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My Debate with a Pro-Abortion Philosopher at Stanford

Trent Horn

Last week I had the privilege of debating David Boonin, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, on the campus of Stanford University. The topic was “Should abortion remain legal?” and Dr. Boonin proved to be a formidable and amiable opponent. When people ask me, “What is the best book from the pro-choice side?” I always point them to his 2003 book A Defense of Abortion.

As I entered the debate room with other Catholic Answers staff members, I was surprised to see security guards and police standing at the ready. We asked if there was any cause for concern and they said that, given the recent protests at UC Berkeley, they didn’t want to take any chances. Fortunately, the students at Stanford turned out to be much more civil than those at other nearby schools, and the crowd listened politely as Boonin and I took the stage.

Boonin’s argument

In taking the affirmative position, Boonin laid out an argument similar to one he has presented in previous debates with pro-life philosophers. He was willing to concede for the sake of the argument that the fetus is a person with a right to life like you or me. However, he stressed that a right to life does not include a right to be kept alive, or a right to “life support.” Thus, just as you or I can choose to not donate a kidney to save a dying person, a pregnant woman can choose to not donate her body to keep her unborn child alive.

Because our debate topic involved a legal question, Boonin put forward the case of McFall v. Shimp, in which a district court ruled that McFall’s cousin Shimp was not obligated to donate his bone marrow to save McFall. The judge said that Shimp was doing something morally reprehensible by not donating his bone marrow but ruled that he could not be legally obligated to do it. Boonin then made the point that even if without his mother’s assistance the fetus were to die, the law could not compel a woman to aid the fetus by allowing him to remain in her womb.

My argument

In rebuttal, my case was built upon the following simple argument:

  1. It is prima facie wrong to directly kill innocent human beings, and such killing should be illegal.
  2. The unborn are innocent human beings.
  3. Abortion directly kills the unborn.
  4. Therefore, abortion should be illegal.

Premise three focused on dealing with arguments, like Boonin’s, that contend abortion is indirect killing in the same way refusing to donate an organ is indirect killing. I showed that the analogical argument Boonin used doesn’t work because organ donation and pregnancy are essentially different. Abortion is a case of direct killing, not a failure to save (as in the organ donor case).

Moreover, abortion involves parents being obliged to use organs for their natural purpose to care for a child, whereas in organ donation we are dealing with extraordinary means to save someone’s life. Finally, in organ donation the donor doesn’t cause the recipient to need his organs, but in 99 percent of pregnancies men and women voluntarily engage in an activity (sexual intercourse) that causes an unborn child to need the assistance of the mother’s body.


As the debate progressed into rebuttals and cross-examination, our scope began to narrow down to these issues. For example, Boonin tried to amend his organ donor analogy to allow for the issue of responsibility for voluntary actions. He asked: if you agreed to donate bone marrow, would you be responsible to continue donating bone marrow and not be allowed to back out of the procedure?

I countered that you can back out of donating because in this case you still haven’t caused the person to need your bone marrow. In refusing to continue treatment you just return the recipient to his original dying state—you haven’t directly caused his death. I then proposed an analogy more applicable to pregnancy, in which you cause a person to need your assistance and to discontinue such assistance would be immoral:

Imagine if I voluntarily agree to fly people to Australia but midway through the flight I find it to be too strenuous. I then decide to abort my role as pilot and parachute over Tahiti while the plane crashes into the ocean. In that case I haven’t merely “returned the passengers to a non-flying state” by not giving them piloting skills they have no right to. Instead, I killed human beings whom I put in a needy position. Likewise, refusing to continue a pregnancy isn’t a neutral act that returns the fetus to a state of nonexistence. Rather, it is an act that directly causes a healthy child to die and thus violates his right to life.

In my closing statement I agreed that Boonin’s position had some virtues, since when we argue from truth (including the truth the unborn are persons with a right to life) our arguments make more sense than those built on falsehoods. However, I also pointed out that the meaning of the unborn being a person includes not a just a sterile description of a right to life but the right to obligate other people, even by force of law, to sustain the person’s life. Just as an infant had a right to care from his parents, including food and shelter, unborn children have a right to similar care from their parents, including the right to reside in their mothers’ wombs.

A civil exchange

After the debate, Boonin thanked me for participating and hoped we could engage the subject again at a future venue. I found him to be very courteous and insightful, which made for an enjoyable evening. Although we profoundly disagreed about a contentious issue, we showed that one could still have civil disagreement in such circumstances. I hope to debate him and other pro-choice advocates in the future, because the issue of abortion is a profoundly important one that is best served by a free and open exchange of ideas.

Click here to view the debate on our YouTube channel!

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