John Stuart Mill Forum Hosts Debate on Abortion

Audrey Pantaz, Contributing Writer

On Thursday, April 13, the John Stuart Mill Forum (JSMF), in conjunction with the Braver Angels and FIRE foundations, hosted a formal debate on abortion, specifically in the context of the United States. Braver Angels is a foundation working towards the goal of depolarizing American politics. They began in South Lebanon, OH, in 2016 and have since grown to a nationwide movement staffed mainly by volunteers. FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, also supported the debate. FIRE began on college campuses with the agenda of protecting fundamental rights. Starting in 2022, FIRE expanded from college campuses to work on a broader sphere. On its website, FIRE shares its mission statement, “To defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty.”

JSMF is a civil discourse club made up of College of Wooster students. The forum promotes “assisting the College towards becoming a more ideologically tolerant campus which actively celebrates the plurality of opinions as well as lively, yet civil, discourse.” The club meets once a week to discuss social and political topics with members who offer a wide range of opinions. Co-President of the club David Dunn expressed, “The purpose of the JSMF is to provide a space to discuss a variety of topics, whether they be contentious, topically or socially relevant, or simply just interesting to talk about.”

The debate followed “an amended style of parliamentary procedure,” said Sadie Webb, the moderator of the discussion and a representative of Braver Angels. As described by Webb, the forum was designed to reduce the role of personal confrontation and emotionally charged arguing “by introducing an element of formality by requiring participants to address the chair, the format implements a small amount of distance between speakers and questioners, ultimately diffusing some of the emotional tensions which can arise.” The procedure involved only addressing speakers in the third person and through a moderator dubbed “Madam Chair.” Once the boundaries and regulations were set, the debate began with speeches from four members of JSMF, two on the supporting side and two on the opposing side.

Speakers responded to the debate’s central question: “Do the rights of an adult capable of pregnancy take precedence over the rights of a fetus?” Each speaker was then subjected to audience questions. Following the planned speakers, audience members came to the front and delivered statements for either side of the question and then responded to audience queries. The debate lasted over two hours and was concluded by a lengthy amount of informal reflection responding to the question, “What did you like, what did you learn, what would you share with someone who has never experienced a Braver Angels debate?” The reflection period contained some debate of its own, as the gathered students reflected on the ideas shared and the purpose of civil discourse.

One JSMF member reflected on his understanding of the purpose of civil discourse. John Daoud ’25, one of the four opening speakers, stated that “civil discourse allows for the respectful exchange of ideas in a safe environment.” Daoud, who argued for the opposition, thought that on the campus, “diversity is present in all aspects, except for diversity in thought. Those of differing political ideologies, namely conservatives, often feel unheard and are subsequently misrepresented or misunderstood.” Alex Daoud ’25 argued for the opposition as well, advocating that the debate was about understanding rather than dispute. “People on average agree on things,” he shared, “We need to lean into those mutual understandings because even when we disagree, at the end of the day, we all want these issues solved, but have different ways of how to get there.” Artemis Swanson, a speaker for the affirmative side and a co-president of the JSMF, shared her impressions of the debate, saying “I feel like all the speakers delivered their remarks well, there were generally good questions, and I was happy to get some pushback from the community on the format.”

Conversely, some campus community members felt the debaters could have argued their positions more strongly and convincingly. One student observer shared, “I think the idea of civil discourse is nice, but I don’t think that was civil discourse.” The student continued, “I think people just watered down what they actually thought to not provoke a conversation.” Professor Terry Reeder, an associate professor of religious studies and the professor of the course “Abortion, Religion, and Law,” shared her thoughts on the debate. “I don’t think debate is the best methodology,” Reeder said, “It creates a binary, and I question the outcomes of a debate.” Reeder acknowledged that “the group did a fabulous job.” However, she believed that “there did not appear to be enough people with uteruses talking about things that happen in a uterus.”

When asked how we have discourse in situations where formal debate is ineffective, Professor Reeder shared, “You have to have people of goodwill…that are willing to listen to each other.” Ultimately, Professor Reeder emphasized that conversations about abortion are “not a binary, and we need to create multiple positions that are not binarily opposed to one another.”

JSMF co-president, David Dunn, shared his thoughts on the day’s event, stating, “The way I view it, engaging in dialogue will either strengthen my beliefs as it gives me the chance to think critically and defend them, or it will cause me to change my beliefs, thus making me a better, more knowledgeable individual.” Whichever way The College of Wooster campus educates and converses about current issues, most members of the COW community agreed: discourse is more impactful than silence. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: