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At 8:00 tonight, Notre Dame Right to Life will be hosting an “Abortion Debate” as a part of its “You Are Loved Week” events. Cosponsored by Campus Ministry and other campus organizations, the debate will take place both in person in the Carey Auditorium and over Zoom. It is no secret that abortion is one of the most contentious and divisive issues on campus; as such, the discussion between one pro-choice and one pro-life speaker could mean that the topic will finally be granted a respectful and balanced public conversation.
However, something is off about this debate. Representing the pro-life side of the equation is a cisgender man, who will never have to bear the life in question. Representing the pro-choice side of the equation is a second cisgender man, who will never have to make the choice in question. Nowhere to be found is a person with a uterus. Suddenly, abortion becomes a moot point. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, or what side your friend is on, or what side Sean or James is on. Abortion cannot be debated under these conditions.
There is a certain absurdity to inviting two individuals to debate the ethics and legality of a medical procedure that neither of them can ever have. Should the point in a pregnancy at which abortion is more or less acceptable be discussed by someone who cannot become pregnant? Should the prioritization of a mother’s health be valued or devalued by someone who cannot be a mother? Should discourse about pregnancy as a result of rape be held by someone who cannot experience that chain of events? Should the desire for children be deliberated by someone who will not have to cope with either the physical challenges of childbirth or the often sexist expectations of motherhood?
Further, the debaters are both white and cisgender. From an intersectional standpoint, should we trust them to anticipate and portray the specific needs of a woman of color seeking an abortion, or a poor woman of color, or a poor woman of color with a disability, or a poor, LGBTQ+ woman of color with a disability? Women of color overwhelmingly use services Planned Parenthood provides, as they are less likely to have health insurance, and are five times more likely than white women to terminate a pregnancy. Women below the poverty line make up about half of all abortions. Because the medical world has been slow to accept that cis women are not the only people with uteruses, transgender men and nonbinary people who can become pregnant face an entirely unique set of structural barriers. The reasons behind these and other statistics are very unlikely to be woven into the experiences of Sean or James.
Regardless of your stance on abortion, and regardless how much your representative debater has read or heard or witnessed about the issue, his voice is not the one we need. Research is not a substitute for lived experience. Sean and James, well-read or not, perpetuate the historical and national trend in which white men have debated, expounded, theorized, philosophized, evaluated, spoken, decided, and ruled on behalf of groups and communities they cannot truly represent. Anyone who sits outside this manicured niche of whiteness and maleness has had to live their lives in terms of what the most privileged intersection of the nation thinks best. The entire purpose of public discourse and debate, too, is to gather perspectives that are different from your own, and that gap of ideology is slim when the debaters have similar backgrounds.
Deeper issues lie in the fact that a pro-life organization has curated this event with sponsorship from a pro-life organization, and without sponsorship from the opposing side. With an issue as divisive as abortion, the argument for a pro-choice stance will hardly have a fair hearing in this context, especially when that viewpoint is championed by the University as a whole. A non-partisan organization should be leading this effort, and looking for participants in a more widespread and holistic way. While Right to Life sought out an opposing viewpoint, they failed to recognize the hesitancy a pro-choice woman would have in debating on Right to Life’s terms.
So how do we fix this? We bring in women, and we bring them in through an organization that does not define itself as a champion of one of the two sides. Beyond replacing Sean and James with two people with uteruses — and even beyond trying to find these uterus-bearers within another minority group or two — we may need to rethink the idea of a debate as well, and move towards a panel discussion.
Beyond finding people with lived experiences also, or at least the potential to have them, we should acknowledge that no pro-choice woman will have the same perspective as another; no pro-life woman will have the same opinions as another. A debate centers two opposing views, but a panel discussion centers both the commonalities and differences of speakers. Perhaps we listen to a woman whose household income is significantly below the nearly $200,000 yearly median at Notre Dame. Perhaps we listen to a woman who has had or has heard firsthand experiences with medical racism. Perhaps we listen to a transgender man who has retained his uterus and is able to become pregnant.
A conversation around abortion, especially on a campus so strictly split along pro-life and pro-choice lines, has the potential to open eyes, expand perspectives, and equip all involved with facts and statistics. Current abortion discussions usually consist of a statement of personal views, a feigning of respect for the opposing view, and a standstill as neither person ever actually budges. A public conversation among minority students with uteruses that pairs narratives and numbers might be just what this majority white, upper-class student body needs to reevaluate its rigid divisions.
Angelica Ketcham is a third-year architecture student originally from Chicago, IL, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lito Moroña is a fifth-year architecture student originally from Orlando, FL; he can be reached at email@example.com.