NECAC Debate, Brown University, April 25, 1989: “A Question of Choice”: Mary Ann Sorrentino, Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, Rape & Incest

John C. Rankin

In April, 1989, a student with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Brown University, Kim Davis, invited me to address a debate. I had spoken there on several occasions in the 1980s. My interlocutor was Mary Ann Sorrentino, the immediate past director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, and she was in the national news, having just been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, due to her job promoting abortion. Planned Parenthood then, and now, is the nation’s largest single provider of abortions, and also receives much federal dollars for their larger organization. Thus, there was a full house in Sayles auditorium, which the newspapers put at 300, but from my eyeball of the audience, I thought it was some 400 people. Beforehand, the sponsors had Mary Ann and I join them for dinner, it was pleasant time, and Ms. Sorrentino was most courteous.

During the debate itself, entitled “A Question of Choice,” Ms. Sorrentino led off, and in her opening comments she stated how she was proud to stand in the tradition of Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In our first interaction, I expressed my amazement, and asked her if she knew that Ms. Sanger had supported Adolf Hitler’s eugenics program in the 1920s, and that she spent the final years of her life in a sanatorium. This did not bother Ms. Sorrentino, but it caused groans and exclamations of surprise across the auditorium. It was an audience where, as usual on university campuses, the vast majority in attendance favored legalized abortion.

This debate was signal in my experience, for at one juncture, I contextually articulated some elements of the image of God that resonated deeply. I was questioned about the issue of rape and incest. A young woman believed that the right to have an abortion should be available to those who became pregnant by such a violent act.

I began to frame my response by looking directly at her and saying: “In your life, are you like me, seeking the qualities of peace, order, stability and hope?” As I spoke these words, I had her eyeball-to-eyeball attention, and the hundreds of students and faculty in the Sayles auditorium came to a hush. The century old seats, bolted to the floor, always creaking at the slightest movement, also ceased their chatter, producing a moment of intense focus. She said, “Yes.”

I then said, “Is it also fair for me to assume, that like me, you also seek to live, to love, to laugh and to learn?” Again, the same focus of intensity defined the audience, the seats unmoving, and again she said, “Yes.”

So I continued, “Then there is far more that unites us than divides us – we are seeking the same qualities. The question is, in the face of the hell of rape and incest: Does abortion unrape the woman and restore to her the lost qualities of peace, order, stability and hope? Or does the abortion only add further brokenness?”

The room continued its quiet, and I could have left the issue there. I knew that the resonation with the image of God, as represented by these qualities, was so complete in that moment that most students and faculty could answer the question themselves and deduce from there the reality I was addressing.

When I defined these qualities of God’s image – peace, order, stability and hope, to live, to love, to laugh and to learn – they were immediately imprinted in my soul. They sum up well the theological realities of the image of God, and they make an easy acronym, the POSH Ls.

In reviewing my file from the debate (in 2015), I have two sets of notes of a) my presentation and b) background material; and as well, front page articles from The Brown Daily Herald and The Providence Journal, published both the next day, April 26.

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[a) presentation notes]

Presuppositions — Protestant minister, raised agnostic. Seeker of truth on its own terms; eager to be questioned.

[Five Defining Questions]

1. Q — How can feminist ethics be reconciled w/human abortion?

  • relational nurture v. competitive dominance.
  • definition of human abortion: Latin ab- + oriri.
  • biblical definition of power [my thesis at Harvard].
  • biblical definition of imago dei [re: women/world religions + p.o.s.h. + 4 L’s].
  • abortion as ultimate male chauvinism.

2. Q — Are there any known facts to dispute conception as origin?

  • definition of haploid/diploid, genetic code, etc.

3. Q — Is not all law based on a prior definition of human life?

  • Roe v. Wade based on “I don’t now.”
  • 1988 Massachusetts referendum initiative [my thesis at Harvard].
  • Webster amicus argument [brief copy available].

