Published March 30, 2022
On Tuesday evening, I participated in an abortion debate hosted at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. My opponent was feminist attorney Jill Filipovic, who is a CNN opinion writer and freelance journalist. We debated in modified Lincoln–Douglas style on the resolution “Legal Access to Abortion is Necessary for the Freedom and Equality of Women.” (You’ll be surprised to hear, I’m sure, that I took the “no, it is not” side of that particular resolution.)
It was a remarkable debate for a number of reasons, not least of which was that both Jill and I tried to offer substantial defenses of our positions, we kept our engagements civil, and more than a dozen students posed thoughtful questions after our remarks.
But what was most remarkable about the debate to me is the fact that it happened at all. Honest, open debates between experts who disagree on a deeply controversial issue such as abortion are hard to come by, especially on college campuses. Free speech in general has been endangered in the campus context for quite some time. Conservative speakers have learned to expect that if they try to speak on a campus, they might well be shouted down by students, have their events canceled, or even find themselves condemned by a college administration. Though this impulse to shut down speech isn’t quite as strong on the right, it seems to be growing.
But now the problem appears to be getting more insidious even than that. Not only do people on both sides of the aisle want to silence those with whom they disagree, but they also want to do so by castigating those on their own side who agree to debate or even converse with their opponents. Increasingly, partisans on both sides of major hot-button issues say that we shouldn’t debate our ideological opponents because doing so “platforms” them, which apparently signals that we’re insufficiently committed to the truth of our own position.
Before our debate, Jill published a Substack about why she accepted the invitation to debate at Notre Dame — in spite of the fact that she wishes abortion weren’t up for debate, a sentiment that resonates with me. It was striking to find that, though Jill and I disagree so profoundly on the important question of abortion, I agreed with nearly everything she wrote about the importance of free speech and engaging those with whom we disagree.
“No matter how much of a free speech absolutist someone is — and I’m a pretty staunch one — just about everybody agrees that there are some issues that are so beyond the pale that they are not, and should not be, up for discussion,” Jill wrote, offering the examples of debates over whether women should have the right to vote or whether slavery was really that bad. I agree with that assessment. There are plenty of topics that I wouldn’t be willing to debate and plenty of contexts (social media, for example) in which debate simply isn’t fruitful.
But as she rightly points out, a college campus isn’t one of them. And, as Jill acknowledges, abortion is still very much up for debate in our public life and our legal system, as much as both she and I might wish otherwise, though from opposite sides of the issue. Refusing to show up for a debate, at a university in particular, because we both have so much certitude about our own position would be the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand or ceding the playing field entirely to our opponent.
Abortion is a violent act that intentionally kills an innocent human being. It’s gravely wrong — and it isn’t a victory for women, either. But I’m not going to convince anyone who disagrees with me by saying that I’m too correct to bother speaking with people who look at the issue from Jill’s perspective.
When I shared a link to the event live-stream on Twitter shortly before the debate, I was reminded once again that free-speech opponents aren’t isolated to Jill’s side of the aisle; there are plenty on my side, too. I got replies saying that abortion shouldn’t even “be up for debate” at a Catholic university, and that Notre Dame was somehow violating its Catholic mission by hosting the event. These people were telling me the same thing that Jill’s allies say to her: Both she and I are wrong, they say, to grant one another the courtesy of our presence for a conversation, because each of our positions is supposedly too correct even to debate.
If we believe that, we’re doomed. If we can’t show up in a room to speak with someone who disagrees with us, we will never win over anyone who isn’t already on our side. Abortion is a legal and political debate, to be sure, but it’s also a cultural one. Changing the hearts and minds of those who don’t agree with us or don’t understand us is an essential part of the pro-life fight.
And if we as Catholics — in the context of the university in particular, which is fundamentally oriented toward truth-seeking — dismiss the importance of speaking the truth by engaging with our opponents, we are going to lose every time simply because we won’t bother to engage. If we as Catholics are too convinced of our moral rectitude to acknowledge those who disagree with us and seek to convince them, we have given in to fear; if we really believe in the truth of our position, debate and engagement should never frighten us or be viewed as a concession.
I can’t control whether people like Jill or Notre Dame students or my readers at National Review choose to support abortion. But I can decide whether I’m going to continue sharing with them what I believe and hope they’re willing to listen with an open mind and an open heart. And I can’t do that if I refuse to show up.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Photo: Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government