20 Years, 40 Semesters of Abortion Debates

Raymond Dennehy has had a tough two decades.

For 40 semesters, students at the University of California-Berkeley have invited the Catholic philosophy professor from the University of San Francisco to debate against pro-abortion activists. The experience has been so transforming it forms the heart of his book Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Abortion Intelligently and Live to Tell About It.

Dennehy first began defending the right to life in 1966, when he was at Santa Clara University. Appearances in public school classrooms and on a well-known radio show were his first forays. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Valerie Schmalz.

What was the pro-life movement like when you began debating?

A lot of married women with children were active in the pro-life movement. They used to monitor the radio talk shows. If the show had a strong pro-abortion person on the air, they would send a letter and cite the fair speech provision of federal regulations (in force before deregulation) and demand that the station have a pro-life speaker within the next 30 days.

Then, the boom fell just as we felt we were making some headway. For, while Oregon voted in favor of abortion, Michigan and South Dakota voted against it, and then Roe v. Wade came down. We were — as you can understand — demoralized.

How did you end up debating twice a year at Cal-Berkeley?

They called me. It was a special class the students initiated, the IDS130 Pre-Professional Seminar. It’s called a seminar but there are 500 students enrolled. The students wanted a course that introduced them to both sides of a publicly debated issue and, of course, abortion is one of them. And, in those days, there were two of us on each side. Now there is one on each side.

Who do you usually have on the other side?

Planned Parenthood, NOW and the American Civil Liberties Union. I have had the same partner, a cherished opponent, for a few years now. He’s a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley. Now, hear his credentials: He’s a physician. He boasts he’s the only embryologist in the world who does abortions. He’s former vice president of Planned Parenthood International and now is a major player in Third World family planning. It’s unfortunate.

Who are some of the partners you had through the years before you were the sole pro-life debater?

My first debate partner had eight children and she raced to get to the debate on time. She had to find babysitters, you know the drill. When she got to the stage, she was practically breathless.

Another partner was Katie Short (now with Life Legal Defense Foundation). She was a young woman in a nice business suit, an alumna of Boalt Hall (Cal-Berkeley’s law school). Young women, especially when feminism had reached its most critical point, could say, “Look, she’s one of us.”

One time we debated, my partner was a pro-life feminist: peacenik earrings, anti-capital punishment, anti-war, had all her babies at home. She was a rape survivor. The second hour of the debate — it goes from 4:10 to 6 p.m. — you just sit there and field comments and questions from the audience, and it’s the most productive time. She said something about forcing Third World women to have abortions, and my opponent came all the way over and started shouting.

I kept smiling and simply inserted myself between them.

So he apparently has a temper. But since we have been going one-to-one, he’s very nice and sophistical. He does beautiful Power Point, by the way, and as an embryologist, he can produce the goods: “So, on the left you see the photo of an 8-week-old pig embryo and on the right, an 8-week-old human embryo, and for the life of me I can’t see any difference.” Click next.

What do you say to that?

When I get to answer him, I point out that, No. 1, that’s committing the fallacy of arguing from appearances. One might as well argue that the sun is smaller than the earth because that’s the way it looks. The first time we debated, he blew his cork when I used that against him.

I said, “Of course, we don’t have to use the naked eye anymore. I believe since the discovery of DNA we have a more accurate measure.” Then he said, “Idi Amin was against abortion. Hitler was against abortion.” And I rebutted, “Of course, Hitler was against abortion only for Aryan women, not for Jews, and Slavs and gypsies.”

He also said, “When the war between India and Pakistan occurred many, many women were raped and got pregnant and they needed the abortions, and Mother Teresa was against the abortions. But I did the abortions, I did late abortions, and it still bothers me.”

I have to point out that we’re not talking about his personal squeamishness; we’re talking about the 1.4 million abortions that take place here in the United States on pregnancies that resulted from consensual sex. So he’s a very slippery guy.

What is the students’ reaction?

My sense, over the years, is that we are winning. You can see it in the audience. The comments and questions are hardly ever virulent now. In those days, they were. Although I have seen, for instance, this last time, April 17, a young woman got up and ran out as soon as I started speaking. She had had an abortion obviously and she couldn’t hear this.

Several years ago, the same thing happened: One got up and ran, holding her hands over her ears, lickety-split, right out of the auditorium, and she was sitting in the first 10 rows, so she had to run all the way up.

Do you think if the people who go through the course are pre-med or molecular biology majors, it might affect how they make judgments down the road?

It might. My desire when I go into these things is that they should never think the same way about abortion again after they hear me. No matter what they say to me.

