Reflections on “Did I Deserve the Death Penalty?”

Rebecca Kiessling

Yesterday, we hosted Rebecca Kiessling at St. Michael’s College (in association with Toronto Right to Life) for her talk, “Did I Deserve the Death Penalty?” It was fantastic, and, if you haven’t heard her speak yet, I’d highly recommend it if you have the chance.

There were some amazingly powerful points she raised, yet some potential weaknesses also surfaced during the Q&A. Speaking as an individual here (not on behalf of Students for Life), I’d like to dive into some of the issues raised and hopefully generate a bit of discussion, or at least get people thinking.


As a child, Rebecca knew she was adopted. When she sought information about her biological parents as a young adult, the non-identifying description of her mother was extremely detailed, while the description of her father sounded like it was from a police report. That’s when she realized she was conceived in rape.

Even for many who are otherwise pro-life, rape is often held up as the one case which justifies abortion. Kiessling addresses that “exception” head on, and puts a face to it. If the unborn is human, how could anything — even an act as profoundly evil and reprehensible as rape — justify elective abortion? It’s not just a clump of cells we’re talking about, but real people. Rebecca Kiessling is one of those people who would have been killed.

She credits the former law (pre Rove v. Wade) prohibiting abortion for saving her life — her mother sought two back-alley abortions and even told her that, with legal abortion, she’d have terminated the pregnancy if she could do it all over again. Kiessling bears powerful witness as a person who would otherwise be dead if not for laws against abortion.

But there was one unsound argument to which she kept returning.


At first, it was a powerful point about the human face of the unborn. You wouldn’t say to someone’s face, “if I had my way, you’d be dead now,” yet Kiessling argued that that’s effectively what many people say about abortion, failing to see the unborn person whose life is at stake.

However, she kept pushing the idea. She spoke of a professor she knew, who was ardently pro-choice, but had an adopted daughter. She asked this professor, “what if your daughter was aborted?” He responded, “we would have adopted someone else.”

Here’s the disconnect.

Most pro-choicers probably interpret that question as meaning, “what if your daughter never existed?” Adopting someone else then seems like an obvious response (not a malicious one). But Kiessling seems to imply that they’re consciously condoning the killing.

The problem, it seems to me, isn’t that pro-choicers could care less if someone was killed, but that they maintain the insane position that the unborn is not a human person.

For the sake of clarity, the pro-life argument is as follows:

  1. Intentionally killing an innocent human being is a serious moral wrong.
  2. Elective abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, elective abortion is a serious moral wrong.

Kiessling makes it seem as if pro-choicers object to the first premise. In reality, most pro-choicers want to maintain the first premise and, instead, look for excuses to invalidate the second. Somehow, they convince themselves that abortion is not the intentional killing of an innocent human being (usually by attempting to distinguish “human beings” from “human persons”).

We’ve explored these issues before. The unborn is clearly a unique human life, and carving out a subset of humanity as non-persons is literally the formula for human rights abuses. There’s no doubt that Kiessling is right, pro-choicers are effectively saying, “I’d have no problems if you were killed through an abortion.” But it’s essential to realize — if our goal is to persuade them — that most aren’t intentionally saying that.

Accusing a pro-choicer of condoning the killing of an innocent human person isn’t going to get us very far if that person doesn’t even believe that the unborn is a human person. The real point of disagreement centres around the question, “what is the unborn?”

Kiessling does a great job bringing up all the relevant medical, philosophical and ethical considerations to that point. She gave the example of Bernard Nathanson, who took an ultrasound of an abortion (which turned out to be horrific — he became pro-life). Ultimately, she says that you must “know your audience” in order to persuade them of the pro-life position. Some people might dismiss anecdotes (“the plural of anecdote isn’t data”) and look for hard evidence, others might want to delve into the philosophical issues, while some people won’t be able to get beyond emotions.

I agree wholeheartedly that you must know your audience and adjust your approach. But, I worry that either Kiessling’s approach doesn’t know the pro-choice audience, or doesn’t have a pro-choice audience.


It’s my personal opinion that coming from a them-vs-us American political perspective risks alienating opponents. If you accuse your opponents of condoning murder before you get them to concede that a human life is at stake to begin with, they are going to ignore you. Unless we can speak effectively to those who disagree with us — even those who strongly disagree with us — we aren’t going to get very far.

I left the talk feeling as though Kiessling had provided many invaluable arguments with which to approach proponents of abortion. Her ability to put a human face to unborn victims of abortion is extremely powerful. But we must also recognize that staunch believers in a “woman’s right to choose” may rationalize that away if they aren’t prepared to hear it, especially in the face of weak analogies and in the absence of shared assumptions (the difference between “what if your daughter was killed?” and “what if your daughter never existed?” being cast aside).

“Knowing your audience” must also mean acknowledging that there are some good intentions from the other side of the issue, even if they are extremely misguided and effectively evil. I worry about that particular analogy pushing opponents further away, instead of helping them to understand the pro-life position better.


What do you think? Is it just me, or did anyone else take issue with that particular argument? (I raise it here because I wasn’t the only one to raise it during the Q&A.)

Any other notable ideas or moments from the talk?

My favourite part was towards the end, when Kiessling explained how her son had said to her that she could be a super hero since she saves babies! This is another personal thing, but when I hear the phrase “save babies!” I immediately think of that fake Nutrigrain ad from a few years back (“BABIES EVERYWHERE!”)…

Anyways, thanks to everyone who was able to attend, thanks to Toronto Right to Life for co-sponsoring the event, and thanks especially to Rebecca for sharing her story. I’d love to hear thoughts from others on the talk — have your say in the comments!

1 Comment on “Reflections on “Did I Deserve the Death Penalty?”

  1. Ultimately, I agree with everything you said, Blaise!

    Proving the unborn are human beings with equal rights is what’s tough. If we look at the standard pro-life argument, the second premise is what it all comes down to… and if we can’t prove that to our pro-choice audience, then it becomes very difficult.

    I also find that she didn’t seem as sympathetic to women faced in this position than I would have liked. Not that I don’t understand the possible reason for that, though; she was, ultimately, the target, and has continuely faced the value of her life being judged. All she said was that women usually feel more remorse about the abortion than the actual rape… but women who have been violated in such a way also need to be understood, and given as much help as possible.

    One of my favourite parts of Rebecca’s talk was how she mentioned how pro-choice “feminists” make women to look weak and vulnerable, instead of empowering them, telling them that yes, they can rise a child even in the given circumstances and yes, that there is help available. For a woman to declare herself a feminist and support abortion is such a contradiction.
    I also enjoyed the superhero story as well.

    “Save Babies!”

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