In 1990, I was invited to defend life in a Manhattan theater setting. Mounted by the Art & Work Ensemble in Syncronicity Space (located on Eleventh Street, just west of Sixth Avenue) there would be six one-act plays: three pro-choice, three pro-life. After the performance, debaters would take the stage, the exchange to be moderated by the artistic director of the company (who, I later learned, was pro-life). The plays were uneven, but, really, the pro-life pieces were the more powerful, especially one in which a lone actress spoke as an unborn baby, wondering about her life-to-come while hearing a vacuum cleaner getting louder and louder.
As the moment to climb on stage approached, I prayed to the Holy Spirit, not least asking that my debating partner, the obstetric nurse and anti-abortion activist Jeanne Head (whom I did not know or even know of back then), would show up. She hadn’t, at least not yet. So there I was, seated on a chair stage left, with the notorious Bill Baird and his vestal non-virgins seated stage right at a table filled with printed matter. At that time Baird was regarded as “the father” (a sorry designation) of legal abortion, though today, at eighty-seven years of age, he is, by his own telling, almost forgotten.
I could see the room, black-walled and unadorned, the rows of seats raked up toward the back wall. It was dim, except for the stage, which was well-lit but not blindingly so. Attending were some one hundred people, including a student of mine, Robert, who was firmly opposed to abortion. The friendly face mattered, for the entire audience seemed young, Greenwich Village hip, and (though not ill-mannered) hostile.
Baird went first, a blessing. He portrayed himself as a preyed-upon martyr, now financially busted because of his dedication to the cause and subject to all sorts of abuse: a narcissistic display of self-pity. Then it got better. Without having heard a word from me (we had never met, and I’m sure he’d never heard of me), Baird proceeded to invent the most grotesque strawman I’d ever heard: “My opponent will call me crazy, craven, blood-thirsty, bound for Hell, where surely he hopes I will burn for eternity”—that sort of thing. He worked up a considerable froth.
Then it was my turn to speak. Very calmly, almost kindly, I pointed out that I did not know Mr. Baird and so I could not possibly speak about him in the way he had claimed that I would. In fact, I said, “I’m not here to say anything about Mr. Baird except that he is wrong.” Well, I then discovered that the Spirit had heard my prayer: The audience clapped and cheered. Baird, taking his next turn, was palpably unsettled. He made some arguments about choice, women’s rights, and—this would prove a very big mistake—embryology.
Then it was my turn again. I looked at the audience and said: “We are a liberal city. Everyone in this room has spoken up for the voiceless, the invisible, the defenseless.” Nods. “Blacks, women, homosexuals, Jews.” More nods. This was Greenwich Village. “Well, who is more defenseless than an unborn child? Oh, sure, we can discuss definitions—I’ve done that and would again—but I ask, has a woman ever given birth to a rock, a tree, or a monkey? Somehow that baby always arrives . . . human.” I added that, “by the way, I am more pro-choice than anyone on the other side of this stage, for the simple reason that I, unlike they, deplore the absence of the multitude of choices that millions upon millions of aborted children will not make—children, let me add, who are pre-ponderantly female. Don’t they deserve choices?”
I admit to getting a bit worked up, but only a bit: I didn’t want to seem clinical, on the one hand, but neither did I want emotion to overwhelm, or even to carry, the argument. I never mentioned religion, or Jesus, or damnation. The audience clapped, a bit more than respectfully; I’d say appreciatively. At that point two things happened: Baird began to recite his own version of embryology, and Jeanne Head walked up onto the stage and took her seat.
Almost in mid-sentence Baird fell back on what was already evident to all: his favorite form of argument: ad hominem. I got angry and began to defend this woman whom I did not know. It wasn’t gallantry: As a rhetoric professor I had taught students to deplore this cheapest form of attack. Having slightly raised my voice and (doing something which in debate one ought not to do) directly addressing the opposition, I was about to insult the cur when I felt Jeanne Head’s hand grip the bone leading to my knee, hard. I stopped as she leaned in, whispering “not that way,” and took over. We were then treated to a thoroughly calm and clinical tutorial on embryology.
Baird instructed his acolytes to distribute some literature, but the moderator called time. The debate was over. I made sure the audience could see me approach the opponents’ table to shake hands—and see Baird refuse. Instead, one of the younger women, thinking to insult me, I suppose, put some wrapped condoms in my hand. She was sneering. “Shouldn’t these come with your phone number?” I quipped. At that point the oldest woman at the table sternly addressed the young woman: “Don’t talk to him,” she said, gesturing to a few other women on stage as she spoke. “Stay away.” The young woman just stared at me. “Well, thanks anyway,” I said.
Jeanne Head and I shook hands and parted; later I would discover how famously brave she was. On the way out, Robert congratulated me, but we were interrupted. A number of couples approached—maybe a dozen people in all—to say that they’d have to think things over, that they had never seen abortion in “that light.” Now, as a debate coach, I know this: In front of a hostile audience, minds not yet changed, perhaps, but some at least opened, is a win. And I admit that I had enjoyed myself: The prospect of getting into the ring (I know) is daunting, but once inside, it can be exciting—not fun, though, for here there is no fun.
And yet I had missed at least two opportunities. I should have pointed out that even back then in New York City there were more aborted black babies in a given year than black births. And I should have found an opportunity to inject an analogy for my debate opponent to ponder, one I’ve since heard many times: “Look, you don’t like slavery? Well then, don’t own one.” Since that encounter I’ve used both, as well as the arguments I did use, to good effect. They still have currency, I think. My lesson? There is no such thing as too much debate.