Now, you do have interesting things — they can admit everything you say about the status of the fetus and still be completely for abortion because of ideological concerns. For example, one time a woman — I guess she was near 40 — in the front row — she was an embryology major — said, “Well anybody who knows embryology knows you’re right, it is a human being from the moment of conception. However, you have to keep abortion legal in order to protect women from male hegemony.” She said she had two children and she had two abortions.

In the same session, a young girl said, “Your logic and your facts are correct, but what about the poor 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant. Having a baby will ruin her life. What do you say?”

How do you argue against points such as those?

For years, my standard approach was that the deliberate killing of a human being is the worst thing you can do because all other rights are based upon this. In other words, if a society doesn’t feel obliged to respect the right to life of the innocent, it is under no obligation of consistency to respect other rights.

Now, I’ve gone into a whole new approach to abortion. It is the ultimate in profiling.

If this kid is not going to be happy … we don’t know, do we? Beethoven was the fifth child of a syphilitic mother and an alcoholic father, and he was a real jerk as a human being, but he composed some pretty good music.

Jesse Jackson was illegitimate, and his mother was pressured to abort him. There are some people on the right who may think his mother made a bad decision, but before he sold out on abortion he did a lot of good work on behalf of the poor and uneducated through his organization, Operation Push.

We don’t know how these other kids — the aborted ones — would have turned out. And do you know why we don’t know how they would have turned out? We killed them before they ever had a chance.

What other kinds of reactions do you get?

A kid at Berkeley stopped me at the end of the day as I was walking out and he said, “Thank you for coming, but I couldn’t criminalize abortion.” I asked why. And he said, “Well, my mother was a student when she got pregnant and if she didn’t have the abortion and had the baby, she would have had to drop out of school and then wouldn’t get a good job and get me the good things I’m getting now, like a college education.”

In retrospect, I wonder if it ever occurred to him if he had been the fetus when she was a student, she would have clipped him. And therefore, he was accepted because he came at the right time not because of any value he had as a human being.


If you look at college classes through the decades, are there more and more children whose mothers have had abortions, and girls in the class or their friends who’ve had abortions?

I think it is still hard to talk against. That is why women will walk out of class. When you talk about the death penalty or whether we should invade Iraq, no one in the class is personally invested in those questions. When you start talking about abortion, you see the mood of the whole class change.

They tend to become silent. You don’t wish to traumatize any women in the class who have had abortions, but you have got to address it. It’s a standard topic in the field of bio-ethics in anthologies. It’s very hard. But I think there are more and more women and guys who don’t go for abortion in this present generation.

Last time I was at Berkeley, some woman in the audience said something that was pro-abortion and I replied, “I disagree.” Fully half the class applauded. Things are changing very slowly.

How did you come to write your book?

Father Jim Schall, S.J., who’s professor of political science at Georgetown University, put the bug in my ear about writing a book about my experiences debating abortion in the public forum.

What I wanted to do was write a memoir about what I had been doing with my life. I wrote it and sent it off to Rowman Littlefield, and was waiting for an answer. Months passed without any word from them.

Then I was diagnosed with cancer. What a shock. I said to myself, “Suppose I don’t live to see the book published?” So I sent the manuscript to Trafford Publishing, which self-publishes on demand. After that, Ignatius Press picked it up and it is selling quite well.

Can you tell us about the cancer?

After I was diagnosed, my physician said, “You are very healthy.” And the surgeon said, “You are very healthy.” And as the anesthesiologist was preparing me, he said, “What medication do you take?” “I don’t take any.” “Well, you’re very healthy.” “If I’m healthy, why are you now prepping me for a 4½-hour surgery?”

It was a sobering experience. The trouble is, you get to a certain age — I’ll be 72 — you realize you’re in the red zone now. I can do all kinds of things. I can do 50 push-ups and I work out heavily and ride the bike heavily. But you realize something’s going to happen. So I’ve been more productive.

You have no plans to retire?

No, as long as God keeps me healthy, I have no plans to retire. The student evaluations are good. I publish as much as anyone else.

My mother raised me on a number of sayings, one of which was: “No one is indispensable, not even the pope.” And there are people who would be very good pro-life debaters, and I think there will be young people stepping up to the plate.

Do you expect to continue going back to Berkeley for the debate?

From semester to semester, I just wait for them to invite me. Like this time, I didn’t think I was going to be invited. And then I got a call mid-semester.

So I have no guarantee I will be invited next time. Tomorrow is not a promise.

Valerie Schmalz

writes from San Francisco.