The Biology Professor Who Hated Our Outreach Exhibit

The highlights from my debate with a college professor who thought we were a bunch of religious extremists with a deceptive fetal development display.

This last weekend I led a Right to Life of Central CA sponsored Justice For All seminar and outreach at Fresno City College. We had a great turnout at the outreach but a lot of our volunteers wanted to listen in on other dialogues before trying it themselves, so I spent part of the morning doing one of my favorite things: talking to pro-choice people.

Allow me to show you the outreach tools we set up.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

We had a poll table that asks, “Should abortion remain legal?”

Photo courtesy of Tulare Kings Right to Life.

Photo courtesy of Tulare Kings Right to Life.

We had another table that said, “Take our equal rights survey.”

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

We also set up Justice For All’s “Where Do You Draw the Line” exhibit, which holds a basic fetal development chart with a free speech paper underneath for people to interact with.

That’s the exhibit I was standing in front of while having conversations that morning. I was actually in the middle of a good dialogue with someone when I was interrupted. The woman I was talking to first, believed that women should have the right to do whatever they want with anything inside of their bodies. I was asking her about Thalidomide based on the thought experiment that Dr. Rich Poupard originally published and that my brother Timothy later expanded on, when an older man loudly interrupted that Thalidomide had nothing to do with abortion. I turned to engage him and the woman I was originally speaking with quickly left.

I tried not to show my annoyance as I put out my hand and introduced myself to this new person. He told me his name was Howard and that he was a biology professor at Fresno City College, and proceeded to go on a long diatribe about how misleading our exhibit was. (This was the first of many long rants. I probably did about 15% of the talking in this entire dialogue. He repeated himself a lot, so I’ll just relay the main points he made and how I responded.)

Howard’s first rant was about the fetal development exhibit. He dropped his credentials several times while complaining about our use of biology on the sign.

I asked, “As a biology professor, do you disagree with any of the biological evidence we’ve placed on the exhibit?”

Howard responded, “No, it’s all accurate. It’s basic 2nd grade biology!”

common ground arrow 2I smiled and said, “I agree with you about that.”

Howard’s concern was that we were turning a philosophical issue into a biological one.

common ground arrow 2I told Howard that I agreed that abortion is not merely a biological issue, and then I pointed to the “human rights” language on the top right corner of the exhibit.

Photo courtesy of Justice For All.

Photo courtesy of Justice For All.

I said, “There are biological pictures on the exhibit, but we’re asking a philosophical question. We’re asking when human rights should begin, and we’re asking people to draw a line to signify when they think those human rights should be recognized. It’s a philosophical question about rights and value, not a biological question about when an organism’s life begins.”

Howard complained that when people walk by, they will assume we’re only talking about biology.

I responded that our primary objective was to create good dialogues on the subject of abortion, and our choice of outreach tools was based on what we have found to work the best so far. The fetal development exhibit, even though it doesn’t have any graphic abortion pictures on it, has proven to be very helpful in getting people to stop so we can begin a conversation that gets to the philosophy quickly.

I explained to Howard, “We use these five pictures of fetal development because on this campus almost everybody agrees that human rights should begin sometime between fertilization and birth, so we didn’t put pictures of toddlers on this particular exhibit.”

Howard quickly jumped to another topic: he ranted about us being “deceptive, paternalistic, religious, right-wing extremists.”

After his rant was over I said, “Wow, those are a lot of assumptions you just made about us.”

ad hominemI knew I had a choice. I could either accuse him of making an ad hominem fallacy, asking him to engage our arguments and not our religious or political views, or I could show he was wrong by putting a face on a person with a combination of views that Howard didn’t think was possible.

I chose the latter and brought my friend Ellen from Secular Pro-Life, who was standing right there, into the conversation. I said, “Ellen, what do you think of Howard’s accusation that we’re all paternalistic, religious, conservatives?”

Ellen said, “Well, lots of pro-life people are religious, but I’m an atheist. I wouldn’t identify with lots of conservative views, and I’m certainly not paternalistic, and I know a lot of other pro-life atheists from lots of different political persuasions.”

Monica and Ellen from Secular Pro-Life.

Monica and Ellen from Secular Pro-Life.

I pointed to Ellen’s sister Monica (also from Secular Pro-Life) who was talking to somebody about ten yards away and said, “That’s Monica. She’s an agnostic who also wouldn’t identify with many conservative views.”

Howard was visibly less confident about his tactic of lumping us all into one group, but tried to save it by pointing at Ellen and saying, “But you’re an anecdote!”

Ellen retorted, “No, I’m a person.”

