NECAC Second Debate: March 6, 1985: North Adams State College with Bill Baird

John C. Rankin

In February, 1985, I received a phone call from a member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) in North Adams. I also served on the MCFL board at the time, a largely Roman Catholic constituency that was glad for my evangelical Protestant participation as director for the New England Christian Action Council (NECAC), and for all the evangelicals I was recruiting.

It seemed that the infamous Bill Baird had been invited to speak at North Adams State College. Baird owned abortion centers in New York and Boston, and won three Supreme Court decisions advancing the cause of birth control, including for minors, in the 1970s, and after being jailed eight times in his protests in 1967ff. The MCFL member was upset that only one side of the debate was being heard.

I was initially nervous. My first and prior debate at Gordon College was in a more relaxed environment, theological in nature and respectful in tone. Baird was famous for many caustic confrontations with pro-life advocates, some who gave it back to him in equal measure. One friend told me of speaking to him face to face some years prior, where Baird was telling him to give up the fight. My friend pressed up to his face, and said, “I will die first, with my pro-life convictions like a knife held between my teeth, rather than give up!”

In the Sentinel-Enterprise in Fitchburg, MA, Baird was quoted on September 30, 1987, speaking of firebombed abortion centers by pro-life activists, raids that destroyed medical equipment and such, and saying: “The anti-abortion people are on this crusade that they’re so holy that those of us of another persuasion are lower than human.” A visceral fight of many years thus preceded and followed my debate that evening. Yet, too, it is Baird who was on the pro-abortion crusade for years before the pro-life movement came into existence, and he was a Unitarian who believed in sexual promiscuity (as he bragged to me years later in Boston).

When I arrived, Baird had arranged a large table next to the podiums, displaying dozens of newspaper clippings about his activist history. The Transcript, of North Adams, reported on the debate the next day (March 7) in an above the masthead article: Baird, Rankin spar on abortion issue. Below is the whole article, written by correspondent Glenn Drohan.

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NORTH ADAMS — “Pro-choice” activist Bill Baird, the “father of the abortion rights movement in the U.S.” and “pro-life” advocate John Rankin, a leader in Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc. (MCL) took aim at each other’s philosophy and political agenda Wednesday night at North Adams State College. At the end, they congratulated each other for a civil, gentlemanly debate.

Before about 200 students and city residents, the two speakers focused on the personhood of the fertilized egg, forced or unforced morality, and allegations that a male-dominated society dictates women’s reproductive rights.

Mr. Rankin, an evangelical minister and executive director of the Christian Action Council of New England, contended that a fertilized egg is a person, asserting that “uniqueness comes at conception,” and after which “no new genetic matter is added.”

“All stages of pre-natal development are distinctly human. A fertilized egg does not become a giraffe or a door knob,” Mr. Rankin said.

Mr. Baird responded that a fertilized egg is not a person in the same way “acorn is not a tree and a chicken egg is not a chicken. An egg is an egg is an egg,” he insisted.

Mr. Rankin said every human being begins life as a fertilized egg — “a one-celled zygote” — including Mr. Baird. He observed that if abortion had always been legal “one third of the people in this auditorium wouldn’t he here today.”

Abortion is the “tearing apart of a human being and represents an invasion of the sanctity of the womb,” Mr.Rankin said. He graphically described the “suction method” of abortion which crushes limbs, rib cage and skull. “Other methods are even more gruesome,” he said.

Mr. Baird responded by pointing to methods used to induce abortions prior to their legalization in 1973. Those methods claimed many women, he said.

“When abortions are illegal, women  suffer, women die, women illegally abort. They are ‘living human being,’ ” he asserted.

Throughout the debate, Mr. Baird stressed that he was not arguing for abortion, but for the right of the individual to choose abortion as a legal method of birth control.

“Everything has a right to determine his own private morality,” Mr. Baird stated. “What makes this country great is that we can worship and believe as we want to believe.”

Mr. Rankin disputed that claim.

“All freedom has boundaries and the law should define those boundaries,” Mr. Rankin said. “Pro-abortionists argue that a woman can do what she wants with her body. That simply isn’t true. A woman is not free to prostitute herself, or to inject heroin, or to commit suicide.

Mr. Rankin denounced pro-abortionists as male chauvinists, arguing that men get women pregnant and don’t want to be responsible for fatherhood. “The Playboy mentality is the root of the abortion ethic,” he argued.

