Kyle and I never made an explicit decision to attend the abortion debate. We slid into it over the course of an afternoon, somewhere between Kyle’s obvious procrastination and my attempts to take notes on an incredibly complex historiographical debate. We didn’t have tickets, we didn’t like the debaters, and we were both scared to have our faces recorded and plastered around the internet as condemned alt-right, anti-woman rat-bastards.
Yet we went, ducked guiltily around the gauntlet of cameras, and hunkered down in line behind some greased up Jersey Shore types.
The debate was the second event in the “Unpopular Opinion Speaker Series,” hosted by the Laurier Students for Open Inquiry. The group just happened to be the brainchild of Lindsay Shepherd, the MA student who gained international fame after standing up for free speech last fall. The first event in the series had attempted to bring in white ethno-nationalist Faith Goldie (former Rebel Media host) to discuss immigration, but had been shut down by a strategically–pulled fire alarm after vigorous protest. Kyle and I had talked about going to that event too, but decided that Goldie was a bridge too far, even for the likes of us.
To be fair, as the resident religious conservative, everyone already assumes I’m a closet Goldie sympathizer. Kyle, on the other hand, is pegged as a leftist radical of the worst sort, a bleeding-hearted English Thatcher-hater who still believes in the nobility of the working class. It was my job to keep Kyle in line amongst my fellow Pro-Life Bible-thumping brethren, as we waited for Shepherd and National Post heart-throb Barbara Kay to begin the festivities.
Security was tight. Kyle and I were asked to present our IDs, then searched by stone-faced campus police at the door. One flack-jacketed and walkie-talkie-holstering representative of Waterloo’s finest stood guard next to the panel for the entire event, as if waiting for some frothing zealot to rush the podium. After making sure we knew where the fire exits were, Kyle and I settled in and tried to avoid looking directly at any of the half-dozen video-cameras. Then we began studying the surveys we’d been handed on the way through the door.
“How do I feel about abortion on a scale of one-to-ten?” Kyle asked. “I don’t feel comfortable rating my feelings on such a complex and sensitive-“
“I’m a 9,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, “I was thinking perhaps a two for myself.”
We sat in silence for a minute.
“If you change it to a one, then we basically cancel each other out,” I speculated. “It’d by like we were never here.”
Shepherd and Kay spoke first, both asserting their firm Pro-Choice credentials, but also the importance of holding campus debates on the issue. To that purpose, they’d brought in Dr. Fraser Fellows, an OB-GYN from London, Ontario, to debate Oriyana Hrycyshyn, who not only has no vowels in her last name, but is a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. Each debater was to be given 20 minutes to make a case, seven minutes to rebut, and then 10 minutes for a closing argument.
Dr. Fellows went first, and used something that can only be described as the Nuremburg Defence. Canadians, he argued, don’t consider the fetus to be a person, and international legislation allows for abortions up to 23 weeks and 6 days into gestation. Women want abortions, and society mandates Dr. Fellows to provide them. Ultimately, he claimed, he was just obeying orders.
Hrycyshyn asserted that human life begins at fertilization, and that society’s commitment to human rights requires that fetus be given the same protections as newborns. She told the story of a colleague whose baby survived birth at 23 weeks and one day, and repeated the line that more than one body is involved in the act of abortion. Inevitably, she showed THE VIDEO, which is never a pleasant experience for anyone involved, and left me crouched low in my seat with my hands over my eyes. I should have seen it coming, since the front page of the website for Hrycyshyn’s organization is literally a photograph of a bloody fetus, but sometimes I’m a little naïve about the state of humanity.
Fellows rebutted by arguing that all free countries in the world support the concept of abortion, and the dangers of banning it were confirmed by the tyranny of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, whose anti-contraception campaign led to high levels of maternal death and roaming gangs of street children. One could perhaps argue that reproductive restrictions were not the worst terrors of the Ceausescu regime, and conflating the consequences is disingenuous. That being said, Hrycyshyn used her rebuttal to grill Dr. Fellows on how many abortions procedures he’d carried out, and which abortive methods he’d used, so both rhetorical strategies were rather fallacious.
I never have high hopes for debates on abortion, but this was especially bad. Hrycyshyn’s eyes burned with the radical zeal of a true believer; Fellows slumped behind the podium and read from his slides with all the charisma of a jar of mayonnaise. Reproductive autonomy vs. the sacredness of human life. Harm reduction vs. the murder of the unborn. The usual scripts and the usual actors.
Yet the most jarring moment, the true climax, came at the end of the question period when a rail-thin dude in a blazer and ripped jeans stood up to ask Hrycyshyn about her views on eugenics. At least, that’s how Kyle and I interpreted the question, which meandered through a few incomplete references to thoroughbred horses and the babies of good-looking people having superior genomes.
Later, at the after-party (because every debate on abortion needs an after-party) I dared Kyle to ask blazer-mensch to clarify his question. The public needs to know, I reasoned, this could be your big journalistic moment. Yet Kyle refused, and so it was I who tapped the man on the shoulder and asked for an explanation.
This time he was more explicit. If fetuses aren’t persons, he argued, our society should be encouraging people with superior genomes to have children, and those with defective genomes to stay child-less. We have a duty to improve our race, just like we breed horses for ever-increasing speed and stamina.
“Wow,” I managed, “that sounds like master race shit!”
“No, no,” he replied, beaming blue eyes beneath a side-swept shock of blonde hair. “It goes back to Plato, and besides the National Socialists weren’t totally correct. We shouldn’t force superior genomes to breed or sterilize inferior ones. But we do need to recognize that miscegenation (the mixing of races) has terrible effects genetically and should be discouraged.”
That was it, my smoking gun. I was conversing with an alt-righter at best, a neo-nazi at worst, and this was my moment to defend the principles of a free and equal society. I needed to speak out, to defend racial equality and prophesy about the day when little white girls and black boys could walk together into a utopian sunrise.
“Um,” I said, “I feel sort of uncomfortable right now. I’m going to bounce.”
So I grabbed Kyle’s arm and dragged him out of the bar, muttering things like “Don’t make eye contact!” and “Keep moving!” all the way back to the door. Then we engaged in that spasmodic nervous laughter that comes with not quite believing what you just experienced, and not yet being sure how to react to it.
I’m a religious conservative. I’m Pro Life and Pro Free Speech and I go to church every Sunday and rail against the threat of ‘leftist” radicals like Kyle. Yet as important as it is to be able to debate the ethical frameworks which are being imposed by our officials in Ottawa, it’s also important that the pursuit of free speech doesn’t become a Trojan horse by which the stormfronters normalize their politics of racial supremacy. I went to an abortion debate to celebrate free speech on campus, and left with my first IRL brush with a neo-Nazi (wearing an Identity Evropa pin I might add).
Is the antidote to hate speech more free speech? Do compassion and social justice truly require the repression and censorship of contrary opinions? Why does the former allow hate speech without consequence, and the latter require a dangerously fickle orthodoxy?
Is there a third option, and how do we find it?