NECAC Debate, Temple University, February 18, 1987: Scouting It Out Ahead of Time

John C. Rankin

A good friend of mine, Dr. David Buffum was head of residential life at Messiah College’s inner city campus in North Philadelphia, across from Temple University, in the 1980s. He also taught a class in ethics, and had me teach a series for his class each year for four years. He arranged for me to debate the Rev. Barbara Chaapel on February 18, 1987,  Director of Public Information at Princeton Theological Seminary.

One or two weeks prior, I received a phone call from some woman in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, calling the offices of the New England Christian Action Council (NECAC), asking for any written publications by the ministry. She gave her name, but I forget what it was. So I sent along some newsletters, and one unpublished position paper. During the debate with the Rev. Chaapel, she worked in some material and questions concerning Genesis 1-3, that were of such a specific nature, that in the moment, I realized it was a friend of hers who had called me for the material. And that is fine.

But it is too bad that Barbara herself did not have the temerity to call, identify herself, and ask for the material to help her in preparing for the debate. I would have been glad to oblige, and also to chat with her to any extent that she wished, here ahead of time. And the reason is simple. As soon as I began my various debates over abortion, I could see that my goal was not to “win” a debate per se, to engage in the pursuit of “gotcha” moments. In fact, over the years, friends had often said to me something like: “”You could have nailed (him or her) at this point.” And my response would be, “It is not my goal to nail anyone on a debating point, for Jesus has been nailed to the cross already not to win a debate, but to reconcile us to his love.”

In other words, my goal was to win the relationship, to let genuinely and mutually instructive “aha” moments happen. This is not to mean I would not make my case as persuasively as possible, but would do so always in an open ended way, allowing my interlocutor to hopefully own some new questions or perspectives. Understatement is far more powerful at honest persuasion than is overstatement or backing someone into en ethical or intellectual corner.

The evening was titled “The Debate over Abortion,” and over 100 people attended, though the newspaper called it half that. An article was published in the Temple News that next day, wreitten by Lyn A. E. McCafferty, at the bottom of page 1: Reverends debate pro-choice, pro-life stands, with a line above the title, Victim or victimizer? Here is the article as published:

___________

“Pro-lifers ask, ‘What right does a woman have to take a life?’ Well, what right does society have to force pregnancy on a woman?” Rev. Barbara Chaapel, Director of Public Information at Princenton Theological Seminary, said.

“How is taking away life, giving women hope?” Rev. John Rankin, Executive Director of the New England Christian Action Council, said.

Over 50 students and community members attended a debate on abortion last night in SAC 302, where Pro-Choice Advocate and Pro-Life Advocate Rankin discussed one of the most controversial issues in our society today.

Rankin began the debate by saying he wished to examine definitions, to help identify the real issue above all the rhetoric.

“I don’t don’t just want to say abortion is evil, but rather show something so hopeful that abortion pales in proportion.”

But, when does life begin?

Upon fertilization, the sperm and the egg, though two entire separate beings, are united to form an one-celled zygote in the mother’s womb, said Rankin.

“At the point of conception, there is actually biological life, and if there is a healthy environment,” then life will mature,” Rankin said. “The potential is there.”

In the bible, Chaapel said, God is portrayed as breathing life into us. He does not define where life begins.

“What He does say is that to be a person, you have to be able to choose between right and wrong.

“The fetus does not fill this definition. It does however fir the pregnant woman,” Chaapel said.

Both Chaapel and Rankin agreed the Bible makes no clear mention of abortion, rather each interpret it in a different manner.

Rankin said he saw abortion as the deliberate cutting off of life.

“It’s one goal is to take that life that is growing, maturing, and cut it off,” said Rankin.

Chaapel said by dealing with the Bible as a guide, we must deal with ambiguity and understand that “different answers must be gained by different people at different times.”

“The decision of abortion is not the cutting off of life, but rather, allowing life to be more abundant –to keep other children, a spouse, and themselves alive,” said Chaapel.

Rankin said he saw abortion as a factor of male chauvinism.

“When a man leaves a woman, she feels hopeless and many times sees abortion as the way out. Once she is a victim, once a victimizer — so that  the men can just trot along their merry way,” Rankin said.

“God created us to make decisions,” Chaapel countered.

