University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

News and views for UB faculty and staff

Campus News

Abortion debate draws thoughtful crowd

Stephen Kershnar, left, defends the pro-choice side in the debate while Catherine Nolan, center, waits to present the pro-life side. The debate was moderated by philosophy department chair David Hershenov, right. Photo: Steve Morse


Published March 6, 2014

Steady streams of people filed into a Knox lecture hall last night to attend a public discussion about abortion — one of the most controversial topics of our time.

The room filled quickly. Members of several student advocacy groups whispered in the front rows, and some brandished hand-drawn signs. It being Ash Wednesday (a scheduling coincidence, organizers said), many foreheads were smudged black for the first day of Lent.

A few rows back, Michele, a sophomore who preferred that her last name not be used, said she heard about the debate in the Social and Ethical Values in Medicine philosophy course — the same class, a show of hands revealed, many other attendees are taking this semester. The crowd also included graduate students, members of the community, faculty and staff.

An intended nuclear medical tech major, Michele took the course as an elective. “I thought it would make sense, since I’m going into a medical field,” she said. “It’s important to explore these issues.”

Catherine Nolan speaks at the debate. Photo: Steve Morse

Titled “Is Abortion Ethical?” the event was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and sought to explore the theoretical underpinnings of the abortion question.

Although who “won” the debate depends on whom you ask, UB proved yet again to be a place where opposing sides can come together to openly discuss, probe and question important issues of the day.

Stephen Kershnar, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, defended the pro-choice position, while Catherine Nolan, a UB PhD student in philosophy who teaches a bioethics section for her department, argued from the pro-life perspective.

Kershnar opened the debate by outlining his argument that abortion is ethical in what he called most “typical situations.” He then defined what he would refer to as “rights,” “justice” (to act out of respect to those rights) and “proportional force” (in this case, an ethical need to balance the forces used to create a fetus and the forces used to abort it).

After setting up a list of assumptions for why abortion might be argued to be unethical (there is a duty to save other humans; a fetus has the right to life), Kershnar used several hypothetical cases, either his own or drawn from such philosophers as Judith Jarvis Thomson, as examples to prove those assumptions false.

Many of Kershnar or Thomson’s “thought exercises” were related to various forms of consensual and nonconsensual sex, including rape. In one hypothetical situation, a woman has bars on her home’s windows (representing birth control). She is compelled to open a window because she is hot (shows sexual interest) and a burglar enters her home through the window (commits rape).

Kershnar’s point: You logically would not expect the woman to let the burglar stay (via pregnancy).

After Kershnar gave more of these scenarios and then summarized his position, Nolan presented her side.

Like him, she used humor at times to let some pressure out of the room, but she didn’t hesitate to refute his claims, including that fetuses are not conscious beings with a right to live until they are outside the mother’s body; and that any unwanted pregnancy constitutes an unethical act of “trespassing” on a woman’s body.

Abortion cannot be entirely ethical, she says, because it threatens a host of other ethical considerations. She brought up specific kinds of abortion procedures as evidence. One of her examples was an adult in a coma, unable to act on her own behalf and with a “potential future.” Can you pull the plug? Is it even more difficult to expect close relatives (like a mother choosing to have an abortion) to make that decision?

Nolan also took Kershner’s cases, or “thought experiments,” to task, believing her scenarios to be better aligned with the premise that abortion was inherently wrong because, among other reasons, fetuses have a natural right to exist inside a woman’s body, and that it is unethical to “kill” a potential human being who has a basic right to be born — points Kershnar rejected through his cases.

During the question-and-answer period following the debate, philosophy department chair David Hershenov passed a microphone around the room as spectators asked the presenters to clarify or further defend certain points.

At times the back and forth became tense, but everyone generally remained calm and respectful as the presenters reiterated why they felt their arguments hold up under scrutiny.

Cristina Lauria, a junior studying health and human services, said she was put off by Kershnar’s arguments. “They didn’t really address abortion or the fetus.” Michele and her friend, Ronnie, a senior electrical engineering major, felt that both speakers were very well prepared. “Nolan’s points seemed weaker, but I also better understand where Kershnar was coming from because we read a lot of Thomson in my class,” Michele said.

Azam Ali, a former Erie Community College student, sharply questioned Kershnar when the mic came his way, but kept his final judgment balanced. “I think truth is sufficient for its own defense,” he said.

Nolan gave her first pro-life speech two years ago when she was recruited by the student pro-life and philosophy clubs, and she has remained interested in the issue ever since. “I was pleased with the audience tonight; they were respectful,” she said, adding, “and they’ll be the ones who will influence this debate in the future.”

The event was part of the Philosophy Debate Series, which Hershenov hopes will become an annual series on issues that engage the public and encourage more students to explore philosophy courses. Future topics could include affirmative action, the death penalty, economic justice and same-sex marriage.


The abortion issue is resolved by the Scientific Abortion Laws that make clear the impact that abortion has on society. Any debate that does not include the laws is incomplete.


Russell Crawford