4. Q — Is there any known example in American law, apart from Roe, based on “non-consensus”/”I don’t know”? [+ 1965 Griswold “privacy”].

5. Q — What are the boundaries of choice?

  • universal reality of boundaries.
  • theological definition of choice.
  • biological         ”               ”      .
  • political            ”               ”      .
  • [religious bigotry of PPLM, CLUM, et al.]

Question me on rape, incest, etc.

[margin notes: Q: egalitarianism or equality?; lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life” applied in Nazi Germany to the Jews et al, now applicable to the unborn under Roe v. Wade); Do you have the power to choose life?]

____________

[b) background notes]

Paul Simon (Slip-Sliding Away)

I know a father who had a son, he longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he had done/He came a long way just to explain, he kissed his boy as he lay sleeping, he turned around and headed home again/Slip-sliding away … You know, the nearer our destination, the more we’re slip-sliding away.

Definitions

  1. Liberal arts inquiry/Socratic dialogue; to learn and be open — please scrutinize me.
  2. Definition of conception (+ Senate subcommittee 1891)
  3. Definition of human abortion.
  4. Definition of the “ethics of choice”: theological and biological.
  5. Definition of human nature in the imago dei: seeking peace, order, stability and hope; to live, love, laugh and learn (needfulness); motivation for abortion choice in trying to regain such order …
  6. Definition of human abortion as the ultimate male chauvinism; work in feminist ethics at Harvard, definition of power.
  7. Definition of ideological/theological/worldview debate at hand.
  8. Definition of biblical ethics in a pluralistic society: a) anti-democratic nature of Roe v. Wade (non-consensus”); b) Massachusetts referendum (+ PP’s opposition) [Webster amicus]; c) street level activism; d) CPCs {Crisis Pregnancy Centers].

Quote:

“Dr. Anne Catherine Speckhard, Ph.D. of the University of Minnesota recently published a study on the long term manifestations of stress from abortion (five to ten years). Although the women she studied came from diverse backgrounds, their reactions were amazingly similar.

  • 81% reported preoccupation with the aborted child.
  • 73% reported flashbacks of the abortion experience.
  • 69% reported feelings of “craziness” after the abortion.
  • 54% recalled nightmares related to the abortion.
  • 35% had perceived visitations from the aborted child.
  • 23% reported hallucinations related to the abortion.

“Although 72% of the subjects said they held no religious beliefs at the time of their abortion, 96% in retrospect regarded abortion as the taking of life or as murder” (source: national newsletter of the Christian Action Council, February, 1986).

Q:

  1. Were you once a fertilized egg? [admit it: why quibble over definitions?]
  2. Do you know of any example in American legal history, apart from Roe, based on “non-consensus?”
  3. Is our multiple-choice question fair?
  4. Equity question — draw distinctions from other laws.
  5. Criminalizing?
  6. PP: Nazi Germany.
  7. How can you reduce abortion by doing it? + other analogies.

____________

The Brown Daily Herald, Wednesday, April 26, 1989, Brown University, Providence, RI, Vol. CXXI, Number 56, 25 Cents

Abortion Activists Debate Choice, by Alison Wheeler, Contributing Writer

[front page; with photo: “Mary Ann Sorrentino spoke up for pro-choice in last night’s debate” (Beatrice Kravetz/Contributing Photographer)]

Little compromise was reached in reconciling the two sides of the abortion question at last night’s campus debate entitled “A Question of Choice.”

John Rankin, executive director of the Christian Action Council, asserted that “abortion, by its very nature, is destructive,” while Mary Ann Sorrentino, director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island from 1977-1987, argued that “[women] ought to have as much a right to life as the unborn fetus.”

In front of a Sayles crowd of about 300, Rankin and Sorrentino battled over issues such as the nature of the pro-choice and pro-life movements, the beginning of life, chauvinism, the validity of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, and the morality of abortion.