Howard quickly backed off and admitted that he may have been wrong about some of his assumptions about us, yet he accused us of being paternalistic again and made a bodily rights argument. In fact, he made precisely the same argument that the woman I was speaking with before had made. Trent Horn calls it the “Sovereign Zone argument.” It basically says that a woman has the right to do anything she wants with anything inside of her body. (Read this excellent post by Timothy Brahm on responding to this argument.)

I asked Howard what he would think about a mother taking Thalidomide to cure her morning sickness. Howard got very slippery and kept saying things like, “Well, she wouldn’t be able to get a hold of it.”

I responded, “This is a thought experiment. What if she could get a hold of it?”

Howard retorted, “You mean, do I think she should be allowed to assault her own child?!”

I said, “Yes, that is exactly what I’m asking you.”

Howard repeated something about how she wouldn’t be able to get a hold of it and jumped to another topic.

You may be thinking, “Come on, Josh! Don’t let him get away with that! Narrate the debate!”

It was a tough call. I had several volunteers watching this exchange and I chose to err on the side of letting Howard direct the conversation. I may have made the wrong decision on that, but I really wanted our volunteers to watch a pro-life person who could have chosen to argue aggressively over the intellectual points choose instead to sit in the back seat of the conversation.

Howard completely dodged the Thalidomide question and went back to his concern about oversimplifying the debate and complained about our “Should abortion remain legal” poll table. He said, “You’ve only got two options when most people fall between those options!”

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Seaward.

common ground arrow 2I responded, “I’m well aware that most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.” I explained that this poll table stops more people than any other poll table we’ve tried, which is the primary objective for any of our outreach tools: stop people so that we can have a nuanced conversation about their actual views.

strawmanI also explained that we train our volunteers to ask people who sign the “Yes” side whether or not they think abortion should be legal through all nine months of pregnancy, among other questions to learn more about the person’s actual views. This way they can engage with the person in front of them and not a straw man. [Tweet this!]

At this point in the conversation I felt like things were going pretty well. Obviously Howard will finally see that what we’re doing makes sense and that we’re honestly trying to get into dialogues. That’s why I was so surprised by what Howard did next.

Howard once again accused me of being deceptive with the fetal development sign! That’s when I decided to push back harder than I had before. I held out my hand to shake his and said, “Okay, I think we’re done here. You keep accusing me of these really negative things when you don’t know anything about me. You haven’t asked me any questions to learn where I’m actually coming from. You don’t know me.” *Shaking his hand* “So, thanks for the conversation. Have a nice day.”

Howard quickly stopped me, saying, “No, no, no. I didn’t mean it like that. I‘m just concerned that you’re confusing people and oversimplifying the issue.”

I said, “Howard, believe it or not, my career is dedicated to helping pro-life people not oversimplify this issue. I common ground arrow 2do think people on both sides often oversimplify this issue and it hurts their conversations. I travel the country speaking and writing with the goal of training pro-life people to take the strongest pro-choice arguments seriously and respond to them adequately.

Howard begrudgingly admitted that our outreach tools were obviously working because they not only had stopped a lot of people, (there were about eight conversations going on around us,) but it also stopped him when he had originally planned on ignoring us.

Howard added that my “strategy” of asking lots of questions instead of arguing with him had kept him going this long, when arguing would have probably caused him to leave.

common ground arrow 2I said, “Yeah, I’d agree that our exhibit did work in this case. But as far as our conversation goes, believe it or not, this isn’t just strategy and tactics. You’re not a chess game to me. I actually want to know what your views are, so that I can seriously consider them. [Tweet that!] You make that harder when you continually accuse me of negative intentions, but I’m still listening to you and considering your arguments. I’m trying to get people to have more nuanced, philosophical conversations about what I believe is a human rights issue.”

Howard retorted, “Well, that’s not what was happening when you used Thalidomide earlier!”

I said, “Howard, I was using that as a thought experiment, to respond to people who say that a woman ‘should have the right to do anything she
common ground arrow 1wants with anything inside of her body.’ It seems to me that there are exceptions to that extreme view of bodily autonomy, and it seems like you and I both agreed earlier that Thalidomide is one of them.”

Howard’s lunch break was over so he shook my hand and said that he was glad he’d had this conversation and that he thought differently about our group than he did when he first saw us.

The post “The Biology Professor Who Hated Our Outreach Exhibit” originally appeared at JoshBrahm.com. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

Question: What should I have done differently? What parts of this dialogue did you like? What would you have done in this situation? Post your thoughts in the comments below so that we can all learn from each other!

