HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, March 9, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Pro-abortion activists sought, unsuccessfully, to disrupt a debate on abortion at Dalhousie University Tuesday night by ripping down ads, setting off stink-bombs, and covering the ceiling with helium balloons featuring pro-abortion slogans.  In the end, they even turned on the pro-abortion speaker.

Representing the pro-life side of the debate was Stephanie Gray, co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.  Facing Gray was Dr. Mark Mercer, chairperson of the philosophy department at Halifax’s St. Mary’s University, who has in the past won the ire of pro-abortion activists for defending the rights of pro-lifers to express their opinions on university campuses.

While Gray argued that the unborn should be protected in law because abortion is the violent killing of innocent human life, Mercer argued that there is nothing ethically troubling about abortion, at one point suggesting that a baby isn’t a “person” until around 18 months of age.

The event, which was organized by the new student group Pro-Life at Dal, attracted about 150 students and members of the public.

In her remarks, Gray pointed out that the scientific community is unanimous that life begins at fertilization.  At fertilization, she explained, the child “has everything she needs within herself to direct her growth and to move to the next more mature stage of her development.”

Mercer agreed that the unborn are human beings, and that abortion is the deliberate killing of a human being, but argued that the notion of “human being” is not a “morally relevant concept.”  Individuals are not special by virtue of their “species membership,” he said, but become “persons” and worthy of protection because they possess certain “ethically salient properties” such as the ability to experience pain or pleasure, self-consciousness, and rationality.

Gray, however, maintained that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deliberately speaks of ‘human’ and not ‘person’ rights because the powerful have often sought to subjugate or kill the vulnerable by claiming they are not persons.  She pointed to examples like the Holocaust and the enslavement of African Americans.

“We have a nasty history as human beings of denying our fellow human beings the right to live because we divorce the concept of human and person as to treat them as two separate things,” she said.

She said the criteria used to define personhood come down to non-essential differences - namely size, level of development, environment, and dependency - and that these criteria are constantly changing for an individual.  “Human is an objective term that we can determine scientifically,” she explained.  “Person is a philosophical or legal term which has had a changing definition throughout history.”

“Our humanity, our right to life, should be based on that which is unchanging, which is our human nature - rather than that which is changing, which is our functions and abilities,” she added.

Gray argued that all humans carry intrinsic worth because of our common human nature, by which we are “moral, rational agents.”  If an individual doesn’t exhibit signs of rationality, such as a developing baby or a disabled person, they nevertheless have the “inherent ability,” even if they don’t have the “current ability.”

“I don’t understand what this thing humanity is or the property of being human,” retorted Mercer, “such that an anancephalic infant is a rational being just as the rest of us. ... Here’s a creature who doesn’t have a capability and yet it’s still in the essence of that creature that it has that capability.  That makes no sense to me.”

Gray said, however, “just because some humans are damaged, so to speak, I would say that doesn’t mean that we can end their lives because they’re not as developed or ‘perfect’ as we are.”

According to Mercer, a child likely only gains personhood at around 18 months to two years of age, and he also suggested at one point that adult pigs might be persons.  Though he said he couldn’t imagine a reason to justify killing a born child given the availability of adoption, he said upon further questioning that “if the child isn’t a person, it’s not an offense against the child to kill it.”

A principled vegetarian, he agreed that it could be wrong to kill a pig even though he believes it’s acceptable to kill a child in the womb.

Asked by Gray how he justified defining a person based on his list of properties, Mercer responded, “Why should I take humanity to be ... a morally salient property?”

The most vocal pro-abortion voices at the event were obviously displeased with Mercer’s presentation, slamming him in the open forum at the end of the evening.  “You didn’t even attempt to make any arguments that would convince anybody of anything,” said one activist.  “You did not represent the pro-choice position at all.”

Though inviting them to e-mail him better arguments, Mercer nevertheless defended his view as the only cogent approach.  He dismissed arguments based on “women’s struggle for equality” saying that that they fail to address the “moral status of the fetus,” and disagreed with approaches that claim a woman’s “right to choose” outweighs the unborn child’s “right to life,” saying that these only come into conflict in a “narrow range of cases,” such as rape.

Another pro-abortion advocate even suggested that the pro-life group had deliberately brought in a poor representative for their side, while flying Gray in from Calgary.  Yet Mercer noted that he has published his arguments in national newspapers, and local pro-life advocates insist he’s been the only one willing to even debate the issue, despite efforts to find a representative through local university pro-abortion groups.