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Ethics of abortion to be topic of philosophy debate


Published February 27, 2014

“I hope that when people see there are very good arguments on both sides of a contentious issue like abortion, that even if they don’t change their minds, the debate will become more civil and thoughtful.”
David Hershenov, chair
Department of Philosophy

One of the nation’s more controversial issues — abortion — will be the topic of a debate next week sponsored by the Department of Philosophy.

The debate, “Abortion: is it Ethical?” will be held at 7 p.m. March 5 in 20 Knox Hall, North Campus. It is free and open to the public.

Taking part in the debate will be Stephen Kershnar, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, and Catherine Nolan, a UB PhD student in philosophy.

Kershnar, who will argue the pro-choice position, teaches seminars and courses on such topics as abortion, autonomy, ethics, current moral issues, and life and death. He is a recipient of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the Robert W. Kasling and William T. Hagan awards, both of which recognize Fredonia faculty members for excellence in research.

He frequently speaks at the UB philosophy department’s lunchtime philosophy series and attends the department’s monthly reading groups on bioethics and free will and moral responsibility.

Nolan, who will defend the pro-life position in the debate, also is a member of those reading groups and has taught a section of the philosophy department’s course on bioethics nearly every semester for the past three years. Her doctoral dissertation is on the metaphysics of death and its implications for organ transplantation. She won the department’s award for the best essay by a graduate student last year. 

The debate on abortion is the second debate in what philosophy chair David Hershenov hopes will be an annual series of debates between UB and other Western New York philosophers on issues that are covered in UB philosophy classes.

The goal of the Philosophy Debate Series, says Hershenov, is to “highlight the importance of philosophy.”

“We think that the university community and public at large will benefit from hearing professors and grad students bring their philosophical training to bear upon a number of important and controversial issues,” he says. Since most of the debates will be on issues that are covered in UB philosophy classes, “I hope an exciting and informative discussion will encourage students to pursue these topics in our course offerings.” Those courses cover such current controversies as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, cloning and animal experimentation, among others.

“I also hope that when people see there are very good arguments on both sides of a contentious issue like abortion, that even if they don’t change their minds, the debate will become more civil and thoughtful,” he says.

The first debate in the series, held last year, addressed the issue of whether a person can survive death, Hershenov says. It featured David Oderberg, professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, UK, and Patrick Toner, assistant professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University.

Next year’s debate will be on vegetarianism or the broader issue of animal rights, and may team UB philosophers Randy Dipert and Maureen Donnelly with colleagues from Niagara University, he says.

Hershenov says future topics under consideration include affirmative action; the death penalty; same-sex marriage; moral relativism; economic justice issues, such as who should bear the costs of global warming; the existence of the soul; the rationality of religious belief; has science shown that we lack free will, and is it possible for a machine to be conscious.