President

Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Elizabeth Doecke

    Thanks for this post, Josh. This one and others like it are helping me to re-evaluate the way I approach interactions with pro-choice people. Formerly I had too much a combative mindset, but I think I’m starting to move more towards an engagement mindset instead. I only wish we had more groups in Australia who were as active and instructive as JFA.

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. Comments like this make my day, because my goal is trying to help pro-life people reevaluate their approach.

      Someone else from Australia commented on this article at my Facebook page. I told him I’d love to do an Australia trip one day and host some trainings. :)

      • Jasmin Aprile

        Josh, if you need people to come help train your friends in Australia, count me in! Part of my vision for JFA is to plant regional teams all across the world. I’d love to help in any way I can!

      • Elizabeth Doecke

        I wish you would come to Australia! I’d be really keen to attend one of your training seminars.

      • Alexia Hoyt

        And New Zealand too?

        • As with Australia, someone would have to invite me first. ;)

          • Alexia Hoyt

            Will work on that :)

  • Clinton

    Excellent post. It’s nice to hear a biology professor affirm the accuracy of the pictures and recognize the difference between the scientific evidence (which no expert questions) and the philosophical discussion. Also, I love the Common Ground graphics that you insert.

    • Yes, I think it’s a big deal that he affirmed our biology. If he had been more open to listening, I would have liked to ask him questions about the definition of “organism.” It just wasn’t possible with him. Luckily, there are other biology professors out there. :D

  • Acyutananda

    This is a serious question (I’d like to know): Do you record such conversations, or how are you able to remember a long sequence like that? Especially if you get into another conversation right away?

    • It helped that a few people that day asked me how it went, and telling the story helped reinforce the main points. I like to write notes as soon as the conversation is over, although this time I didn’t get a chance to do that until early the next morning. I went to Starbucks and did a brain dump of everything I could remember being said, and fleshed out the article later.

      I haven’t recorded conversations because people act differently when they’re being recorded. I’ve never secretly recorded someone even for my own purposes. If there’s enough demand, I might record some conversations on Skype with pro-choice people. Then people would get to hear how this works in real-time. But it’s less entertaining to most than a conservative talk show interview where the guest is being made fun of and interrupted.

  • KB

    Nice post. Your patience is enviable!

  • This is so awesome Josh! Thank you for representing pro-life people by truly valuing and respecting every human life. You are an inspiration and encouragement to so many, including myself. :)

  • Janet Susan

    Nice work there, Josh! You are so far ahead of many of us pro-lifers on the nuances of engagement–especially me! I’m impressed and grateful for all the work you’ve done to get to this point. And I’m glad Monica and Ellen were there with you to also learn more about engagement.

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  • Chandler Klebs

    “You’ve only got two
    options when most people fall between those options!”

    What can be in between yes and no?

    • PJ4

      “Maybe” :-) :-p

    • Guest

      Sometimes.

  • Rivka

    You handled that conversation amazingly well!

  • Anna

    I didn’t know what the drug was and what it would do to a mother.

    • Don’t feel bad, most don’t. We almost always have to explain it, and then make a clear argument with it.

  • Henry Craft

    He’s from a community college? Doesn’t suggest much intellectual fire power.

  • Susan Schneider

    That was a very good article. At least you had dialogue with him. He came to you angry and determined to not change his mind about what he believes. He wanted to change your mind or just push his agenda. I find that you cannot really change a mind immediately but at least present a different point of view that they obviously had not thought of at all. I always post what I believe and I do get responses, but I never reply back because they just want to argue and I just want to present a point that may save some ones life.

    • Thanks, Susan. I’ve had more experiences in the last few years of seeing people change their minds in one day than I used to. I chalk that up to the increased effectiveness of the arguments we switched to a few years ago, and increased skill in handling conversations.

      But you’re right, most people won’t change their mind right away. They take months or more, and that’s fair. I rarely change my mind about something in one day, but I’ve changed my mind about many things after spending enough time researching and reflecting on both sides and their best arguments.

  • ChristinaDunigan

    Very nice. I loved the “Those are a lot of assuptions you’re making about us!”

  • No Brown M&Ms

    Uh, a guy who teaches at a community college isn’t exactly a biology “professor”. Not to say he’s a bad teacher, he may be a really good one. Most likely, he’s not full-time, and the more correct title for him would probably be “instructor”. Probably not doing any research and not actively publishing. You talk about him dropping “credentials” (like what? a teaching certificate? actual scientists aren’t impressed with credentials, they’re impressed with interesting publications that move the field forward – no one cares about credentials), yet you appear to be making your opponent more impressive than he likely is – by calling him a “professor” without making it clear he’s probably closer to a high school biology teacher.