But Mr. Baird responded that anti-abortionists represent “the ultimate chauvinism.”

“No man should tell a woman what’s right for her. In a male-dominated society, women must maintain the right to be free. No man will ever be free unless women are free,” he maintained.

Both men, however, denounced violent at abortion clinics.

Mr. Baird cited instances of “61 clinics being firebombed in the name of God” and numerous other atrocities.

“Why can’t we live with one another without calling each other murderers,” he asked, asserting that it is a woman’s moral right to have an abortion, not anyone else’s.

Mr. Baird pleaded that anti-abortionists “establish a 50-foot demilitarized zone in front of all abortion clinics.” Terrorist acts only detract and demean the pro-life message, he said.

“I’ll never force you (pro-lifers) to have an abortion,” he asserted. “Don’t force women to go through unwanted pregnancies. Don’t deny women the human right of dignity.”

Mr. Rankin said he too “repudiated” violence, but “the real violence is in the abortion clinics.”

Mr. Baird asked for a show of hands to determine how many people there favored or opposed a woman’s right to choose abortion. “Let the record show that more than 90 percent of the people here tonight are in support of a woman’s right to abortion,” he claimed.

Mr. Rankin said the vote was more “70-30,” but the audience support for Baird did not discourage him.

“Before the Civil War, the majority of people were in favor of slavery. That didn’t make it right,” he said.

Bill Baird is known through the U.S. as a pro-abortion rights activist. He was arrested in 1967 at Boston University for publicly exhibiting birth control devices. The Supreme Court later ruled it was legal to distribute birth control devices to single women.

“Tonight is my anniversary” of that arrest, Mr. Baird said.

In 1976, Mr. Baird challenged a Massachusetts law which required minors to obtain parental consent for abortions. That law was repealed in 1979.

An evangelical theologian, Mr. Rankin is is also a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc. and holds an M.Div. degree.

The debate was sponsored by the North Adams State College Center Council. Dr. Samuel Gomez of the philosophy department served as moderator. Questions were taken from the audience, and from a list compiled by NASC students.

Some question was raised by members of the audience on the fairness of the debate fees. Mr. Baird received a $1,500 speaker’s fee; Mr. Rankin received expenses only.

Glenn A. Cassis, NASC Camus Center director, and adviser to the Campus Center Council, a student organization which relies on student, not state funds, said Mr. Baird had already been booked by the college. The council then decided that a debate might prove more interesting.

Attempts to book a speaker through the same agency that lists Mr. Baird failed since students did not have enough funds. Mr. Cassis contacted MCL, which recommended Mr. Rankin, the campus center director explained.

Mr. Rankin, who quipped he was a “johnny-come-lately,” said he understood the arrangement, and would have “been happy to speak for free, if necessary.”

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A week later, the editor of the Transcript, Joseph C. Day, penned the Editor’s Notebook, “Abortion Rhetoric: Loaded Terms in NASC Debate.”

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NORTH ADAMS — Last week’s debate between abortion rights advocate Bill Baird and pro-lifer John Rankin offered a first-class opportunity to experience not only the passions of the national debate, but also the rhetoric of that dispute.

I had to go.

Sitting with mouth shut at the Campus Center at North Adams State College last Wednesday was difficult. The arguments, points, counterpoints and summations that erupted between the two men amounted to verbal swordplay. A thrust here, a parry there.

If the stakes in the abortion debate weren’t so high, the student sponsored debate would have been  just good theater, and opportunity for northern Berkshire to plug into the controversy that continues to wrestle for America’s conscience. But whatever the U.S. ultimately chooses, the decision carries major legal, social, economic and moral implications. At this point, it seems clear that the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion may not be the final word — and that uncertainty, coupled with the bombing of more than 60 abortion clinics during the past few years, has given an intensity to the debate.

What are the stakes?

The rhetoric itself provides an answer — as Wednesday’s debate showed to more than 200 students and city residents.

Mr. Rankin, executive director of the the Christian Action Council of New England, is a self-proclaimed “pro-lifer.” He opposes abortion and most abortion rights. He points to statistics which show that 15 million unborn babies have been aborted since the Supreme Court decision more than a decade ago.

“Pro-lifers” say the statistic — more than 4,000 babies a day — dwarfs American deaths in all wars.