Abortion gives hope to families that already have too many children, to a mother who’s health may be destroyed by the pregnancy, and many times many children, said Chaapel.

The abortion issue is really a conflict of world views and conceptions, Rankin.

But does this life, this fetus, deserve protection under the law?

“Life is a gift from God,” said Rankin, “it comes into a world of pain, but none the less, it is a gift, and who are we to cut off this gift?”

“I’m not so much advocating abortion as much as I am advocating choice and people as able to make choices,” Chaapel said.

Because the decision is such a struggle, Chaapel said, each decision could be a different one.

“We can’t write laws that everyone could follow, because every situation is different.

“There are ways to abuse every law,” Chaapel said, “but that is no reason to restrict the freedom of choice.”

___________

Now, it is always interesting to glean the prism through which a newspaper writer sees things. I did not identify the sperm and egg as “two different beings,” for they are not. They are haploid cells, and a genetic human being does not exist until the moment of fertilization, when the two haploid cells (with no genetic future each in such a state) unite to form one diploid cell, a one celled human zygote, as we once all were. As well, I was assigned the language, “The potential is there,” and this is not something I said. For in the debate of the time, “potential life” was language used by abortion advocates to skirt biological reality.

Rev. Chaapel began with postulating a war between society and the woman, and ignores the reality of male chauvinism as I identified it. “Society” does not force itself on a pregnant woman, rather it is the male chauvinist who does so. She also mentuoned the breath of life (from Genesis 2:7) as not defining “where life begins.” Here is one place where I discern her review of the material I sent her friend. For that very winter I was preparing my paper on nephesh, where the humanity of the unborn is affirmed from the very text she referenced (click here for a more recent writing on the text, rooted in the same core view I had since I first translated and exegeted it). In other words, I sense she was trying to negate my position, in her prepared comments, without identifying it. And in my response, I identified this reality.

Rev. Chaapel then said that God says to be a person, you have to chose between right and wrong. Now, this is a non-sequitor. She did not define proactively what a person is biblically, as I have in terms of nephesh. Nor did she define what right and wrong are relative to human abortion.  Now, I do not have an outline of my prepared notes, but as I did at the Dartmouth forum a year prior, I consistently then identified the God, life, choice paradigm (click here), identifying that no one has the power to choose unless he or she is first alive. Also, click here for the biblical definition of choice or freedom in Genesis 2. This is material Rev. Chaapel would have reviewed ahead of time. Thus, and as we see at her concluding quoted remarks, where the idolatry of “the freedom of choice” is her gravamen. Rev. Chaapel was also willing to say what the Bible doe snot say, in her view of life, but not to allow it to define human life clearly “different answers”in “different times.” Then, what value is Scripture, if made so individually subjective?

In my hand scrawled notes from the debate, I wrote these summary responses to Rev. Chaapel comments:

  • Abortion is not an act of redemption.
  • Decision making …
  • “Too many children is tearing apart” [the woman, Chaapel says]. I noted: Thus abort [which equals a tearing apart]?
  • Do we ask for forgiveness ahead of time [ahead of having an abortion]?
  • [To Chaapel]: Talk more of positive elements of why women choose abortion.
  • Roe v. Wade opens the door to 1.6 million abortions [annually].
  • Life of the mother? What is the mission of the church?
  • What right does society have to impose upon a woman [in any capacity, such as not holding men accountable]?
  • Agree with imago dei in women.
  • Theology [its maturity] has developed since Roe v.Wade — full time w/NECAC [in so doing].
  • Adam & Eve as adults; Gen. 2:7; hayeh nephesh.
  • Gen. 1:26 imago dei.
  • Genesis 3:22! [Chaapel’s use of “good and evil” after sin had entered; not using its original purpose in 2:9; 17)]. Playing God. Boundaries of choice.
  • “A fetus does not meet such above” [a quote of her words relative to  prior argument where she said a fetus is not a person]. Ps. 139? [I responded].
  • Quotes from Chaapel: “relates to future of the world” and “no prohibitions in the Bible’ [I addressed these concerns].
  • Abortion was not practiced in Jewish society.
  • “No mention of abortion in N.T.” (negation). Didache forward?
  • (Must deal w/realities of abortion).
  • Did not deal with sin.

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