staff isn't going to show up for the game, should you even play?
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written by Seana, October 29, 2010
Austin's column is absolutely accurate in every respect. I sat through this entire conference, and frankly, based upon everything I heard and saw, I find Austin's column and even his criticisms to be exceedingly charitable. The absolute lowest point of this conference, in my opinion, occurred during a panel called "Providing Support for Continuing Pregnancy," in which the supposedly pro-life voice on the panel essentially blamed conservative Christians for the abortion culture. He argued that the large number of abortions stems from the fact that "conservative Christians don't talk to their kids about birth control." The panel also seemed to concur that "pro-life tax-cutters" are to blame for all this, and that the solution is simply more government programs, including citizens' tax dollars going toward free birth control for all. At the very least, there should have been someone on the panel to argue the opposing view, but sadly, there was not.
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written by Tim ward, October 29, 2010
Most centers start off with a single persons efforts and sacrifices. Hastings center started in the callahans living rm. The bioethics center referenced has an extensive network of healthcare experts unparalleled for it's niche. This article should be pulled from this publication. It's an embarrassment for the writer and publisher, not the conference organizers.
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written by Art Deco, October 29, 2010
From Dr. Camosy's office website:

The ethic of Peter Singer and a Christian ethic are thought to be diametrically opposed, but my thesis is that this polarized understanding is a mistake and that a close and charitable reading of the two approaches shows that they are similar enough for both fruitful and mutually-critical correlation. Indeed, I argue that they can work together for peace and justice on many different kinds of issues—from combating global poverty to the liberation of non-human animals.

I will wager you are looking at someone readily suborned. (What the young people call a 'tool', I believe).
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written by Amanda, October 29, 2010
I did attend the conference, however my critique is slightly different. I came away convinced that it was the mingling of activists with academics that dragged the conference down. It was sad to see a debate between Singer and Finnis, both esteemed philosophers in their own right, hijacked by questions that weren't about honest inquiry but merely political gestures.
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written by Jane, October 30, 2010
The problem is pro-lifers come to discuss in the first place- our position is absurd. At least we should be them, documenting their views- pro-aborts are war criminals. Nazis.

Imagine Rabbis sitting down with SS? This is the problem, they are murdering psychopaths and sane people will NEVER ever, nor should they, communicate with them.
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written by Emmett, October 30, 2010
Similar to the way the tea party activists get their pockets picked. Lack of academic rigor and logical consistency. Trying to stick up for the Truth within the Americanist rhetorical framework is a tough battle.
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written by Wil, October 31, 2010
Whoever the experts on the Pro-Life side are, they definitely need to be making themselves heard at these kinds of events... I ran into this all of the time at college, the cultural and/or moral conservatives vastly under-represented and outgunned. It contributes to the habit of the left and further-left thinking and feeling that their positions are much stronger than they actually are. It's frustrating for common people and for students who have the good sense to oppose abortion, but perhaps not the ability to articulate well for their side... it's high time intelligent conservatives stand up consistently and champion their side. We can't afford to sit on the sideline on this one.
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written by Chris Boegel, November 01, 2010
Pro-Life people have to do their homework and be very tough-minded, or they're toast, and do a disservice to the cause. I cringed when I saw this meeting scheduled on EWTN's calendar - "lambs to the slaughter" is what I thought, and that's what it was.

Jesus warned us "I send you out into the world, therefore, ye must be wise as a serpent, and gentle as a dove." Too often, church people skip the first part, because they don't want to think about dark, evil things. But that's what you're dealing with - you're talking to people who think it's OK to kill other people. And by the way, they plan to assassinate your character, so that they can rhetorically/politcally kill our spokesmen as well.

Sleepers awake!! There's a war out there - and NARAL, Singer, Planned Parenthood et al know that we are their enemy - so they are waging war on us. What are we going to do???
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written by Susan, November 01, 2010
There were two main problems, apart from the "prolife" personalities involved, that were all too predictable ahead of time. One, the fatuous premise that we are obligated to listen to Obama's cloying notion of "fair words".

There is a place for dialogue but not with Peter Singer who is someone who consciously promotes abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and even less with Frances Kissling, who claims to be a Catholic and proposes that these things are Catholic teaching.

Second, and related, the format of the meeting did not allow for direct targeting of a single, main pro-abort proposition between Singer and either Finnis or Robert George. The panel structure made for more of a pillow fight atmosphere rather than the serious intellectual contest it should have been.
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written by Guest, November 18, 2010
"The problem is pro-lifers come to discuss in the first place- our position is absurd. At least we should be them, documenting their views- pro-aborts are war criminals. Nazis.

Imagine Rabbis sitting down with SS? This is the problem, they are murdering psychopaths and sane people will NEVER ever, nor should they, communicate with them. "

This post is as chock full of sanity as it is of grammar.

I'll tell you a secret... you communicate with pro-choicers every day. In fact, statistics indicate that you communicate with people who've had abortions every day. You LIKE some of them.

I mean, if you ever leave your basement, that is.
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written by Guest, December 03, 2010
The fact that you refer to "pushing" contraception as though it were an illicit narcotic demonstrates how distant you are from understanding any concept of a plausible middle ground. It would be laughable if it didn't lead to massive numbers of unplanned pregnancies for unprepared, uneducated young people. There is clearly progress to be made there: pregnancies avoided equals abortions avoided. When you disregard the evidence of general human sexual behavior you mark yourself as an ideologue, who ought not to be invited to the table.
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written by Kyle Breckenridge, June 28, 2013
My biggest issue with all of this is the following paragraph:
"One big puzzle is where were all the big pro-life guns of either academia or activism? I am told that many of them turned Miller and Camosy down, though I have not heard why. Did they lack confidence in the organizers? Or just not want to validate someone like Frances Kissling?"

I'm tired of people from both sides with the "I'm refuse to work with those crazies" standpoint as portrayed in that last sentence. Why is it so reprehensible for people to put their differences aside and come together to accomplish a goal they both want, less abortions.

What's wrong with working with someone like Kissling on outreach programs to help support women with unwanted pregnancies? Is it at all possible that potential weight of the pro-life and pro-choice powerhouses coming together on a program like this could actually have a lasting effect and make our country a better place? Isn't at least worth trying?

A policy of non-involvment and podeum preaching will only cause deeper rifts as opposed to actually solving anything, and before anyone says differently, I know that both sides of this debate are guilty of this, which makes it all the more sad.

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