The obvious implication is that those advocate abortion are pro-death. Bill Baird hotly disputes that contention.

On the flip side, Baird & Co. insist they are “pro-choice.” Choice, in American democracy, especially after the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, is a sacred word. Those who oppose choice, therefore, are anti-democratic, virtual neo-fascists.

“Don’t you dare amend that Constitution … to deny women the right to abortion,” declared Baird. The founder of national networks of abortion clinics, Baird repeatedly raised the spectre of a constitutional amendment — as it that were inherently an anti-democratic move.

The irony in this should not be ignored: efforts to stop abortion almost invariably occur in legislative bodies, as would the various versions of a proposes Human Life Amendment. Indeed, the abortion laws struck down by the high court in ’73 were fashioned by mid-19th century legislators — the people’s elected, if Victorian, legislators. Abortion rights were secured by judicial fiat in a split 5-4 decision [note, this is wrong, it was a 7-2 decision], one that might easily be reversed sometime soon.

Justice Harry Blackmun, recently the target of death threats and apartment gunfire, wrote the majority decision as an amplification of the right to privacy. “Personhood” for the unborn child — the clinical “fetus” replaces the human “unborn child” — depends in viability, the court determined.

Baird and those who agree with him are quick to pick up on viability.

“If I put a pencil dot on the wall — a )fertilized” human egg is a quarter of that size — you can believe that that is a person, but don;t you make me believe it,” Baird told his NASC listeners.

Rhetorically, Baird reduces his opponents’ arguments to the absurd — still following the Blackmun line on viability. Unfortunately, his “reductio” does little to advance national understanding. Although, as Baird points out, no major national medical organization opposes liberalized abortion on the grounds of the personhood of the fetus, science persists in showing fetal viability at increasingly earlier ages. The “reduction” itself is reduced.

Rankin stressed that a fertilized egg, despite its size, is “genetically unique; it has a unity, an essence which means the cell, if left alone, has a destiny to become human [innacurate quote; the fertilized egg is already human]. There is a totality which begins at conception.”

Rankin’s thinking, of course, underpins historic opposition to abortion.

Because neither religion nor science can pinpoint when “human life” begins, the fetusunborn [sic] child has enjoyed legal protection by extending personhood to conception. Sonographs and other advanced techniques mock the arbitrary “trimester” divisions of the court.

In the rhetoric, however, abortion rights advocates like Baird can ill afford to venture deep into the latest scientific evidence. They rely on the science of professional groups with a vested interest in legalized abortion. Abortion rights advocates, however, put most of their muscle in describing abortion from the woman’s point of view. Rhetorically, the term “mother” is rarely used; it resonates with emotional baggage — and it implies the humanity of the fetus. Instead, Baird’s “women” enter rooms for “procedures.”

At the onset, Rankin appeared to make a major tactical error. He spoke of his “evangelical Christian” background, based on a fundamental belief in the “trustworthiness of the Bible.”

That, of course, was music to Baird’s ears. All he had to do was isolate Rankin — first by challenging the accuracy of scripture (all the while acknowledging Rankin’s right to believe it) and second by isolating Rankin’s arguments as the preaching of a specific group. Not only was the young minister a neofascist, but he was an intolerant one.

Rankin, however, was on more solid intellectual ground. Baird’s claim to “deal with reality” must also acknowledge that every society is based on law — and law is nothing but the codification of the majority’s public morality. Again the dispute goes back to its epicenter, the womb. If the fetus is human, it deserves protection. If not, then private morality can apply. At present, abortion opponents argue that American law has, until 1973, seen the fetus as human. Even now, the fetus retains certain inheritance rights and provides the basis for double homicide charges should a pregnant woman be murdered. The issue lies in reaching consensus on what the fetus is.

If the “thing” in the womb is the epicenter of the debate, the social consequences of unwanted birth are the shock waves. Baird routinely hauled out statistics and social problems. Rhetorically, the tactic is brilliant — make the opponent assume the burden for the consequence of birth, overpopulation, urban poverty, crime and the horror of backroom abortions, all the while ignoring the logical basis that an act may be opposed for it sown sake, for its inherent evils.

This “shift the burden” tactic dovetails with the “lump ‘em all together” technique. “Pro-lifers” have only themselves to blame for this weapon in the abortion rights arsenal, however.

