Participants James Murphy and Sean Tehan debate the morality of abortion

The Right to Life club hosted a debate on March 25 concerning the ethics of abortion as part of their annual “You are Loved Week” programming. Participants James Murphy, a senior studying philosophy, gender studies, and Italian, and Sean Tehan, a junior political science major with a minor in constitutional studies, were asked to argue the following question: is abortion moral? 

Before introducing the candidates and kicking off the debate, Notre Dame Right to Life Executive Board member Francie Shaft expressed hope that audience members would be “inspired to talk about [their] beliefs with others and speak the truth.” 

After thanking various on-campus groups, including the College Republicans and Democrats, for helping to make the debate possible, Shaft addressed concerns over the fact that two men would be debating the topic of abortion, saying that “Right to Life strongly supports, exemplifies, and encourages women to speak about this issue,” and also believes that abortion is “a human rights issue that affects all human persons, regardless of gender.” Tehan and Murphy both applied and were chosen to participate in the debate, and no female students completed the application process for the pro-abortion side, according to members of the Right to Life club leadership.

From there, Shaft introduced both debaters and explained the debate format: both candidates were invited to deliver 8-minute opening statements, followed by rebuttals of one another’s points, a round of cross-examinations, a question-and-answer period during which audience members could submit questions to either interlocutor, and then closing statements.

Tehan, debating for the anti-abortion side, gave his opening statement first. “The moral facts behind [abortion] are clear,” he said, before noting that the pro-life argument is advantageous because it is both “simple” and “true.” The crux of his argument, as he laid it out, is as follows: Tehan asserted the premises that it is “immoral to intentionally take innocent human life,” that “a child in the womb is innocent human life,” and that “abortion is the intentional killing of said child,” which he said lead to the conclusion that “abortion is immoral.” Tehan examined each of these three premises, arguing for the moral personhood of fetuses by asserting that “you are a person because of who you are [i.e., a member of the human species with unique DNA] not because of what you can do.”

In his opening statement, Murphy, arguing for the pro-abortion side, identified two reasons for the moral permissability of abortion. The first was that there is “no plausible criteria [for personhood] that includes embryos,” and the second was that “no person has the right to use somebody else’s body without their consent.” 

From there, Murphy laid out a scenario which he claimed was perfectly analogous to an abortion. He invited audience members to imagine someone stepping into a hospital with the knowledge that there was a patient inside in need of a bone marrow transplant (and who would die without one). If the person walking through the hospital happened to trip and fall into the machine, becoming somehow “hooked up” in such a way that the transplant process would begin, Murphy asked, would that person have the right to “unplug” the machine and stop the patient from taking her bone marrow without her consent? 

Murphy challenged Tehan to identify potential disanalogies to his transplant scenario. Tehan attempted to do so in his rebuttal, noting that, while “unplugging” from the bone marrow machine would merely constitute inaction leading to death, abortion is a “direct and intentional killing.” Further, he said, the relationship between the hospital-goer and the patient is not analogous with that of a mother and child, the latter of which is “not adversarial.” He also mentioned the “innocence of the child” being aborted, the “ordinary vs. extraordinary means of sustaining life”— the former being in a pregnancy, the latter in a non-consensual bone marrow transplant— and the fact that the “uterus exists for the unborn child” but the bone marrow exists for one’s own body (not specifically to be transplanted).

Murphy spent much of his own rebuttal responding to Tehan’s four identified disanalogies, explaining why he found each to be invalid. In terms of intent and cause of death, he asserted that there is no difference between the “expulsion” of a fetus in an abortion and a “disconnection” in the case of the transplant. Murphy also took issue with the notion of the non adversarial mother-child relationship as described by Tehan, bringing up surrogacy as an exception to this framework and suggesting that concepts like social parenthood complicate matters further.

From there, the two began their cross-examinations, during which they exchanged many an analogy and argued various definitions of personhood. Tehan, for instance, imagined a scenario in which a child was left outside in the cold to fend for herself, and Murphy called such a situation disanalogous with the reality of abortion. Murphy, in turn, used the notion of a sentient alien to explore what personhood might mean if not limited to biological humans. Other highlights included Tehan’s analogy of the shadowy figure on the poorly lit highway (which supported the idea that if one is unsure whether something is a person, it is best to assume that it is) and Murphy’s point that certain iterations of abortion— sex selective abortions, for instance— can be immoral based on their intent. 

Although Murphy was reluctant to posit a definition of personhood, he suggested that persons have an inherent capacity for personal acts and that fetuses, who are ostensibly incapable of such acts, would therefore not be considered persons. Tehan responded with the point that although not capable of personal acts before viability, fetuses still have a latent capacity for such acts, one that is actualized if the child is allowed to develop normally.

Following their rebuttals, the debaters took part in a question and answer period, fielding queries ranging from whether tumors were persons (perhaps unsurprisingly, both debaters said no) to the potential need for socialized medicine and better sex education, which Murphy affirmed and Tehan likened to fixing chipped paint on a house that had caught fire.

In their closing statements, Murphy and Tehan both asserted that their beginning points had not been disproven by the other; Tehan claimed that his syllogism from his opening statement still stood, and Murphy returned to his hospital/bone marrow analogy, again suggesting that it would be horrifically wrong to disallow the hospital-goer from “unplugging.”

While certain members of the Notre Dame community disagreed with the very premise of the debate, arguing that the legality of abortion should have been argued instead, Tehan’s and Murphy’s points surely inspired conversations across campus. 

Nia is a junior studying in the program of liberal studies with minors in history and journalism, ethics and democracy. She loves running, cooking and watching the New York Giants lose every Sunday. She can be reached at