The most heated argument of the night emerged over the question of whose life should take precedence, that of the mother  or the child. At one point, the mediator had to intervene and quiet the panelists.

“I am not trying to put one above the other,” Rankin said.

Sorrentino countered, “she’s [the mother] life too.”

The Pro-Life Side

John Rankin began his speech with the statement, “I intend to be a seeker of the truth,” and then posed a series of questions. Rankin first questioned how feminist ethics can be reconciled with human abortion.

“The best ethics of feminism is a system of nurture and care,” he said. “How can [abortion] be called nurture?”

Rankin next asked if there is any positive proof that life does not begin at conception.

“I know of none. History and science do not know of any,” he said.

“I see abortion as the ultimate chauvinism,” Rankin said. He explained that abortion allows men to avoid their responsibilities by giving them a simple alternative to raising a child.

“It [abortion] is treating women as sexual objects … [and] treating the unborn like chattel,” he said.

He also questioned the viability of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion. According to Rankin, it is the only Supreme Court decision decided on the predisposition of the judge, rather than on the law. By opposing the Supreme Court decision, “I am trying to err on the side of life,” Rankin said.

The Pro-Choice Side

Throughout the debate Sorrentino repeatedly stated, “If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: women are people, too.”

She warned that the Roe v. Wade decision was in imminent danger. She reminded the pro-choice members of the audience that their generation had grown up with choice, but now it was up to them to keep abortions legal.

“I din’t want you to have to give [choice] up,” she said.

Sorrentino disagreed with Rankin’s description of feminist ethics as nurturing ethics.

“[Feminist ethics] are in my opinion, human ethics .. we care beyond nurturing, [but] for empowering and freedom as well,” Sorrentino said.

Sorrentino asserted that the life of the mother should take precedence over the life of the fetus.

Assuming that the fetus is a viable human being and that abortion is a form of murder, so be it,” Sorrentino said.

“Before we have public policy to protect the unborn, I submit that we need public policy to protect the already born,” Sorrentino said.

Question-and-Answer Session

Rankin stated that a definition of the beginning of life needs to be created in order to clarify the abortion debate, but Sorrentino questioned the relevance of that definition.

“We know that it’s a developing form of life .. even if I accept your premise [that a fertilized egg is a human being], we would have a dilemma .. whose rights take precedence?” Sorrentino asked.

Sorrentino said that by opposing contraception and equal rights for women, the pro-life movement was “determined to keep women in bondage.”

“I do not oppose contraception within marriage,” Rankin said. Rankin said he does not support any contraceptives which can cause abortions like birth-control pills, but that he supports contraception like the IUD which prevents fertilization from the outset.

Rankin also asserted that he, along with many in the pro-life movement, support equal rights for women.

When accused of imposing his religious views on others, Rankin said he was merely asserting his rights as a citizen.

In a Massachusetts referendum, “70 percent of uneducated people known that life begins at conception,” Rankin said.

____________

It is so interesting to read this after so many years, and to see how a reporter grasps some things well, but others not so well, bu using her own language or only capturing part of an idea — and this is the challenge in communication from my perspective. Always a learning curve. And whoa, the last quote attributed to me is way off the mark.

But first, the writer did a good job at grasping several of my defining questions, and thus their substance is clear to see. She did misstate my observation about the Supreme Court. It is not the first time a “judge” overruled the law, but the first ruling based on the idea of “non-consensus” as to the central fact of the case. Also, there was no “heated argument” at the juncture defined, unless it was with Ms. Sorrentino interjecting some passion, and she and I were thus misjudged by the moderator fearing a certain trajectory that did not materialize. It was civil throughout.

I note how Ms. Sorrentino held such a reactionary position, and here, I saw her humanity. She de facto admits the humanity of the unborn, continually posited a conflict between mother and child, reacting to a straw argument and not to my position, and also relative to contraception. In other words, she was diagnosing the reality of abortion as a male chauvinistic enterprise, likely being burned by it, and certainly knowing many who have been thus burned. I was arguing for a proactive equality between women and their unborn, whereas Ms. Sorrentino was in a reactionary position to protect women from chauvinistic men.