The lump method is effective in the same way as the neo-fascist technique. People like Baird, who uphold freedom and choice and personal responsibility, love to point out that pro-lifers include in their number those who support the death penalty, distrust the Soviet Union and even some who feel the same principles that would have justified the bombing of Auschwitz support the bombing of abortion clinics. Now, although credible arguments can be advanced for these causes, most Americans find such propagandists as extremists of the right.

Rankin’s efforts to point out that restrictive abortion laws prevailed throughout the country ever since colonial times hardly mattered. Baird’s declaration that he relied only on “the morality of everyone of you to decide what’s right for you” seemed much more attractive than laws from Washington or Boston. Indeed, Baird easily turns to another reductio. Suppose abortion is again criminalized. What do you do with the criminals and their accomplices? If the fetus is human, then abortion is murder. Do you execute the doctor? Give life imprisonment to the mother (or, rather, the woman undergoing the procedure)?

Baird ignores the variety of punishments that existed prior to 1973 and instead raised the prospect of Orwellian society intruding into the privacy of a woman’s womb. His rhetoric enables him to skirt the dispute over what the fetus is; the woman’s “needs” now govern, including the need and right not to be inconvenienced (more than 90 percent of abortions are matters of convenience).

Pity that Rankin did not respond that the murder of an abusive husband might answer the needs of a great many wives, but that throwing a toaster into the bath still remains unacceptable (and illegal) behavior.

Theater is first cousin to rhetoric. And, again, Baird showed himself a champion. During his debate last week, his daughter and son-in-law showed up to listen. They came in with their infant in a basket and, naturally, visited granddad before the verbal fireworks. Several times during the debate, the baby’s cries gave Baird the cur he needed … ah, a wanted child. Baird even had the calendar on his side — here he was in North Adams, still defending freedom and choice, 15 years to the night when he was first arrested for showing off diaphragms at Boston University.

Such theatrical flourishes helped Baird more than a pack of Madison Avenue ad execs — and some “pro-lifers” helped Baird nearly as much. When former North Adams City Councilor Raymond F. Babeu stood up in the question and answer period, he identified himself as:

1. The father of 11 children;

2. A man who marveled as the divine handiwork in the birth of his own grandchild; (so far so good)

3. An individual who resented Baird’s receipt of a $1,500 speaker’s fee (donated to his women’s services program) while Rankin graciously skirted the problem, saying he did not mind because he was a johnny-come-lately to the program and would gladly speak free, but Babeu seemed rather churlish) and,

4. Finally, Babeu portrayed himself as attacker, launching into a ringing denunciation of Baird’s arrival in a city “where steeples rise into the sky.”

By now, the audience was with Baird. Babeu succeeded only in playing into the stereotyped pro-lifer that abortion rights activists paint.

Rhetorically, then, Baird scored some heavy-duty points against Rankin, whom he condescendingly referred to as the “beloved reverend.” (Rankin simply call his opponent “Bill.”) In a show of hands, most the audience sided with Baird. Yet this was largely a Roman Catholic, middle class and middle American audience. Rankin, on the other hand, simply established his arguments, provided evidence and sough to engage his elusive opponent.

If the debate at NASC last week were judged on strict logic, Rankin would have won. But abortion is not merely an academic debate; its cuts to the very core of social thinking. As such, the rhetoric of abortion carries strong emotional and political components. If Rankin won the debate, Baird, the veteran of many such encounters, won the audience.

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On Wednesday, May, 1, 1985, the Transcript published my response:

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Debater Defends Abortion Position

In the March 14 editorial concerning my debate with Bill Baird, Joseph Day (Transcript managing editor)m in analyzing the “theatrics” of the event, concludes that though I won the debate (intellectually), Mr. Baird won the audience (emotionally). Mr. Day also contends that I made a tactical error in stating, a priori, my philosophical assumptions as an evangelical Christian.

Allow me to contribute my perspective.

In the debate, I defined the nature and scope of true liberal arts inquiry (and accordingly professed my presuppositions), and defined the terms on conception and abortion, etymologically and medically. I challenged Mr. Baird to state his philosophical presuppositions, and to challenge my definitions. He never did, only quipping that he deals “with reality, not philosophy” (which was amusing, as the moderator of the debate, Dr. Samuel Gomez, chairman of the department of philosophy, was sitting behind him). I then isolated the nexus of the abortion controversy; biblical on the one hand, non-biblical on the other.

