NECAC Debate: Question Averted by the Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University

John C. Rankin

(March 9, 2014)

In early March, 1989, I was invited to speak at Cornell University, to a local church, and then to address a debate, also at Cornell.

In reviewing my files these many years later (in 2016), it is fun to revisit some of the details. It was scheduled in conjunction with a large abortion rights rally in the Arts Quad at Cornell, and I attended it too. Various newspaper reports spoke of the numbers as 2000, 2200, 2500 and 3500. In looking at the one picture, and in terms of my memory,I would have guessed 1500+. People love to politic with numbers as a show of strength, which is then used to support who is “right” on a given issue.

Regardless, I was in a sea of college students (they came from 20 of 36 invited campuses in the northeast U.S.) that were in favor of legalize abortion to one extent or another. And there were about 50 pro-life counter demonstrators. The two main speakers were Professor Carl Sagan (author of the book Cosmos, later made into the popular PBS series), and Betty Friedan, former and first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Most people came to hear Sagan, and when Friedan spoke, the numbers had dwindled to several hundred, according to press reports.

As I listened to Dr. Sagan, I so much wanted to interact with him. The Cortland Standard reported on March 6: “From a scientific point, Sagan argued that if we determine life as functioning brain waves, a fetus less than three months which does not have higher brain waves should not be considered alive.

“And if anti-abortionists truly support life, Sagan said they should oppose nuclear arms and help solve world hunger and homelessness. About 40,000 children are born each day who will not live beyond their fifth birthday because of inadequate nutrition and care, he said.

” ‘I would like to see right-to-lifers embrace the social changes and the economic changes that are necessary to prevent children from dying,’ Sagan argued.”

The Cornell Daily Sun, also in its March 6 edition added another quote: ‘I am a proponent of life,’ Sagan told the charged crowd. He then called right-to-life activists ‘well-intentioned,’ but said the right-to-life argument is inconsistent” as per his concerns above.


In one newspaper called The Sun, it had a sidebar article to the abortion rally:

Experts Clash on Abortion

by Laura D. Poolin

In a lively by amicable debate Friday night [March 3] focusing on the possible criminalization of abortion, two speakers asserted that life begins at conception [actually, Dr. Bem did not, see below] and that abortion is evil, but disagreed about the appropriate means of eliminating abortions.

John Rankin, director of the New England Christian Action Council, argued that abortion should be illegal, but Prof. Daryl Bem, psychology, rejected this solution as both ineffective and inequitable. He said that “the only time the criminalization of abortion worked was when Hitler criminalized abortion” and that the solution is also unethical in that it would discriminate among different economic and racial groups.

The debate, co-sponsored by the Cornell Coalition for Life, was called “The Ethics of Choice” and attracted about 150 people to Goldwin Smith D on Friday night.

“I want to live in a world where all abortions are gone — I want every child to be nurtured and love,” Bem said, adding that he thought U.S. abortion statistics “are a national tragedy.” He relayed statistics attesting that 25 percent of all pregnancies and 50 percent of all teenage pregnancies end in abortion.

Bem advocated family planning as the best means of preventing abortions and noted the success of Planned Parenthood, a family planning center in Ithaca, of which Bem is the president. The center disseminates information about contraception, and for those whose religion prohibits the use of contraception, “we know how to make the rhythm method work,” Bem said.

Rankin. arguing primary on theological and political grounds, said [contraceptive] planning “actually heightens the abortion rate because it interjects the recommendation for abortion,” and relayed results of a survey taken at Harvard and Yale [misquote; should have been “Harvard and other colleges in Massachusetts”] in which over 70 percent agreed that human life begins at conception [actually, the results were over 80 percent].

Rankin said abortion should be illegal [I virtually never used that term, preferring to speak in the positive, e.g., “the unborn deserve full legal protection”] since it is “the destruction of human life” and argued that the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, was the “most undemocratic case in America.”

Rankin said that the “heart of the Christian view” is seen in the rationale of St. Augustine, an ancient Christian philosopher, who reasoned that he was unsure when a fetus becomes a human being because he did not know when the soul developed [a partial quote, as I also affirmed my conviction about the nature of the soul in response to Augustine, click here]. Augustine concluded that the destruction of the fetus is murder because he “would rather err on the side of life.”

Rankin said that his choice will always be to “err on the side of life” and for that reason opposes capital punishment [misquote: I did not say that — capital punishment is for those who are guilty of taking the life of another with premeditation, not parallel to the taking of innocent unborn life; I may have nuanced the wise way to think about capital punishment, and redemptive possibilities to minimize the need, but the writer got it wrong]. He also said that abortion can be condoned only if we believe there is no God and that life has no meaning after death.

Rankin agreed with the pamphlet distributed by the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, which says “we are not the absolute owners but the stewards of our being, body and soul, and in all things accountable to God” [also see my article on the soul, linked above]. He said that all life “is a gift” and “must be nurtured.”


At the actual debate itself, and with Daryl Bem serving as the chairman of the departmewnt of psychology, it proved to be a gracious interchange. His argument employed a psychological strategy to reverse the debate expectation – saying he was more pro-life than I was because he advocated birth control to prevent more “unwanted pregnancies.” I answered otherwise, linking fidelity in marriage to the holistic pro-life position, something countermanded by the contraceptive ideology, and I also challenged his cited research. The article above gives a briefer flavor of this reality.

At one juncture during the question and answer portion, he was exerting great intellectual energy in trying to answer a question from the audience. He had earlier denied that human life begins at conception [even though the article in The Sun says otherwise], and in his answer to a different question was just about to admit the biology of conception, then abruptly switched tack when he realized it, and grew incoherent. It hit me as I watched him – so much intellectual energy can be spent trying to rationalize what the human soul knows is untrue, that clarity is lost and intellectual ability eventually avoids and does not pursue hard questions. They are often hard, not due to their intrinsic nature, but because the answers challenge deeply held presuppositions and chosen identities. Even for the most brilliant people.