Now the reporter did mangle two items at the end. Perhaps I spoke too fast, and in too much detail about contraception. But my position as never changed. I do not like any form of artificial contraception because it overwhelmingly assaults women’s internal health. And though I do not share the Roman Catholic moral teaching that prohibits (non-abortafacient) contraception, the church has down well in teaching natural family planning within marriage, and in celebration of children as a gift of God. And I do not like the IUD at all for good reasons, it may have some abortafacient properties, but regardless, I am not into prohibiting poor choices so long as they do not harm the life of another.

With respect to the second item, I did not say “uneducated people” affirm conception. That is a shortcut and therefore a misstatement of what I did say. Perhaps again, my syntax was too complicated for an easy grasp for a reporter writing notes simultaneously, and not knowing my context well enough. I was referring to a survey of 1,012 people we did in 1987, where 71 percent of people affirmed conception without us providing any “educative material ahead of time” to sway them. They had their own educated grasp of reality already. That number rises toward 85 percent when scientific material is reviewed.

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The Providence Journal, Wednesday, April 26, 1989/35 Cents/$180 per week by carrier

[Large front page picture, looking over the back shoulder of Mary Ann Sorrentino at me, as I have focus on her person, mouth open while speaking, almost breaking toward a smile, but selected — I think — to have me in an aggressive posture toward her, but it does not quite work. Underneath the picture, it reads: “Dedicated Debaters: As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments today on a case that could affect legalized abortion, John Rankin and Mary Ann Sorrentino argue their positions last night after a debate at Brown University’s Sayles Hall. Rankin opposes abortion, Sorrentino favors choice. Story, Page 14. A national poll shows ambivalence on the issue. Story, Page 1-4.” Interesting use of “oppose abortion” v. “favors choice,” and yet Sorrentino proves to be the reactive one while I argued the proactive].

Region: Abortion rights debated before 300 at Brown

By Lee Dykas, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

Providence — A woman’s right to an abortion outweighs the right of an unborn fetus, even though no one can deny that the fetus is a form of human life, according to Mary Ann Sorrentino, a pro-choice activist.

But before there is a policy to protect the unborn, said Sorrentino, a former director of the state chapter of Planned Parenthood, “we sorely need a policy t protect the rights of women who are already born.”

In a debate on abortion with John Rankin of the New England Christian Action Council at Brown University last night, Sorrentino said repeatedly that society seems not to realize that “women are people, too.”

Rankin’s central premise was the rights of the fetus are equal to the rights of the woman.

“There are no facts that dispute the origin of life at conception,” Rankin said. “And is all law defined by the beginning of life?”

The Supreme Court ruling in 1973, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, hinged on the avoidance of the question, Rankin argued. The court simply said it didn’t know when life begins, he said.

(The high court today is to hear arguments in a challenge to that decision.)

Rankin argued that society has the right to set limits. There are boundaries to choice, he said; “When you drive on the right side of the road, you are governed by a law that restricts your choices.”

In case of abortion, he said, “choices can only be made by those who are alive.”

Sorrentino maintained that if a conflict exists between the rights of the unborn fetus and the woman decision to have an abortion, “then so be it.”

Often the woman’s choices are “abortion, illness, possible maiming and death,” she said.

Sorrentino told the audience of about 300 people, nearly half of whom were male, that freedom of choice is a privilege — “even though (women of school age) have only known it as a right — that American women have enjoyed only the last 16 years.

____________

Interesting article, in terms of what this reporter summed up — but beginning with and ending with Ms. Sorrentino. Yet, it jumps out that Ms. Sorrentino admits the humanity of the unborn, posits extreme conflict using exceptions to drive it, assuming that society does not believe “women are people, too.” I see again the painful marks of male chauvinism upon the soul of a woman.

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