After the give and take of the debate format, I returned to this question of world views in my concluding remarks. In positing the real question of whether or not there is a God, and whether or not there is a sacredness to human life which transcends the material sphere, and whether or not there is an accountability in the end (Judgment), I had the audience’s strict attention for those seven minutes. This was apart from theatrics or appeals to selfish fear, and Mr. Baird did not know what to do with it.

Considering that most of the college audience was hostile to my position at the outset, and in view of Mr. Baird’s failure to identify me (organically or philosophically) with any reprehensible actions or attitudes, and in view of my gracious treatment of him as a human being, I wonder what audience he won. He had most of them with him (in the sense of “pro-choice”) to begin with. I will wager that not one “pro-lifer” came to the event, and left being converted to “pro-choice.” But I do know of two college women, who came as “pro-choicers,” and left having changed their position to now opposing abortion.

The only audience Mr. Baird won was in the sense that he stroked the self0justifying psyches of those who came with the desire to be reassured in their pro-abortion position. For those who came to learn, and to inquire honestly, he did not win a one, And I believe I won a few, and put thoughts into the minds of many, thoughts that will remain and have capacity to influence decisions in the months and years to come.

My a priori confession as an evangelical Christian was not a tactical error. It was the major thrust of my presentation, and given its honestly and openness, became the authority by which a hostile audience listened attentively to my concluding statement. Also, when Mr. Baird’s attempt to identify my position as “holier than thou” and coercive failed (given my clear definition of the Christian attitude of servanthood and appeal to the democratic process in a pluralistic society), and when he learned that I was raised a Unitarian (like himself), and arrived at my convictions through active embrace and not passive acceptance, he could not and did not exploit it.

The power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it brings strength through human weakness. Perhaps Mr. Day and others thought my open confession of faith was a point of weakness. I think rather that it was the opposite.

John Rankin, Executive Director, New England Christian Action Council, Rockport

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As I look back on the debate these several decades later, I am struck by major concerns that came forward — the humanity of the unborn and the male chauvinism of human abortion — the two defining questions to this day. I remember, too, the silliness of Baird’s “acorn” argument. An acorn, once fertilized in the soil, becomes nothing but a tree, and egg a chicken. His separation of origin and destiny is the same question in the Gordon College debate. I also remember defining a suction abortion, but over the years I muted such descriptions to the point where I cannot remember the last time I spoke of it. There is a time and place, but most people know what it is, or know abortion destroys, so I seek to be more redemptively positive in seeking to persuade and empower.

Bill Baird spoke of women as living beings, and himself being treated as “less than human” for his position. Yes to the humanity of all, and the Gospel does that. Yet too, he dehumanizes the unborn. Baird also reflected a classic and false separation between “private morality” and public morality, where his private morality is what should be public morality, while censoring pro-lifers from linking the two from their own perspective. I would not be so facile today in speaking of the consensus before the Civil War (for it was moving in the right direction for decades, North and South), nor make the analogies I did about how a women treats her body in various negative ways.

Bill Baird also raised his objection to being called a “murderer” — language I never employed (but which we interfaced with at a later date). He was early on in advocating a bubble zone around abortion centers, and this was four years before I began my work at Preterm in Boston, and where even the Attorney General of Massachusetts backed off from proposed laws to create them, once I objected.

Now, in retrospect, I could have had some fun when he took a poll of the people there on who supports “a woman’s right to abortion.” I could have responded by also taking a poll: “How many people here believe that the act of human abortion is an intrinsic good, and can tell me why?” I doubt but maybe one or two people would raise their hands and give it a try. And then I would have said: “How is then, Mr. Baird, that most people support what they know cannot be defined as a good act?” Or I could have asked: “Who here knows of any scientific evidence that the fertilization of a human ovum by a human spermatazoon produces anything other than a nascent human life?” ANd so forth.

Finally, during the question and answer period, one gentleman congratulated me while also being quite cruel in his language toward Bill Baird. So I rebuked him, saying that such an attitude does not serve the pro-life ethic. I was surprised at my spontaneous boldness, and wondered immediately if I would alienate the man and other pro-life advocates as well. Afterward, he gave me a handshake and thanked me.

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